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On Senate Floor, Rubio Applauds Sanctions on Corrupt Venezuelan Officials, Human Rights Abusers
Washington, D.C. – Speaking on the Senate floor last night, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) highlighted the ongoing political and economic crisis in Venezuela, including the plight of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez. Rubio’s speech was part of his #expressionNOToppression initiative, which highlights human rights abuses around the world.
Rubio also welcomed the Trump Administration’s new sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah (El Aissami) and Venezuelan national Samark Jose Lopez Bello for international narcotics trafficking.
Rubio’s full speech can be watched here, and a full transcript of his remarks is below.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio
U.S. Senate Floor
February 13, 2017
I come here this evening to speak on the issue of human rights in Venezuela and some developments today as well in regards to all these issues. It’s part of the broader effort my office has undertaken for a while now. It’s the #ExpressionNOTOppression campaign – where every week we come here to the floor of the Senate when in session and we highlight political prisoners and dissidents whose lives are being destroyed by repressive regimes around the world.
Today, I will be highlighting the case of Leopoldo Lopez, a Venezuelan opposition leader who three years ago this week led peaceful demonstrations against the regime of Nicolas Maduro – and he was thrown in jail for it.
I am honored that this week we will be visited here in Washington by Lilian Tintori, who is Leopoldo’s wife and the mother of their two children.
She is an incredibly brave woman who does not rest as she continues advocating for her husband’s release and the release of all political prisoners. And continues to fight for a free and democratic Venezuela. So I want to recognize her as she visits Washington this week to ask for our government’s continued help.
Before I get into Leopoldo’s case, I want to take a few moments to talk about what’s happening in our own Western Hemisphere and in Venezuela specifically.
For decades, the Western Hemisphere has been neglected by our foreign policy – sadly by administrations of both parties. And as we see all over the world, when America fails to lead and engage on the world stage, bad actors emerge and they grow emboldened, while our enemies and adversaries rush to fill the void.
In the Western Hemisphere today, we see democracy under assault and, with it, an assault on the universal, God-given rights and dignity of citizens throughout this region.
Despite the one-sided concessions of the past two years, Castro’s Cuba remains as repressive as ever. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega ran for and won an unconstitutional third term, with his wife – his wife – as the vice president. And of course, we are growing increasingly familiar with the economic, social, and political disaster in Venezuela, which I shall elaborate on shortly.
By the way, I am also concerned by the impact of ongoing, rampant corruption in the region, which will be undermining democratic governments and their institutions.
There is another major issue plaguing the region – and threatening the security of the United States – and it’s rising insecurity stemming from narco-terrorist drug cartels. In recent years, we’ve seen the worst of them – the FARC in Colombia – brought to their knees and to the negotiating table by the Colombian government’s efforts. But Mexico and countries throughout Central America continue to be threatened by organizations such as these.
A third problem in the region is the lack of economic opportunity. It is simply in America’s interest to have more prosperous neighbors –people with to sell to and to trade with. And ultimately, if people can’t earn enough money to feed their families and live in safe neighborhoods in the country of their birth, they will either pick up and leave by any means necessary – including illegal immigration. Or they will join the drug gangs.
I know that too often there is a tendency to overlook what is happening in our own region. And some might say, “I have enough problems here at home to worry about what’s going on in other countries.”
But I hope we remember – everyone remembers – that all of this, that I have described and am about to talk about, ultimately has direct consequences on us here in the United States and on our people. When you have a breakdown in any of these areas, people in these countries look to leave. And the first place they often look to is the freest and the most prosperous country in the region, in the world: the United States of America. Because it also happens to be relatively close. That creates immigration pressures on our borders and on our communities.
When economies aren’t functioning, it means American workers and entrepreneurs have less customers abroad to sell products and services to.
And when you have all of this instability, vacuums are created…vacuums that foreign enemies or adversaries, like North Korea, Iran, China and Russia, they seek to fill, not to mention terrorist organizations. It allows for the rise of tyrants and authoritarians like the Castros, Chavez, Maduro, Ortega, Morales, Correa and others.
Today, in Venezuela, all of these problems have come together to bring this country, one of the richest countries in the world in terms of resources, to the verge of becoming a failed state. And today, the people of that proud country are living a nightmare.
Not that long ago, Venezuela was a vibrant democracy. It had strong democratic and independent institutions. It had free and fair elections.
But today in Venezuela, democracy and human rights remain under assault. The country is ruled by an incompetent strongman, a criminal, a human rights abuser, someone who has perverted every independent institution in the country, and he’s … compromised … the judiciary, the military, intelligence or the media, and he’s done so in order to entrench himself and his cronies in power.
You know, here in the United States, when we have disagreements, people use different rules at their disposal to prolong debates and to slow things down. We are aware of that in the Senate. But in Venezuela, when people have disagreements, especially with the government, they just try to stop debates completely. For example, after the opposition party in Venezuela miraculously won the last legislative election, despite every effort by the Maduro government to steal that election, the Venezuelan state police then blocked the new members of parliament from going to work. Imagine for a moment, two, four years ago, 2012, when President Obama was elected. If he had ordered, in 2014, when Republicans took control of the Senate, imagine if at that time the president would’ve ordered the police to stand at the door of the chamber and not allow senators in the Republican Party to enter the chamber. That’s what happened in Venezuela.
Then, that same government in Venezuela ordered their hacks on the kangaroo Supreme Court to invalidate laws passed by the National Assembly to free political prisoners.
Venezuela also has a drug cartel problem. In fact, there are officials in the highest levels of the Venezuelan government who have even been linked to drug cartels – among them is the former head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. And now, the Vice President of that country, Tareck El Aissami. We’ll talk about him in a moment.
