On July 15, President Barack Obama signed into law the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Extension Act of 2016, which extends the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 (Pub. L. 113-278) through December 31, 2019.

Continuation of Statutory Sanctions

The 2014 law, which was passed in the wake of escalating crackdowns against Venezuelan anti-government protestors, requires the president to freeze the assets of and bar from traveling or immigrating to the United States any foreign person that:

  • Perpetrated or was responsible for significant acts of violence or human rights abuses in Venezuela;
  • Ordered or directed the arrest or prosecution of a person in Venezuela for the legitimate exercise of the freedom of speech or assembly; and/or
  • Materially assisted, sponsored, or provided significant material financial, material, or technological support for, or goods and services in support of, the commission of other sanctioned actions.

This extension was spearheaded by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), both Cuban-American legislators who keep a close eye on Latin American issues. As Sen. Rubio stated when the Senate passed the bill, “Because the [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro regime continues to violate human rights and expand its political oppression, the U.S. must continue doing our part to address this growing crisis in Venezuela.” In fact, Sen. Rubio blocked the confirmation of former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Roberta Jacobson to become the next Ambassador to Mexico until the Senate agreed to advance his Venezuela sanctions legislation. (For more information on the 2014 law, please see Steptoe’s advisory here.)

Additional Venezuela Sanctions Authorities

The president implemented the law via Executive Order 13692 on March 16, 2015, and the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control subsequently promulgated the Venezuela Sanctions Regulations on July 9, 2015. The E.O. and regulations go further than the 2014 law and were not impacted by its sunset clause or the 2016 law’s subsequent extension. In particular, they also authorize the imposition of sanctions against persons determined to:

  • Be responsible for or complicit in (i) actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Venezuela, (ii) significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes a serious abuse or violation of human rights, (iii) actions that limit the exercise of freedom of expression or peaceful assembly, or (iv) public corruption by senior Venezuelan officials;
  • Be a current or former leader of (i) an entity that has, or whose members have, engaged in any of the above listed activities, or (ii) an entity whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to the EO;
  • Have provided material support for, or goods or services to or in support of (i) an individual or entity whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to the EO, or (ii) any of the above listed activities;
  • Be a current or former official of the Government of Venezuela (which includes any political subdivisions or agency such as the Central Bank of Venezuela, as well as any person owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, the Government of Venezuela); or
  • Be owned or controlled by, or acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, any individual or entity whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to the EO.

Conclusion

After designating six persons on the same day as implementing the E.O., the Obama administration has not made any further Venezuela-related designations. Congress’ action indicates that, even with executive branch authorities in place, the legislative branch intends to continue to flex its muscles on US sanctions issues, especially when it feels that the Obama administration is not enforcing its laws to the fullest extent. As Sen. Menendez stated, “[A]s Venezuela’s democratic deterioration continues down a path towards economic ruin, rampant criminality, and increasingly dangerous political polarization, the United States must continue to stand up to the Maduro regime by extending sanctions with real consequences for the principal actors responsible for Venezuela heading rapidly toward failed-state status.”