- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2015

The Obama administration declared Venezuela a national security threat Monday and ordered sanctions against seven officials, raising tensions with the regime of socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

President Obama issued an executive order imposing a ban on travel to the U.S. and freezing the assets of the individuals, including military and police officials. Senior Obama aides said the action did not target the energy industry or the broader economy in the oil-rich nation.

“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, and we now have the tools to block their assets and their use of U.S. financial systems,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told reporters that Caracas would respond to the U.S. move soon. Mr. Maduro said last week that he wouldn’t “accept” U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. is Venezuela’s top trading partner, and last year Venezuela was the fourth-largest supplier of crude to the U.S. at an average of 733,000 barrels per day — despite a decadelong effort by Caracas to reduce its dependence on the U.S. by exporting more oil to China and India.

The White House also called on Venezuela to release all political prisoners, including students. Senior administration officials said the executive order targeted Venezuelan leaders who had committed acts of violence or abuse of human rights since protests erupted in February 2014, who were involved in curtailing freedom of expression, or were government officials involved in public corruption.

“We are deeply concerned by the Venezuelan government’s efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents. Venezuela’s problems cannot be solved by criminalizing dissent,” Mr. Earnest said.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration’s action “sends a forceful message to Venezuelan officials complicit in the systematic human rights abuses and rampant political oppression that have shocked the global conscience.”

But Mr. Menendez said the president should crack down further on top Venezuelan officials such as Defense Minister Padrino Lopez due to his authorization that troops could use lethal force against protesters.

“Since the start of 2014, the world has watched in alarm as President Maduro has led Venezuela down a path toward political crisis and economic ruin,” Mr. Menendez said.

U.S. officials told reporters in a conference call that the executive order did not target the Venezuelan people or economy and stressed that upcoming legislative elections should be held without intimidation of the government’s opponents.

The sanctions effectively confirm Venezuela as America’s primary adversary in Latin America, a label that was for decades applied to Communist-run Cuba until Washington and Havana announced a diplomatic breakthrough in December.

Washington has said it would respond through diplomatic channels to Venezuela’s demand last week that the U.S. cut its embassy’s staff in Caracas to 17 from 100, and present within 15 days from then a plan to do this.

Commercial ties between Venezuela and the United States have, however, been largely unaffected by diplomatic flare-ups, which were common during the 14-year-rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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