U.S. de­clares Venezuela a na­tional se­cu­rity threat and sanc­tions top of­fi­cials

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By JEFF MA­SON AND ROBERTA RAMP­TON WASH­ING­TON

(Reuters) - The United States on Mon­day de­clared Venezuela a na­tional se­cu­rity threat and or­dered sanc­tions against seven of­fi­cials from the oil-rich coun­try in the worst bi­lat­eral diplo­matic dis­pute since so­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro took of­fice in 2013.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is­sued and signed the ex­ec­u­tive or­der which se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said did not tar­get Venezuela’s en­ergy sec­tor or broader econ­omy. But the move stokes ten­sions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Cara­cas just as U.S. re­la­tions with Cuba, a long­time U.S. foe in Latin Amer­ica and key ally to Venezuela, are set to be nor­mal­ized.

Declar­ing any coun­try a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity is the first step in start­ing a U.S. sanc­tions pro­gram. The same process has been fol­lowed with coun­tries such as Iran and Syria, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

The White House said the or­der tar­geted peo­ple whose ac­tions un­der­mined demo­cratic pro­cesses or in­sti­tu­tions, had com­mit­ted acts of vi­o­lence or abuse of hu­man rights, were in­volved in pro­hibit­ing or pe­nal­iz­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion, or were gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in­volved in public cor­rup­tion.

“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 spokesman Josh Earnest said in a state­ment.

“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,” he added.

Venezue­lan For­eign Min­is­ter Delcy Ro­driguez told re­porters that Cara­cas would re­spond to the U.S. move soon and later tweeted that Venezuela was call­ing home its chargé d’af­faires in Wash­ing­ton for con­sul­ta­tions.

The two coun­tries have not had full diplo­matic rep­re­sen­ta­tion since 2008 when late so­cial­ist leader Hugo Chavez ex­pelled then U.S. Am­bas­sador Pa­trick Duddy. Wash­ing­ton at the time re­sponded by ex­pelling Venezue­lan en­voy Bernardo Al­varez.

The list of sanc­tioned in­di­vid­u­als in­cludes: Gus­tavo Gon­za­lez, head of state in­tel­li­gence ser­vice Se­bin; Manuel Perez, direc­tor of the na­tional po­lice; and Justo Noguero, a for­mer Na­tional Guard com­man­der who now runs state min­ing firm CVG. It also in­cludes three other mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and a state pros­e­cu­tor.

The in­di­vid­u­als would have their prop­erty and in­ter­ests in the United States blocked or frozen and would be de­nied en­try into the United States. U.S. cit­i­zens and per­ma­nent res­i­dents would be pro­hib­ited from do­ing busi­ness with them.

The White House also called on Venezuela to re­lease all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in­clud­ing “dozens of stu­dents” and warned against blam­ing Wash­ing­ton for its prob­lems.

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 the United States’ 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.

The United States is Venezuela’s top trad­ing part­ner, and the OPEC mem­ber in 2014 re­mained the fourth­largest sup­plier of crude oil to the United States at an av­er­age of 733,000 bar­rels per day - de­spite a decade-long ef­fort by Cara­cas to di­ver­sify its oil ship­ments to China and In­dia.

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