CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Amid escalating tensions with socialist Venezuela, the U.S. State Department on Wednesday announced sanctions against officials it said committed human rights abuses during a crackdown on anti-government protests.
The department is imposing a travel ban on a list of unnamed Venezuelan officials, jumping ahead of Congress, which has been pondering a similar move since the height of the protests in March.
The visa restrictions, the U.S.' strongest action yet against the South American country, "underscores our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses" deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
The action targets 24 high-ranking Venezuelan officials including Cabinet members, senior judiciary members, and senior military, police and National Guard members, according to Congressional aides who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
In announcing the sanctions, the department cited the months-long street protest movement that left dozens of people dead earlier this year. It said the Venezuelan government had responded in many instances with "arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force."
The department declined to publicly identify those on the list, citing confidentiality rules surrounding visa processing.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a chief advocate of increased U.S. involvement in Venezuela, in May released a list of 23 "human rights violators that should be sanctioned." The list named governors, Venezuela's chief prosecutor and the country's minister of justice and the interior.
On Wednesday, Rubio applauded the travel ban, but said the administration should do more to punish bad actors and "support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people."
The State Department move comes days after one of the most dramatic diplomatic dustups between the two countries in recent memory.
On Sunday, Venezuela secured the release of a powerful Venezuelan general who had been detained in Aruba at the request of U.S. authorities. The U.S. has accused Hugo Carvajal, former head of military intelligence, of using his high-level position to protect drug traffickers.
He was expected to face extradition to the U.S. Instead, after initially arresting him, Aruba released Carvajal back to a hero's welcome in Caracas. The State Department on Monday charged Venezuela with using threats against the Dutch Caribbean territory to circumvent international justice, a charge Venezuelan officials emphatically deny.
After Carvajal's detention, it's unclear whether top-ranking Venezuelan officials would have attempted to set foot in the U.S. — travel ban or no.
Congress has been debating two bills that would sanction Venezuelan officials charged with human rights abuses by banning visas and freezing their assets.
After months of slow progress, one of the two bills surmounted a significant hurdle this week when a Republican senator dropped his objection, citing outrage about the Carvajal case.
The administration of President Barack Obama had previously opposed sanctions, saying such measures could help the Venezuelan government rally its base and cast the U.S. as a scapegoat for the oil country's continuing economic crisis.
But in the end, mounting pressure from Congress to take a tougher line proved impossible to ignore, according to a person briefed on the decision. While frustration with the release of Carvajal may have influenced the timing of the State Department's decision, the larger goal is to stunt calls for stronger action, such as a freezing assets, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the administration's thinking.
The sanctions are likely to be a boon for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at a time when he faces an ideological split within his own party, according to David Smilde, an analyst for the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America.
"The whole thing will be a net positive for Maduro in terms of his ability to get past this crisis," Smilde said. "Getting into this kind of tit-for-tat is not productive. It's going to allow Maduro to rally his base just when there's dissent in the party."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Bradley Klapper contributed to this story from Washington and Joshua Goodman contributed from Caracas.
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