A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced a sweeping legislative proposal on Wednesday, dubbed the VERDAD act, that would double existing funding for efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela, including $400 million for the country’s humanitarian crisis, both internally for those who have migrated to neighboring countries.
The Venezuela Emergency Relief, Democracy Assistance, and Development Act of 2019, or VERDAD for short, which means ‘Truth’ in Spanish, is co-sponsored by 14 Senators including Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
The proposal formally recognizes interim president Juan Guaidó and the Venezuelan National Assembly who are seeking to remove from power Nicolas Maduro, who they consider a “usurper” after elections last year were marred by allegations of massive fraud. Guaidó has been recognized as the country’s legitimate interim president by more than 50 countries.
Maduro loyalists in the rival Constituent Assembly stripped Guaidó of immunity Tuesday, paving the way for the opposition leader’s prosecution and potential arrest for supposedly violating the constitution when he declared himself interim president. But whether the Maduro government will act against him remains unclear. The countries supporting Guaidó do not recognize the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly.
Over the last several years the U.S. has imposed mounting sanctions on Venezuelan officials, as well as debt, gold and cryptocurrency in an attempt to force Maduro out of power, but he crucially continues to enjoy the support of the military high command. The senate proposal would also codify into law all existing sanctions.
Asked how soon the bill might become law, Menendez told reporters: "I think we have very good prospects here. I can't imagine that there won't be broad, bipartisan support on this."
Red Cross role?
He said $200 million in funds reserved for the domestic humanitarian crisis inside Venezuela could be channeled through the Red Cross, potentially ending a two-month-old aid standoff. The Red Cross said last week it had received permission from Venezuela’s government and opposition to organize a major internaitonal relief campaign in the country.
"If that is consumated that would be a good vehicle," said Menendez, who added talks were also being held with the Catholic Church and "other entities."
Several governments, including the United States, tried to deliver truck loads of humanitarian aid to Venezuela at a border crossing point in Colombia in February, which was blocked by Venezuelan troops.
Oil-rich country on its knees
Maduro denies a humanitarian crisis exists and says Venezuela is "not a country of beggars". However, once an oil-rich country, Venezuela is gripped by hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine, as well as nationwide power outages.
The senate proposal includes $14.5 million in funding for Venezuela’s pro-democratic civil society organizations and $500,000 for international observation of hoped-for future democratic elections.
The law would require the State Department to hold a donors conference to coordinate international funding for Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, as part of the creation of a strategy to coordinate international assistance. It would also require the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations “to expand efforts in the UN Security Council and UN agencies to address Venezuela’s crisis.”
The Senators also want the Trump administration to prepare a classified intelligence report “on declining cohesion inside the Venezuelan military and the Maduro regime,” Venezuelan officials involved in corruption and drug trafficking.
Other measures proposed in the Verdad Act include a ban on visas for the family members of sanctioned members and allies of the Maduro regime and officials involved in human rights abuses, as well as waivers for those on the blacklist if they recognize Guaido.
It also writes into law the creation of a special envoy for Venezuela, confirming the appointment earlier this year of Elliott Abrams by the Trump administration, as well as the creation of an interagency task force reporting to the envoy.
The law also contemplates the future reconstruction of Venezuela including a requirement that the departments Of State, Treasury and Justice forge a strategy to identify, block, and recover assets embezzled by government officials through theft, money laundering or other illegal means.
To protect the U.S. oil industry, the VERDAD Act also requires the White House “to take all necessary steps” to prevent the Russian company, Rosneft, from gaining control of U.S. energy infrastructure. With Venezuela’s economy devastated by five years of recession, Maduro has increasingly turned to Russia for the cash and credit it needs to survive, and two years ago mortgaged 49.9 percent of its U.S.-based Citgo refining network in return for a $1.5 billion loan from Rosneft.
Other co-sponsors of the bill are: Ben Cardin (D-MD), Jim Cornyn (R-TX), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Todd Young (R-IN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Michael Bennet (D-CO), John Barrasso (R-WY), Chris Coons (D-DE), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Tom Udall (D-NM).