The U.S. State Department handed down a new round of travel restrictions against a handful of Venezuelan officials and their families Monday, putting into effect the sanctions that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro vehemently decried late last year.
The new restrictions affect U.S. visas for several current and former Venezuelan officials implicated in the government crackdown on mass protests that roiled the country in the spring of 2014. The Venezuelan government “has continued to demonstrate a lack of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, attempting to stifle dissent by prosecuting political activists and cracking down on peaceful protests, which were triggered by deteriorating security, economic, social and political conditions,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a statement released Monday.
The move is part of a sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Barack Obama late last year that authorized travel bans and asset freezes for Venezuelans accused of human rights abuses. Maduro held a large rally last year to denounce the sanctions, calling them a tool of U.S. imperialism.
The identities of the Venezuelan officials targeted by the new restrictions will remain private due to U.S. confidentiality laws on visas. But Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who sponsored the legislation, previously released a list of 23 individuals who could be targeted by the travel bans.
On Sunday, Maduro again lashed out against the U.S. for allegedly supporting a plot to overthrow Venezuela’s socialist government. “The imperial power of the north has entered into a dangerous phase of desperation,” Maduro said during a nationally broadcast speech. “They have spoken to other governments on the continent to announce the overthrow of my government.” He specifically named U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as an orchestrator of the plot, saying Biden “personally has spoken to presidents and prime ministers.”
Maduro's accusations are “unfounded and false,” a State Department spokesperson told the Spanish news agency EFE Monday. “Such actions divert attention from Venezuela’s own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for what is occurring inside Venezuela,” the official said.
Meanwhile, Venezuela is approaching the one-year anniversary of last year’s chaotic protests, which were triggered by mass anger over high crime rates and economic instability. Those problems have only worsened over the past year: Inflation has soared to 64 percent, and shortages of basic goods have become more acute as the oil-dependent economy grapples with the drop in global oil prices. Maduro’s approval rating sits around 22 percent. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s government recently passed a provision allowing state security forces to use lethal force on protesters if they feel their lives are at risk.