Trump’s stance on Venezuela garners rare bipartisan support in Congress

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

U.S. sanctions Venezuela's oil company

Washington — While there are significant rifts between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders on issues such as government funding, border security and immigration, the Trump administration's crackdown on President Nicolás Maduro's government in Venezuela has garnered rare bipartisan support from lawmakers.

"There are always going to be issues on which we agree," freshman Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala, of Florida, told CBS News. "And for those of us that have large Venezuelan populations and who care about the future of Latin American democracy, this is an issue on which we can join together."

Shalala, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) under President Clinton, represents a majority-Latino district in south Florida with a sizable community of Venezuelan exiles. Along with a growing number of rank-and-file members of her caucus, the 77-year-old Democrat has enthusiastically backed the White House's recent aggressive measures to isolate Maduro's increasingly authoritarian government.

Many Democratic lawmakers, including Shalala, have joined their Republican colleagues in praising the administration for recognizing National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president, issuing sweeping sanctions against the largest state-owned oil company in the South American nation and offering $20 million in humanitarian aid to the people of Venezuela.

"We have common interests," another Florida congressman, Rep. Darren Soto, told CBS News. The two-term Democrat said both parties back sanctions against Maduro's regime, the recognition of Venezuela's opposition leaders and humanitarian assistance.

"We all stand against tyranny — and this is an attack on democracy," he said.

Soto and Shalala have teamed up with lawmakers of both parties to introduce several bills to address the worsening political and socioeconomic crisis in Venezuela. One bill would codify existing restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Maduro's government and add tear gas and batons to the list of banned items. Another proposal would allow the U.S. government to dispatch $150 million in humanitarian aid to Venezuela. And a third would allow Venezuelans living in the U.S. who have fled the country's repressive government and collapsing economy to qualify for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Although not all Democrats have been as publicly supportive of the White House's efforts in Venezuela as members of the Florida delegation, only a few of the most progressive members of Congress have explicitly rebuked the president's strategy. Some Democrats, most notably Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, have expressed concerns about the U.S. meddling in a foreign political dispute and imposing crippling sanctions that could harm a Venezuelan population already grappling with widespread food and medicine shortages.

"With respect Senator Durbin, the US should not anoint the leader of the opposition in Venezuela during an internal, polarized conflict," Khanna wrote on Twitter after Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, released a statement voicing his support for the president's recognition of Guaidó.

Omar, one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, even accused the Trump administration of sponsoring a coup. "If we really want to support the Venezuelan people, we can lift the economic sanctions that are inflicting suffering on innocent families, making it harder for them to access food and medicines, and deepening the economic crisis," she wrote on Twitter. "We should support dialogue, not a coup!"

In another tweet, Omar said, "The U.S. has a history of disastrous interventions in Latin America." In its crusade against communism during the Cold War, the U.S. supported various violent coups in Latin America, including some against democratically-elect governments.

But Shalala believes most members of her party do not share Khanna's and Omar's views on Venezuela.

"That's their opinion," she said. "You just named two people. Name 100. I'll name 100 that are supportive of the efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela, who also believe its appropriate for us to protect the Venezuelan people from the security forces."

Shalala said she understands why some lawmakers are hesitant to back efforts designed to facilitate the ouster of a foreign government, given America's history of assisting right-wing leaders who violently overthrew governments and installed authoritarian regimes. But she stressed that this time was different because America's efforts are supported by an international coalition, including most of Latin America and the Organization of American States (OAS).

Guaidó's declaration last week set off a new wave of violence and chaos in oil-rich Venezuela — once considered one of Latin America's wealthiest countries. The 35-year-old opposition leader, who's already been targeted by the Maduro-allied Supreme Court, is betting on pressure from the international community and military defections to oust Maduro. But so far, top military leaders in Venezuela have remained loyal to the ruling government. Guaidó has called for peaceful, nationwide demonstrations on Saturday to force Maduro to hold elections.

Shalala urged the Trump administration to continue to assist the opposition, which she said is supported by the "majority of the people." On Friday, Vice President Michael Pence will travel to Miami to meet with the exiled Venezuelan community in the area, along with a congressional delegation.

"Our hopes and prayers­ — and our muscle, I hope — is with the Venezuelan people," Shalala said.

First published on January 31, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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