Members of both chambers of Congress in the United States introduced identical bills in May that would send millions of dollars in aid to Venezuela. The aid would include food and medicine as well as technical assistance to help return the country to a functioning democracy. The bills also include sections that express Congress’s concern over the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.

The Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act of 2017 was introduced in the Senate on May 3rd by Senator Cardin (D-MD) as Senate Bill 2018 and the House of Representatives on May 25th by Representative Engel (D-NY) as House Resolution 2658. Both the Senate and House bills enjoy bipartisan support with 11 and 9 cosponsors respectively.

The Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act has four key components: 1) humanitarian aid to Venezuela; 2) support for democracy, human rights, and freedom of information in Venezuela; 3) increased sanctions on corrupt officials; and 4) various statements of the sense of Congress.

This bill shows that the United States is committed to a thriving, democratic Venezuela. The dual political and economic crises have brought one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America to the brink of collapse. Legislation like the Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act expresses the commitment of the Congress and the United States to helping Venezuela return to democracy and economic prosperity.

Humanitarian Aid

The bill authorizes US$10 million for the State Department to provide “public health commodities,” “basic food commodities and nutritional supplements,” “technical assistance,” and “improved transparency and accountability.” The bill directs the State Department to work through nongovernmental organizations.

The bill directs the State Department to seek other international and multilateral donors to provide additional assistance to Venezuela. In this manner, the authors of the Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act seek to increase the total aid in order to have a greater benefit to the people of Venezuela.

Like Hugo Chavez before him, Nicolas Maduro and his government are hostile to the United States and are wary of its intentions. So even though Venezuela desperately needs medical supplies and food, the Maduro government would almost assuredly turn down aid from the United States and its allies as it has done in the past.

Furthermore, the provisions in this bill that support human rights, democracy, and the press would be poison pills for the government in Caracas. In recent months, Maduro’s government has cracked down on the media, been expelled from MERCOSUR for human rights violations, and taken steps to curtail democracy in Venezuela.

Support for Democracy and Human Rights

The Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act authorizes US$500,000 to “work … with the Organization of American States to ensure credible international observation that contributes to free, fair, and transparent democratic electoral processes in Venezuela.” It also authorizes an additional US$9.5 million for the State Department “directly, or through nongovernmental organizations” to “defend internationally recognized human rights,” “support the efforts of independent media outlets,” “facilitate open and uncensored access to the Internet,” and “combat corruption and improve transparency and accountability.”

The current administration in Venezuela would never accept an international election monitoring team that has the backing of the United States. Maduro would perceive this provision of the bill, especially the provision allowing the State Department to directly support human rights, democracy, and a free press, as a direct threat to his rule; and he would be right to think so, since his hold on power is directly linked to his ability to prevent democratic elections.

Like Chavez, Maduro is prone to paranoid rhetoric, including a plea in 2014 to President Obama to give peace a chance and not to assassinate him. Should this bill become law, this kind of rhetoric would again become commonplace.

Sanctions

The bill would amend the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 by expanding who can be sanctioned under that law. This bill would extend sanctions to persons who significantly undermine democracy or are responsible for public corruption. The Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act would also extend the period through which the sanctions are effective through December 31, 2022.

These types of targeted sanctions can be an effective way to ensure that corrupt officials are not able to reap the benefits of their crimes. The current car wash scandal and related Odebrecht corruption scandal, which originated in Brazil but have since spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, show how damaging corruption can be. The reporting on unfinished massive construction projects linked to Odebrecht attest to the size of the issue and the scope of the corruption that must have taken place in Venezuela. Unlike other countries involved in the Odebrecht scandal, it is not known how much the Brazilian construction giant benefited from bribes in Venezuela.

Sense of Congress

The Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act contains two sections whose primary purpose is to express a sense of Congress. These two sections deal with 1) energy policy and the Caribbean and 2) a recent agreement between the state-owned oil companies of Venezuela and Russia, PDVSA and Rosneft respectively.

For much of the last decade, Caribbean nations were the beneficiaries of subsidized Venezuelan oil. Many of these island countries are energy insecure and rely on imports of fossil fuels. Because they are geographically isolated, the smaller islands are not able to take advantage of economies of scale. Through the Venezuelan oil program called PetroCaribe, many Caribbean nations were able to purchase oil by paying a fraction of the cost upfront and financing the remainder with long-term loans at incredibly low interested rates.

The collapse of oil prices and the Venezuelan economy also meant the collapse of the PetroCaribe program. Thus, the Caribbean presents a huge market for American fossil fuels, especially oil and natural gas. During the Obama administration, the United States initiated several projects to improve Caribbean energy security and domestic, renewable energy production.

The agreement between PDVSA and Rosneft that concerns the bill’s authors has to do with Citgo, a US subsidiary owned by PDVSA. According to the legislation, Citgo “owns and controls critical energy infrastructure in 19 States in the United States, including an extensive network of pipelines, 48 terminals, and 3 refineries.”

In order to secure a loan from Rosneft, PDVSA offered a 49.9% in Citgo as collateral in the event that PDVSA is unable to pay back its loan. Given low oil prices and the type of oil that Venezuela primarily is able to access, it is entirely possible that PDVSA could default on this obligation. Under normal circumstances, this agreement would be problematic. However, the situation is magnified by the political turmoil in the US caused by Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.

These sections that express a sense of Congress are important for several reasons. One of the most critical is that it provides direction for the executive branch as to how the Congress intended this bill to be executed and how it wants the President to act in other circumstances. However, all of this is mute if the bill does not pass both the House of Representatives and Senate and be signed by President Trump. Unfortunately, that may not come to pass since the current administration and Republican majorities in the legislature are hostile towards increased federal spending on foreign aid.

Current Status

Both the House and Senate bills were referred to committee. There has not yet been any action on either bill in any committee.

In 2016, the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Extension Act was passed by Congress and became law. That bill extended the sanction regime in place against certain persons in Venezuela through the end of 2019. Its sponsor was Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) who is an original cosponsor of the Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act of 2017.  The addition of several other prominent members of the Senate from both parties gives this bill a chance at becoming law, either on its own or by being included in a larger piece of legislation.