Amid deteriorating relations, Washington turns screws on Venezuela

President Barack Obama on Monday slapped sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, including the heads of military intelligence and the police, and said the situation in the South American country posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

The executive order freezes the assets and denies visas to the officials for their role in cracking down on last year’s protests, when clashes between demonstrators and police left more than 40 dead on both sides and sparked the jailing of prominent opposition figures.

“Venezuelan officials past and present who violate the human rights of Venezuelan citizens and engage in acts of public corruption will not be welcome here,” the White House said in a statement, “and we now have the tools to block their assets and their use of U.S. financial systems.”

In a nationally televised address, President Nicolás Maduro called the move the “greatest act of aggression” the U.S. had ever committed against Venezuela.

“President Barack Obama, in representation of the imperialist elite of the United States, has decided to personally take on the task of overthrowing my government and intervening in Venezuela in order to control it,” Maduro said.

He also promoted one of the sanctioned officials to Minister of Interior and Justice, and said he would ask congress for decree powers to fight U.S. imperialism.

The actions are the latest volley in an escalating diplomatic spat. A little more than a week ago, Caracas announced that the U.S. Embassy would be forced to slash its staff and that American visitors would require visas. Washington already has visa bans on at least 56 Venezuelan officials.

Speaking on background, U.S. officials said the sanctions were not intended to impact the Venezuelan people or the country’s flagging economy.

“I hope that the Venezuelan government and President [Nicolás] Maduro will not respond to it in a way that will obfuscate or misinform his population or others about the actions that we’re taking today,” an official said.

In the past, Maduro has made the sanctions seem “broader and more malevolent against the entire Venezuelan people than they actually are,” an official said.

Hopes for a measured response from Venezuela were dashed early Monday when National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said his country should declare a state of emergency, too.

“They are planning a military attack against Venezuela,” he told a meeting of ruling-party officials in the state of Lara, according to Últimas Noticias newspaper. “These resolutions are to attack the people.”

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said the country’s highest-ranking diplomat in Washington, Chargé d’affaires Maximilien Sánchez, was being called to Caracas for consultation. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington had no immediate comment.

Despite extensive trade ties, the United States and Venezuela haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

The executive order implements and expands the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, which Obama signed into law Dec. 14, 2014.

In the document, the president said that Venezuela’s arbitrary arrests of anti-government protesters, erosion of human rights and political persecution of opponents made it a “threat” to U.S. interests. He also declared a “national emergency” – a prerequisite to imposing sanctions.

The executive order will allow the State Department and the U.S. Treasury to cast a wider sanctions net in the future, but the White House released the names of seven individuals:

• Antonio José Benavides Torres, a commander in the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) and the former director of operations for the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB).

• Gustavo Enrique González López, the director general of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN). On Monday, he was named Minister of the Interior.

• Justo José Noguera Pietri, president of the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana and the former general commander of the GNB.

• Katherine Nayarith Haringhton Padron, a national prosecutor who has charged several opposition members with conspiracy, including recently jailed Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.

• Manuel Eduardo Pérez Urdaneta, the director of the Bolivarian National Police.

• Manuel Gregorio Bernal Martínez, chief of the 31st Armored Brigade of Caracas and the former head of the SEBIN.

• Miguel Alcides Vivas Landino, the inspector general of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB).

“Today’s actions by the administration highlight the abuses of just seven individuals in the Maduro regime who are responsible for perpetrating some of these crimes, but much more can be done and more individuals should be sanctioned,” Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami said in a statement. “These punitive sanctions are a step forward in our effort to hold accountable repressive regimes in our own Hemisphere, but only just a small step.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio welcomed the move but said others need to be added to the list, including Gen. Vladimir Padrino, commander of Venezuela’s armed forces.

Asked why no higher-ranking government representatives were named in the executive order, the senior administration official said the focus of the measure was human rights abuses, the crackdown on protesters and the detentions.

“Those were the activities that Congress chose to highlight in the legislation, and those were also the activities that we chose to highlight in this first round of actions under this executive order,” the official said.

But some wondered whether the announcement might backfire. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the U.S. should allow its regional allies to engage Venezuela.

“Unilateral U.S. sanctions, even targeted ones, will be counterproductive, especially when couched in the language of a ‘national emergency,’ ” he said in a statement. “These measures will only help Nicolás Maduro portray his country’s crisis as the result of a confrontation between Venezuela and the United States rather than a result of his failed policies.”

The Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, held an emergency meeting in Caracas over the weekend to try to jump-start talks between the government and the opposition, but there were no immediate results.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa balked at the language of the executive order, including calling Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security.

“This must be a joke in poor taste,” he wrote in a series of Tweets. “It reminds us of dark hours when our Americas was invaded and subjected to dictatorships imposed by imperialism.”

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela have been strained for decades but have deteriorated dramatically since Maduro took office almost two years ago. As Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy has tanked, the socialist administration has blamed Washington for its woes and claimed the United States is behind shadowy coup plots.

“It is unfortunate that during a time when we have opened up engagement with every nation in the Americas, Venezuela has opted to go in the opposite direction,” the White House said in reference to its recent talks with longtime foe Cuba. “Despite the difficulties in our official relationship, the United States remains committed to maintaining our strong and lasting ties with the people of Venezuela and is open to improving our relationship with the Venezuelan government.”

McClatchy correspondent Chris Adams reported from Washington.