US issues sanctions on Venezuelan officials

The White House on Monday slapped sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, freezing their U.S. assets and banning them from entering the United States.

The measures were announced as President Barack Obama issued an executive order declaring a national emergency related to threats posed by Venezuela's political turmoil.

"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," the White House said in a release.

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File photo: Children walk past anti-American graffiti in Caracas. President Obama announced new sanctions against seven Venezuelans on March 8, 2015.
Tomas Bravo | Reuters
File photo: Children walk past anti-American graffiti in Caracas. President Obama announced new sanctions against seven Venezuelans on March 8, 2015.

The White House decried alleged human rights violations and arrests carried out in response to anti-government protests. It called on the South American nation to release political prisoners, including students and opposition leaders.

Venezuela will respond to the measures "soon," the country's foreign minister told Reuters.

Venezuela has dealt with increasing prices and limited access to basic goods. Inflation increased by 64.3 percent last year, and is seen staying above 60 percent this year.

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Low crude prices have hit Venezuela, a major oil producer, and the country risks defaulting on its sovereign debt this year.

Several critics of President Nicolas Maduro, including Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, have been imprisoned in recent months. Ledezma was arrested in February for his purported involvement in an alleged coup.

Obama's order targets officials who have allegedly acted to restrict free expression or other "democratic processes" or have violated human rights in response to anti-government protests. Individuals named included security, intelligence and police officials.

"We are committed to advancing respect for human rights, safeguarding democratic institutions, and protecting the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela," the White House said.

The White House stressed that the sanctions would not target "the people or economy of Venezuela." The order would not affect the Venezuelan energy sector, Reuters reported, citing a senior administration official.

It expands on legislation passed last year in which the U.S. pledged to support democratic processes and hold Venezuelan officials accountable for human rights violations.