House passes bills to expand humanitarian aid in Venezuela and hurt Maduro

The House of Representatives passed two bills on Monday to expand U.S. humanitarian assistance in Venezuela and prohibit U.S. exports of crime control materials that Nicolás Maduro can use against pro-democracy protesters.

The bills, led by South Florida Democrats Donna Shalala, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, are the first legislative responses to Venezuela’s ongoing humanitarian crisis since the U.S. recognized Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader in January. The bills were sent to the U.S. Senate without opposition.

“The world has witnessed the violent actions of Maduro’s security forces and their use of arms, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other dangerous weapons to violently disperse crowds during peaceful protests,” Shalala said. “With the passage of the Venezuela Arms Restriction Act, we will move one step closer to ensuring that no weapons originating in the United States are used to silence dissent through intimidation, repression, or execution.”

The United States has banned the sale of arms to Venezuela since 2006, though current law does not prohibit the sale of non-lethal rubber bullets and products to Venezuela that can be used to disperse protests. Venezuelan police and armed forces used tear gas and riot gear to prevent humanitarian aid from entering the country in February.

Republicans allowed the bills to pass by a voice vote, meaning there was no significant opposition to any of the proposals. Though some Democrats have questioned the U.S.’s decision to recognize Guaido, there was no formal opposition to the bills on the House floor.

“The Congress and the people of the United States must stand united with the people of Venezuela, to ensure that all individuals who violate human rights are held accountable,” said Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples. “This bill supports these efforts by identifying and holding accountable any U.S. entities providing defense articles to Maduro’s security forces.”

Mucarsel-Powell’s bill compels the Trump administration to outline a long-term humanitarian aid strategy in Venezuela and allocate at least $150 million in federal funding for humanitarian aid in 2020 and 2021.

“Without basic food and medicine, people are starving and dying, as many as 3.4 million Venezuelans have left the country and migrated to neighboring countries,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “My bill would help alleviate the pain of the Venezuelan people by providing humanitarian assistance in accordance with established international humanitarian principles to those within the country and the region.”

Wasserman Schultz’s bill would compel the State Department to monitor and provide Congress with steps to limit Russian military influence in Venezuela. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Russia’s foreign minister that they are destabilizing Latin America after reports over the weekend that Russian air force plans carrying troops and a senior defense official landed in Venezuela.

“Russian military officials arrived in Venezuela this weekend. Today my bill, the Russia-Venezuelan Threat Mitigation Act, goes to the House floor, requiring a State Department threat assessment of Russian influence in Venezuela,” Wasserman Schultz tweeted.

The three South Florida Democrats are in lockstep with Florida Republicans in support of Guaido’s nascent government and Wasserman Schultz and Shalala recently visited the Colombia-Venezuela border. But their efforts have been overshadowed by Democrats who argue that recognizing Guaido is a prelude to a U.S.-backed coup and Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio who communicate directly with the president on the importance of maintaining a hard line against Maduro.

Democrats gaining control of the House last year gave Shalala, Mucarsel-Powell and Wasserman Schultz the opportunity to pass bills that are important to their Venezuelan constituents in South Florida.

Another piece of legislation that would expand Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans has the support of Democrats and Republicans from South Florida, though some of Trump’s advisers are wary of expanding immigration protections after they sought to cut TPS for countries like Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Rubio is also planning to reintroduce a bill that expands humanitarian assistance in Venezuela and provide funds for pro-democracy groups.