Members of the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate and Obama administrators officials were split Thursday over when and how to impose sanctions on Venezuela for human rights violations. During a hearing with State Department officials, the committee chaired by Sen. Robert Menendez heard the perspective of some in the Venezuelan opposition, who think the U.S. should wait before applying penalties.

“I´m a big believer in applying sanctions: We have employed them in a number of contexts that are not entirely different from this one …They work in some places, they don´t work everywhere, timing is extremely important,” said Tomasz P. Malinowski, Assistant Secretary Of State for Democracy, Human Rights.

The hearing took place while a caravan of Venezuelans exiles opposed to President Nicolás Maduro’s rule is traveling from Miami to Washington D.C. to push for economic sanctions for some of the government officials.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio is with them.

“This is not a hearing about oil sanctions in Venezuela,” Rubio said. “And what we´re saying is we want to sanction human rights violators, who by the way happen to be people that travel to the U.S. with impunity, buy properties in the United States, laugh at us along the way, and invest in our banks and send their kids to our schools and who have zero respect for this government,” he added.

The U.S. House of Representatives is working on  parallel sanctions bill introduced by another Floridian, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. A House panel plans to finalize its version of the bill on Friday.

The legislation in both chambers is relatively modest. It centers on $15 million in new funds to promote democracy and rule of law in Venezuela. It bans visas for officials who crushed anti-government protests and freezes their assets.

During Thursday hearing, Sen. Menendez  mentioned that in the just in last 24 hours at least 250 students had been arrested in Caracas by government forces in a late night round-up. He quoted a recent Human Rights Watch report that documented the death of 41 people and several cases of torture. Some 197 of the 200 Venezuelan detainees, Menendez noted, still await trial.

Senator Rubio stressed his concern over the impunity of the 23 Venezuelans officials slated for sanctions, who the U.S. feels are directly or indirectly responsible for the human rights violations in the South American country.

“What I have heard is that we should not sanction because it might disrupt the process going on in Venezuela. We sanction human violators in Russia. Why is what´s happening in Russia more important that what is happening in Venezuela?’ Rubio asked.

“These people are not hard to find, these people brag about what they are doing in Venezuela. The only difference is that these people spend their weekend in Miami,” he added.

Includes material from The Associated Press. 

Ninoska Marcano is a freelance reporter living in Washington D.C.

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