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By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. State Department Wednesday imposed travel and visa restrictions on Venezuelan government officials accused of human rights violations during widespread protests that have left more than 40 dead.

“With this step we underscore our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement. “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 move comes amid deteriorating bilateral relations and just days after the nations engaged in a diplomatic tug-of-war over Venezuelan Gen. Hugo Carvajal, who is wanted in the United States on drug charges. Carvajal, the former head of Venezuela’s military intelligence, was detained in Aruba for four days at the request of the United States. But the island nation, under pressure from Venezuela, ultimately sent him home rather than wait for an official U.S. extradition request.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) called Wednesday’s sanctions “long overdue” but said they need to be tougher.

“Not only should we deny visas to (President Nicolas) Maduro’s cronies but we should also expand those visa restrictions to immediate family members of human rights violators and freeze their assets and property in the U.S.,” she said in a statement. “Only by hitting the thugs of the Maduro regime in their pocketbooks will there be a real opportunity to help foster a new era in Venezuela.”

U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been on the rocks for years, and the two have not had ambassadors since 2010. But tensions have been escalating since student-led protests spread nationwide in February. Hundreds have been injured and at least 42 died — on both sides of the political divide — amid a government crackdown.

Civil rights groups have denounced the government’s heavy-handed tactics, including the jailing of opposition political figures. In May, the House of Representatives approved a sanctions bill, but it stalled in the Senate despite having bipartisan support.

There was no immediate response from the Venezuelan government, but in the past the administration has accused the United States of working with Venezuela’s opposition to overthrow Maduro.

“We emphasize the action we are announcing today is specific and targeted, directed at individuals responsible for human rights violations and not at the Venezuelan nation or its people,” Harf said.

AFP Photo

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.