WASHINGTON/CARACAS Washington barred a group of Venezuelan officials, including government ministers and presidential advisers, from the United States on Wednesday after accusing them of abuses in a crackdown on protests against President Nicolas Maduro this spring.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, citing visa record confidentiality, did not identify those who would be denied entry and did not say how many officials were on the list.
Months of demonstrations led by hard-line opposition and student leaders led to violence that killed 43 people in the South American OPEC member nation's worst unrest for a decade.
Demonstrators said they were protesting economic hardships and dictatorial government, but Maduro, who replaced the late Hugo Chavez last year, called them a cover for a U.S.-backed "coup" attempt against him.
Protesters were subjected to arbitrary detentions, excessive force and judicial intimidation, Harf said in a statement, echoing local opposition and rights' groups accusations against the government.
The Venezuelans barred from entry included government ministers, presidential advisers, judicial officials and law enforcement and military officials, a State Department spokesperson said.
In Caracas, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua slammed the actions as unjustified and vengeful steps by an "empire" losing influence in Latin America.
"These are desperate actions. They're meant against us, but at root, they are a recognition of revolutionary Venezuela's important role in building the new Latin America. We welcome their fury!"
TARGETED OFFICIALS NOT NAMED
Wednesday's U.S. action targeted individuals and does not constitute sanctions against Venezuela, a State Department spokesperson said.
Harf in her statement said: "While we will not publicly identify these individuals because of visa record confidentiality, our message is clear: those who commit such abuses will not be welcome in the United States."
The fatalities from last spring's protests, mainly from gunshots, included both opposition and government supporters.
Local rights activists say hundreds of people were rounded up arbitrarily, with many beaten by security forces.
Eighty-seven people remain in jail over the demonstrations, including radical opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, accused by the government of being the mastermind.
Members of the U.S. Congress, particularly Republicans and Florida lawmakers, had been pushing for the administration to crack down on the Maduro government by freezing the U.S. financial assets of Venezuelans considered rights abusers, as well as travel restrictions.
Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson called the administration's action a good first step. "But if the violence continues, we will need to look at even tougher sanctions," he said.
Tense relations between Caracas and Washington flared this week when the United States accused Venezuela of using economic pressure, including a reported threat to close an oil refinery, to apply pressure on the Netherlands not to extradite an official Washington wants to face drugs charges.
Venezuela denied using undue pressure over former military intelligence head Hugo Carvajal, who was arrested on the Caribbean island of Aruba which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He was held for four days then freed.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Deisy Bouitrago in Caracas; Editing by W Simon)