We also learned last week, and I came to the floor to discuss it, through a CNN report confirming what my office had been gathering for a while – by the way that is going to be airing tonight on CNN, the second part of that series – we learned that organized crime syndicates in Venezuela, with the tacit approval of the government, of Venezuela, of Maduro, are running counterfeit passport rings. With counterfeit Venezuelan passports being sold to terrorists and to individuals with links to terrorism.
But it’s Venezuela’s economy which is perhaps the saddest story of all. The failures of Chavez-style socialism in Venezuela have led to misery for people there of all ages.
Not that long ago, Venezuela was a relatively rich economy. It is a rich country blessed with oil and other natural resources, and has long had a well-educated population and a vibrant middle class.
But under Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has been crumbling.
Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, has become the murder capital of the world. It is one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. Venezuela is defaulting on its loans. In fact, it will owe about $6 billion in April – they will not be able to make those payments.
In Venezuela, the grocery shelves are bare. A rich country and they are completely bare. Every day products like toilet paper are scarce, as is food. The people of Venezuela are literally starving – so much so that a recent Miami Herald article from last week detailed how people have turned to hunting and eating flamingos for food.
By now, many of us have seen the images of newborn babies being put in cardboard boxes at the hospital – because these hospitals can no longer afford cribs.
And so it comes as no surprise that the Venezuelan people – living in misery like this, robbed of their dignity, and aspiring for more than this disaster – would choose to speak up. And they began to do so in full force three years ago this week.
That’s when Venezuela’s students took to the streets to protest the violence and the scarcity of basic necessities due to the negligent, incompetent policies enacted by the Maduro regime. What began as a student protest soon became something bigger – it became a movement.
But government thugs responded to this movement with violence, and the peaceful demonstrations came to look like a combat zone: 43 people dead, 600 people injured and approximately 3,400 people detained.
Among those detained was Leopoldo Lopez, a Venezuelan opposition leader. The government of Maduro outrageously accused him of being responsible for all of this violence and they threw him in jail.
And he’s been there ever since, and it’s been about 1,100 days. To put that number into context, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was held prisoner by the Iranian regime for 544 days. The Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979 lasted 444 days.
In September 2015, Leopoldo Lopez was sentenced to 13 years, 9 months, 7 days, and 12 hours for his participation in the protests. And in jail he has suffered physical and psychological torture.
He is the father of two young children and is married to Lilian Tintori. He was the mayor of Chacao and the leader of “Popular Will” or “Voluntad Popular.” It’s a political party. He will be a critical part of building a freer, more democratic and more prosperous Venezuela. But for now, sadly, he languishes in prison.
He is not alone either. In Venezuela today, there are at least108 political prisoners.
Like Leopoldo, they each have a lot to contribute to make Venezuela a better place. But the Venezuelan government is robbing them of their freedom, and it is robbing their families of the memories every child and spouse deserves to create with their father, and husband and loved ones.
All of these political prisoners should be free. And I have encouraged, publicly and privately, our new Secretary of State and the administration to make the freedom of these political prisoners their cause and to make it a priority.
I know we are trying to work through our top-level Cabinet nominations here in the Senate. But we need to get people in place to other key roles throughout the administration. For example our next ambassador to the Association [sic] of American States, where the U.S. needs to recommit to making its voice heard in that forum as a voice for democracy and human rights – and for holding the Venezuelan regime accountable for violations of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
I’m also pleased that today the administration announced a new round of sanctions against a key Venezuelan official. Specifically, Venezuela’s Executive Vice President Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah – El Aissami as I have talked about him earlier – and Venezuelan national Samark Jose Lopez Bello were sanctioned under the Kingpin Act for international narcotics trafficking.
El Aissami’s primary front man was Samark Jose Lopez Bello, who I just discussed. He was designated for providing material assistance, financial support, or goods or services in support of international narcotics trafficking activities and acting for or on behalf of El Aissami.
Five U.S. companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello have been blocked as part of today’s action. All five of them are located in my home state of Florida. In fact, all five of them have mailing addresses in South Florida where I live. Among the properties seized, a U.S- registered aircraft with the tail number N200VR. It has been identified as block property owned or controlled by PSA Holdings LLC, controlled by Lopez Bello and by El Aissami through funds they were able to get by conducting prohibited transactions dealing with drug traffickers.
It is an outrage that the vice president of a country in our hemisphere not only is a narco-trafficker, but is also in the business of selling passports and travel documents to people with links to terrorism.
For years now, I’ve been talking about how Venezuelan regime officials were committing crimes in Venezuela, stealing from the people of Venezuela and then they spend their riches living in the lap of luxury in my hometown of Miami. And these announcements today further confirms how true this is, and to the extent to which corrupt and criminal Venezuelan regime officials have been allowed to freely travel and prance around free U.S. soil with impunity. I am hopeful that this is only the beginning of sanctions of today to make sure that the Maduro regime feels pressure to cease its illicit activities, to free all of its political prisoners, to tolerate dissent, and respect the will of the Venezuelan people, who voted to abandon the disastrous path of Chavez and Maduro.
I’m hopeful this is only the beginning of making sure the Maduro regime feels pressure to cease its illicit activities and everything that it is that has placed Venezuela on this disastrous path.
We here in this country are a blessed people to have a vibrant democracy that serves as an example to the world. With those blessings come the responsibility of speaking out when we see others yearning to be free, but repressed by their governments. In recent years, this body – the United States Senate – has spoken unanimously in support of the Venezuelan people’s aspirations and we have spoken unanimously against the Maduro regime’s brutality. And today, I come again to the Senate to renew that support.
To Leopoldo Lopez, all of Venezuela’s political prisoners, and all in Venezuela who are fighting for a better life, we stand with you. And we will continue doing everything in our power to make sure your cause is supported by this Congress and by this administration.