A group of nine House Democrats cautioned Friday against banning Venezuelan oil imports, a drastic sanction the Trump administration has considered imposing if the South American nation carries out an election Sunday for a national constituent assembly.
In a letter, the lawmakers asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been largely absent from the Venezuela issue, to work with other countries in the region to pursue negotiations between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents. Otherwise, they wrote, the U.S. risks triggering an"armed internal conflict [that] would undoubtedly provoke an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and would also likely lead to major disruptions in oil production."
"We would point out that U.S. unilateral sanctions in effect since 2015 and have done nothing to improve the political situation in the country," the lawmakers wrote Tillerson. "Instead, they were successfully exploited by the government to stoke nationalist resentment against U.S. 'imperialism,' undermining U.S. credibility as an impartial arbiter among Venezuelans."
The letter was signed by Democratic Reps. John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan, Ro Khanna of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, James P. McGovern of Massachusetts, Barbara Lee of California, Henry C. 'Hank' Johnson, Jr. of Georgia, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri.
This week, the U.S. sanctioned 13 Venezuelans tied to Maduro's government. An oil-sector sanction would represent a far more serious punishment. Friday's letter was drafted, circulated and sent within one day, in response to Wednesday's sanctions.
In pushing for negotiations, the lawmakers mentioned the past role of Pope Francis in trying to broker a Venezuelan peace. But the Vatican has stayed out of recent developments, after its initial talks went nowhere.
The lawmakers nevertheless urged further talks.
"These negotiations should seek to address both the political crisis, with the objective of achieving a democratic, electoral solution within Venezuela’s constitutional framework, as well as the country’s economic crisis, for which foreign governments and multilateral institutions can be invited to contribute expertise and resources," the lawmakers wrote. "Talks must take into account legitimate concerns of retribution against both supporters and opponents of the government, and guarantee fundamental legal protections of both sides in the event of any political transition."
Legislators had no kind words for Maduro, who has no apparent friends left in Washington. The letter noted that falling oil prices, corruption and "some of the worst economic mismanagement in the world" have led to widespread Venezuelan food and medicine shortages that have prompted the current political and social crisis. More than 100 people have died in nearly four months of street protests.
Still, they said, an oil-import ban is not the answer.
At least one high-ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, has also warned against an oil-import ban. The White House has said it is considering all options on Venezuela; an oil ban has the support of Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. But a range of sanctions are possible, including financial restrictions aimed at limiting Venezuela's access to credit.
The opposition controls the democratically elected National Assembly, whose power would be wiped out by the new national constituent assembly to be elected Sunday.