- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2019

Already divided internally over how to handle charges of anti-Semitism in their ranks, congressional Democrats found themselves at odds over another hot-button issue as a group of liberal House Democrats called on the White House to “change course” on its tough policy against Venezuelan socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

On the same day the State Department’s Venezuelan point man Elliott Abrams was promising a wider net of sanctions to target banks dealing with Venezuela, 16 House Democrats organized by California Rep. Ro Khanna released a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemning the pressure campaign against the Maduro regime and demanding Mr. Trump take the military option off the table.

While criticizing the Maduro government’s economic policies and political repression, the letter expressed “deep concern” over the administration’s handling of the crisis, “particularly its suggestions of military intervention, imposition of broad unilateral sanctions, and recent recognition of an opposition leader as interim president without a clear plan in place to hold democratic elections and avoid an escalation of violence.”

U.S. unilateral sanctions and military threats “are making life for ordinary Venezuelans,” the letter said.

But at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday where Mr. Abrams testified, both Republicans and Democrats had harsh words for Mr. Maduro and support for the international drive to force him to out in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido.

“I’m not going to be repentant about our advocacy for sanctions as a peaceful tool to try to move a country in a better direction,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, said Thursday.

Mr. Abrams after the hearing praised Mr. Menendez’s stance: “He got it exactly right,” Mr. Abrams told The Washington Times.

Signers of the House Democratic letter included prominent junior liberal members such as Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a leading Hill critic of the Maduro government, hit back at the House group’s claims following the Senate committee’s hearing, saying in an interview, “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“I don’t know who they are,” Mr. Rubio added. “We’re a big country with a lot of different ideas, but the overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate support U.S. policy on [Venezuela].”

Last week, Mr. Abrams announced 49 new visa restrictions and sanctions on top “regime people and their families who we don’t want in the United States.” The sanctions also included Venezuelan security officials accused of obstructing international aid into the country. The U.S. has issued sweeping sanctions on the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and financial institutions.

Mr. Abrams confirmed at Thursday’s hearing the U.S. is preparing to slap additional sanctions on financial institutions supporting Mr. Maduro’s regime and is “going to expand the net” of sanctions and visa restrictions on the socialist leader’s inner circle, their families and supportive companies.

“There will be more sanctions on financial institutions that are carrying out the orders of the Maduro regime to steal funds from Venezuela and hide it around the world,” Mr. Abrams said.

Despite concern from the committee about potential economic fallout from a political collapse in Caracas, Mr. Abrams contended that International Monetary Fund and World Bank have “plans that include billions of dollars in funds to reconstruct the economy of Venezuela,” which boasts some of the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

“This is not a fundamentally bankrupt country,” Mr. Abrams told the committee. “With a change of leadership and a change of economic policy, there will be lots of people who are ready to invest.”

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