President Barack Obama imposed sanctions Monday on Venezuelan officials accused of violating the human rights of political opponents, even as his administration seeks closer ties with Cuba, Venezuelaâ€™s staunchest ally.
Obamaâ€™s executive orderÂ places sanctions on seven Venezuelan government and military officials who the administration says have undermined democracy in the country, overseen the abuse of anti-government protesters, curtailed freedom of expression, or engaged in corrupt activities. The sanctioned individuals include the head of Venezuelaâ€™s intelligence service and former leaders of the countryâ€™s National Guard, Â or GNB.
"In various cities in Venezuela, members of the GNB used force against peaceful protestors and journalists, including severe physical violence, sexual assault, and [the use of] firearms," according to a fact sheet released by the White House.
Cuba has long been suspected of sending hundreds of military advisers to Venezuela, one of its closest allies in Latin America. The advisers reportedly assist Venezuelaâ€™s government with military intelligence, weapons training, and strategic planning. President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela also has close relations with the Castro brothers in Havana.
During anti-government protests last year in Venezuela, the GNB and pro-Maduro gangs known as colectivos were accused of killing dozens of citizens. Former Venezuelan intelligence agents told local media that Cuban military officials were helping to organize the suppression of protests, and pro-democracy activists in Venezuela made similar claims.
Obama announced the easing of commercial and travel sanctions on Cuba in December as part of an effort to normalize relations with the Castros, U.S. adversaries for more than a half-century. The imposition of sanctions on Venezuelan officials puts the administration in the position of cracking down on one authoritarian regime in the region while it extends a hand to that governmentâ€™s closest partner.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, did not mention Cuba in a statement on the sanctions, or the alleged links between Venezuelan security services and Cuban military advisers.
"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 U.S. financial systems," Earnest said.
"It is unfortunate that during a time when we have opened up engagement with every nation in the Americas, Venezuela has opted to go in the opposite direction," he added. "Despite the difficulties in our official relationship, the United States remains committed to maintaining our strong and lasting ties with the people of Venezuela and is open to improving our relationship with the Venezuelan government."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), a staunch critic of the Castros and a longtime proponent of sanctioning Maduroâ€™s government, said in a statement that the financial and travel restrictions announced by Obama on Monday were "long overdue."
"Todayâ€™s actions by the administration highlight the abuses of just seven individuals in the Maduro regime who are responsible for perpetrating some of these crimes, but much more can be done and more individuals should be sanctioned," she said. "These punitive sanctions are a step forward in our effort to hold accountable repressive regimes in our own Hemisphere, but only just a small step. Maduro and his officials continue to undermine the U.S., stymie dissent by arbitrarily arresting opposition leaders, intimidate the media, and perpetrate human rights violations."
Oil-rich Venezuela had shipped about 100,000 barrels a day of crude to Cuba for years in exchange for the intelligence support and medical services, but Maduroâ€™s government recently reduced that amount amid plunging oil prices. Some analysts said that Cuba was forced to seek better relations with the United States as their oil patron suffered from economic woes.
Critics of the U.S.-Cuba deal accused the Obama administration of throwing a lifeline to a longtime U.S. adversary when its regime was particularly vulnerable.
U.S. and Cuban diplomats said that they made more progress on normalizing ties in talks last month, including on the issue of opening embassies in the respective countries.