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A weak first step

The Obama administration’s decision last week to impose visa sanctions against unnamed government officials in Venezuela is a step in the right direction, but it’s nothing more than a slap on the wrist — and a mild one at that.

For years, both President Obama and President Bush before him, despite strong provocation by the late Hugo Chávez and now by Nicolas Maduro, have tried to avoid giving Venezuela’s corrupt leaders an excuse to wrap themselves in the national flag and claim that the United States is attacking the nation’s sovereignty. Dictatorial regimes thrive on such claims and use it as a handy distraction to rally national sentiment against outside interference.

Beginning earlier this year, however, massive but generally peaceful demonstrations against the regime’s political and economic policies have been met with brute force and a refusal to seek a political solution to the crisis. Prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López remains in jail for daring to lead nonviolent protests. Other opposition figures have also been either silenced or forced into exile.

As Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has noted, the “systemic violation of human rights by President Maduro and his state-sanctioned armed thugs” has destroyed freedom of assembly. Free speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press and freedom to vote for independent candidates not connected to the regime are also nonexistent in today’s Venezuela.

Human Rights Watch has documented more than 40 deaths and 50 cases of torture, in addition to some 2,000 unjustified detentions. Opposition leaders say Venezuela’s jails hold more than 100 political prisoners.

We supported the tactic of avoiding a direct blow against the rulers of Venezuela until it became clear that Mr. Maduro and his cronies will stop at nothing to maintain their hold on power despite the evident outcry from the people.

Sanctioning the regime may not deter further erosion of freedom, but it sends the message that there is a price to pay for the systematic violation of human rights. There should be a limit to what Washington is willing to tolerate without a sensible change in policy.

Rep. Joe Garcia of Miami rightly noted that some Venezuelan officials involved in enforcing the regime’s political rules back home spend their weekends enjoying a lavish lifestyle in South Florida. Keeping them out is a good move. But Sen. Menendez and various other lawmakers from South Florida — including Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart — declared last week that the administration’s sanctions don’t go far enough. They’re right. Stronger sanctions are needed to get the message across.

The individuals who have been denied entry are not named, which limits the measure’s political effectiveness. Freezing their assets and property in the United States, however, would really hit them where it hurts.

Bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Menendez, along with Sen. Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson, would not only include asset freezes against individuals who have been involved in serious human-rights violations, but it would also authorize $15 million in new funding in to defend human rights and support democratic civil society organizations in Venezuela. When members of Congress return after their August vacation, they should make this legislative proposal a priority.

This story was originally published August 3, 2014 7:55 PM.

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