US President Barack Obama has issued an executive order declaring Venezuela a national security threat, and placed sanctions on seven officials.
The White House says the new set of targeted sanctions excludes the Venezuelan people and any trade relations with the nation, and are instead specifically aimed at government officials the US accuses of violating human rights.
“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 US financial systems,” Josh Earnest, White House spokesman, said in a statement on Monday.
“We are deeply concerned by the Venezuelan government’s efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents. Venezuela’s problems cannot be solved by criminalising dissent.”
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro responded by saying the US measures were intended to topple his Socialist government.
“President Barack Obama, representing the US imperialist elite, has personally decided to take on the task of defeating my government and intervening in Venezuela to control it,” Maduro said in a national television address.
Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry also recalled its top diplomat in the US for “immediate” consultations after the announcement.
Prisoners’ release urged
In Monday’s statement, White House called on Venezuela to release all political prisoners, including “dozens of students”, and warned against blaming the US for its problems.
“We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” Earnest said.
“These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.”
The White House said the executive 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 penalising freedom of expression, or were government officials involved in public corruption.
The new sanctions were the third set imposed on Venezuelans since December.
The seven individuals named in the order would have their property and interests in the US blocked or frozen and they would be denied entry into the US.
American citizens would also be prohibited from doing business with them.
Downturn in ties
The latest US action marks another downturn in relations between the US and Venezuela.
Just last week Maduro announced measures to limit the number of US diplomats in Venezuela, reducing a staff of nearly 100 to just 17 individuals.
In addition to reducing embassy staff, Venezuela is now requiring US citizens to have a visa before entering the country.
The two countries have not had full diplomatic representation since 2008, when late Socialist leader Hugo Chavez expelled the then US ambassador, Patrick Duddy.
The US at the time responded by expelling Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador.
Al Jazeera’s Virginia Lopez, reporting from Caracas on Monday, said the US sanctions were being seen by many in Venezuela as a mistake.
“Many think that the measures could actually feed a strong anti-US sentiment among Chavistas who had been disillusioned by Maduro’s inability to tackle the country’s economic foes, resulting in renewed support for the Maduro government,” she said.
Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, called upon this sentiment during a political event of the ruling party, PSUV.
“These types of measures only help to galvanise us. All they do is give the Venezuelan people an increased consciousness. These are only threats from an empire that has power, but that lacks scruples,” Cabello said.
He also urged the general population to be prepared for an armed US-led attack.
“These emergency resolutions are used by the North American empire every time they are going to attack a country. They say they feel threatened. What weapons do we possibly have to threaten the United States?”