• US imposes visa ban on Venezuelan officials
     | July 31,2014
    ap file photo

    Surrounded by mask-wearing supporters of Venezuela’s opposition, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, center, speaks to the media in Doral, Fla. Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott called for sanctions against Venezuela, as opponents of President Nicolas Maduro were staging countrywide protests.

    CARACAS, Venezuela — 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.

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