WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Relations between the United States and Venezuela deteriorated on Monday after Washington imposed visa restrictions on officials involved in alleged human rights abuses and those believed responsible for public corruption in the oil-exporting country.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro slammed the sanctions and called them hypocritical in the latest sign of discord between Washington and Caracas.
In December, U.S. President Barack Obama signed legislation to impose visa sanctions on Venezuelan officials. Congress had previously approved the measure.
“We are sending a clear message that human rights abusers, those who profit from public corruption, and their families are not welcome in the United States,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. It said it would not identify the targets of its action because of U.S. visa confidentiality regulations.
U.S. diplomats have said the restrictions would be imposed mainly on Venezuelan security officials who put down protests last year in which 43 people died, including demonstrators, government supporters and security officials, and that they could affect immediate family members.
Rights groups say security forces used excessive force to quell the demonstrations. Officials insist they were restrained in the face of hooded protesters hurling rocks and gasoline bombs.
“What human rights are they talking about?,” Maduro told party loyalists in a speech on Monday night.
“They kill black youth in the street with impunity, they persecute and have concentration camps of Central American kids. (In Guantanamo), they have abducted dozens of citizens of the world under no known legal system, submitting them to torture, isolation,” he said.
Venezuela’s socialist government has long accused Washington of seeking to destabilize its rule to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil. Relations worsened after the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush applauded a botched coup in 2002 against the late President Hugo Chavez.
Despite diplomatic tensions, Venezuela has remained one of the top suppliers of oil to the U.S.
Maduro recently accused U.S. Vice President Joe Biden of plotting a coup against him. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Monday described the accusation as “baseless and false.”
On Monday, Maduro claimed Biden told leaders of Caribbean nations that the Venezuelan government’s days were numbered and that they should ready themselves for Petrocaribe’s end.
Petrocaribe, created by Chavez, allows countries in the Caribbean and Central America to finance oil and fuel purchases at advantageous rates. Maduro insists it will be maintained, though volumes dropped in 2013 to their lowest level in five years.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas, Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Alan Crosby