Senators Propose $400 Million in Aid to Stem Crisis in Venezuela

(Bloomberg) -- A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation that seeks to speed the transition of power in Venezuela and ease the humanitarian crisis that has escalated amid a power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and an emboldened opposition.

The legislation introduced Wednesday by New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez would provide diplomatic support for Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, along with $400 million in humanitarian aid.

The Venezuela Emergency Relief, Democracy Assistance and Development -- or VERDAD -- Act would also impose new visa restrictions on family members of sanctioned officials, while offering some sanctions relief for those who recognize Guaido as the country’s leader.

"The bill puts the Senate and the U.S. Congress on record in support of interim president Juan Guaido and his efforts to restore democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela," Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a conference call with reporters. "The bill doubles down on our efforts to pressure regime officials codifying a range of sanctions, targeted debt, gold and cryptocurrency sanctions."

The Trump administration was among the first foreign governments to embrace Guaido’s attempt to force Maduro from power, and Republicans have pointed to Venezuela’s suffering as a warning against socialism. While most U.S. lawmakers generally denounce Maduro’s failed leadership, there have been few concrete proposals to respond to the worsening crisis in the Western Hemisphere.

Menendez’s bill would provide $200 million to address human suffering within Venezuela’s borders and an additional $200 million for neighboring countries accepting Venezuelan refugees. The bill also establishes U.S. policies for diplomatic engagement with the country, according to Menendez.

Republican co-sponsors include Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, John Barrasso, Todd Young, and Bill Cassidy, along with Democrats Dick Durbin, Ben Cardin, Tim Kaine, Jeanne Shaheen, Michael Bennet and Chris Coons.

Guiado is president of the National Assembly and the leader of the opposition to Maduro. The U.S. has recognized him as Venezuela’s leader.

Menendez said he was concerned that Guaido could be arrested by forces loyal to Maduro following a move by the Constituent Assembly to strip Guaido of immunity from prosecution Tuesday. Menendez said uniting international opposition to Maduro could help prevent an arrest by focusing attention on the issue.

As for prospects that this bill would become law, Menendez said Rubio "has had the ear of the administration and the Republican leadership," which bodes well for the legislation moving forward in the GOP-controlled Senate.

GOP Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he supported Menendez and Rubio’s efforts on the bill, but he didn’t say when his committee might consider it.

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