CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Amid escalating tensions with Venezuela, the U.S. State Department on Wednesday announced a travel ban for officials of the socialist government it said committed human rights abuses during a crackdown on opposition protests.
In imposing the sanctions, the U.S.' strongest action yet against the South American country, the State Department jumped ahead of Congress, which has been pondering a similar move since the height of the protests in March.
The action targets 24 high-ranking Venezuelan officials including Cabinet members, senior judiciary members, and high-ranking 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 and 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 singled out 23 Venezuelan officials for sanctions. His list named governors, judges, Venezuela's chief prosecutor and the country's minister of justice and the interior.
On Wednesday, Rubio called the travel ban a "first step," and urged the administration to do more. Others on Capitol Hill said Congress should toughen the State Department's measures by adding family members to the list of banned Venezuelans and freezing assets.
The ban comes days after a dramatic diplomatic dustup between the two countries.
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 former head of military intelligence Hugo Carvajal of using his high-level position to protect drug traffickers.
Carvajal was expected to face extradition to the U.S. Instead, Aruba released him back to a hero's welcome in Caracas. The State Department accused Venezuela with using threats against the Dutch Caribbean territory to circumvent international justice, a charge Venezuelan officials emphatically deny.
On Wednesday, Venezuela Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the new sanctions a "desperate" act of a country at sea in a changing world.
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.
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. The two countries have not had ambassadors in each other's capitals since 2010.
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.
After months of slow progress, one of two Congressional bills to sanction Venezuelan officials surmounted a significant hurdle this week when a Republican senator dropped his objection, citing outrage about the Carvajal case.
This spring, the U.S. imposed similar visa restrictions on Russian officials for threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Despite the tough language the State Department used in announcing the travel ban, the sanctions are likely to help 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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