(Reuters) – The United States declared Venezuela a national security threat on Monday and ordered sanctions against seven officials from the oil-rich country in the worst bilateral diplomatic dispute since socialist President Nicolas Maduro took office in 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama signed and issued the executive order, which senior administration officials said did not target Venezuela’s energy sector or broader economy. But the move stokes tensions between Washington and Caracas just as U.S. relations with Cuba, a longtime U.S. foe in Latin America and key ally to Venezuela, are set to be normalized.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro denounced the sanctions as an attempt to topple his government. At the end of a thundering two-hour speech, Maduro said he would seek decree powers to counter the “imperialist” threat, and appointed one of the sanctioned officials as the new interior minister.
Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a U.S. sanctions program. The same process has been followed with countries such as Iran and Syria, U.S. officials said.
The White House said the order targeted people whose actions undermined democratic processes or institutions, had committed acts of violence or abuse of human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were government officials involved in public corruption.