- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Venezuela’s ties with Cuba and Iran raise even more red flags for the future of its relations with the United States, lawmakers told Obama administration officials Tuesday in the first Capitol Hill hearing since the recent sharp deterioration in relations between Washington and Caracas.

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Latin American relations, praised U.S. sanctions recently placed on Venezuelan officials by the Obama administration. But members of the Senate panel said further action must be taken against Venezuelan leftist President Nicolas Maduro for suppressing anti-government protesters.

Mr. Rubio, a Cuban-American and a fierce critic of President Obama’s recent diplomatic overture to Havana, expressed concerns about the links between Cuba and Venezuela.

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“The Cuban dictatorship has penetrated every aspect of the Venezuelan government,” Mr. Rubio said.

The senator said Venezuelan military defectors have revealed that Cuba has helped to modernize Venezuela’s intelligence and security services. He expressed concern that Cuba was helping Venezuela systematically suppress anti-government protests.

The hearing explored the possibility that Venezuela’s ties with Argentina have given Iran a back-channel to procuring nuclear technologies and expertise.

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“There has been a steady flow of Argentine scientists, nuclear folks, going to Venezuela,” Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants, told the committee. He said a “nexus” exists between the three countries that aids Iran in its nuclear ambitions.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America and Cuba Alex Lee told the hearing that U.S. officials have been closely monitoring relations between Iran and Venezuela.

“Yes, this is a source of concern,” said Mr. Lee. “This is a relationship that we pay a lot of attention to.”

Last week, Mr. Obama imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, accusing them of committing human rights violations and acts of corruption. All of the individuals are prominent members of the South American nation’s state security apparatus.

Even Senate Democrats praised the tough line on the Maduro government, which has been sharply criticized by a number of South American governments. Citing U.S. pressure, Mr. Maduro on Sunday secured new powers to issue laws by decree through the end of the year.

“I do encourage [Mr. Obama] to continue that crackdown,” said California Sen. Barber Boxer, the panel’s ranking Democrat. “The U.S. has an obligation to shine a bright light on the abuses being committed against the people of Venezuela, and the president’s actions sends a strong message to the people there and the government that we will not stay silent.”

Lawmakers pushed for further sanctions against members of Venezuela’s government, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, who critics say has been responsible for authorizing the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters.

Venezuela has pushed back against the U.S. government, placing a full-page ad in The New York Times that denounced the sanctions as a “tyrannical” attempt to undermine the country’s political system.

“Never before in the history of our nations has a president of the United States attempted to govern Venezuelans by decree,” the ad said, calling on the U.S. to repeal the sanctions.

The State Department’s Mr. Lee acknowledged the U.S. sanctions have been criticized by other South American nations as violations of the region’s sovereignty.

“We have made a full-court press to explain that what we are doing represents our principles,” he said.

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