CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Amid escalating tensions with Venezuela, the U.S. State Department on Wednesday announced a travel ban for officials of the socialist government it said committed human rights abuses during a crackdown on opposition protests.
In imposing the sanctions, the strongest U.S. action yet against the South American country, the State Department jumped ahead of Congress, which has been pondering a similar move since the height of the protests in March.
The action targets 24 high-ranking Venezuelan officials including Cabinet ministers, senior judges and high-ranking military, police and National Guard members, said congressional aides, who agreed to reveal those details only if granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
The State Department's announcement cited the months-long street protest movement that left dozens of people dead earlier this year and said the Venezuelan government had responded in many instances with "arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force."
The department declined to publicly say who it was targeting, citing confidentiality rules surrounding visa processing. A congressional aide said the department told staffers its list was similar to a list of 23 Venezuelan officials singled out for sanctions by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, in May.
Rubio's list names governors, judges, Venezuela's chief prosecutor and the country's minister of justice and the interior.
On Wednesday, Rubio, a chief advocate for increased U.S. involvement in Venezuela, called the travel ban a "first step," and urged the administration to do more. Others on Capitol Hill said Congress should toughen the State Department's measures by adding family members to the list of banned Venezuelans and freezing assets.
The ban comes days after a dramatic diplomatic dustup between the two countries.
On Sunday, Venezuela secured the release of a former Venezuelan general who had been detained in Aruba at the request of U.S. authorities. The U.S. has accused Hugo Carvajal, the former head of Venezuela's military intelligence, of using his high-level position to protect drug traffickers.
Carvajal was expected to face extradition to the U.S. Instead, Aruba released him and he flew back to a hero's welcome in Caracas. The State Department accused Venezuela of using threats against the Dutch Caribbean territory to circumvent international justice, a charge emphatically denied by Venezuelan officials.
On Wednesday, Venezuela Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the new U.S. sanctions a desperate act of a country at sea in a changing world.
After Carvajal's detention, it's unclear whether top-ranking Venezuelan officials would have attempted to set foot in the U.S. — travel ban or no.
The administration of President Barack Obama had previously opposed sanctions, saying such measures could help the Venezuelan government rally its base and cast the U.S. as a scapegoat for the oil-exporting country's continuing economic crisis. The two nations have not had ambassadors in each other's capitals since 2010.
But mounting pressure from Congress to take a tougher line proved impossible to ignore, said a person briefed on the decision. While frustration with the release of Carvajal may have influenced the timing of the State Department's decision, the larger goal is to stunt calls for stronger action, such as freezing assets, said the person, who insisted on speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the administration's thinking.
After months of slow progress, one of two congressional bills to sanction Venezuelan officials surmounted a significant hurdle this week when a Republican senator dropped his objection, citing outrage about the Carvajal case.
This spring, the U.S. imposed similar visa restrictions on Russian officials for threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Despite the tough language the State Department used in announcing the travel ban, the sanctions are likely to help Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at a time when he faces an ideological split within his own party, said David Smilde, an analyst for the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America.
"The whole thing will be a net positive for Maduro in terms of his ability to get past this crisis," Smilde said. "Getting into this kind of tit-for-tat is not productive. It's going to allow Maduro to rally his base just when there's dissent in the party."
Associated Press writer Hannah Dreier reported this story in Caracas and Bradley Klapper reported from Washington.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Joshua Goodman in Caracas contributed to this report.
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier