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.