Venezuela Promotes Spy Chief Banned by Obama Administration

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro responded to new U.S. sanctions against his government by promoting a general accused of repressing protesters to head the ministry responsible for national security.

Major General Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez is Venezuela’s new interior minister, Maduro announced in a televised address late Monday. In his previous job as the head of the national intelligence police, he had a “prominent role” in repressive actions against civilians during anti-government protests last year, the White House’s office of the press secretary said.

“Instead of bringing those accused of committing serious human rights abuses to justice, Maduro has decided to give one of them a prize,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Having a member of the military in charge of public security, in a country where the defense ministry recently granted itself the power to use firearms to control demonstrations, is extremely problematic.”

President Barack Obama on Monday ordered his government to prohibit any travel to the U.S. by Gonzalez Lopez and six other Venezuelan military officers and judges, in addition to the freezing of any assets they may hold in the country. The measures expanded U.S. sanctions against the South American country, escalating tensions with Maduro as he cracks down on his opposition and accuses the U.S. of supporting an “endless coup” against his government.

Human Rights

“Gonzalez Lopez is responsible for or complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, or has participated in, directly or indirectly, significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes a serious abuse or violation of human rights,” the White House said.

Officials at Venezuela’s information ministry declined to comment on the human rights accusations when contacted by Bloomberg News.

“With this measure Maduro is telling the public that those sanctioned by the U.S. are heroes in Venezuela,” Friedrich Welsch, political science professor at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, said by telephone. “This is aimed at telling the Venezuelan people that this government is not afraid of anything, that it won’t bow down. This means we are entering a phase of deeper confrontation with the U.S.”

Amnesty International said last year that it had received dozens of accounts of torture allegedly carried out by government security forces during anti-government protests last year that left 43 Venezuelans dead.

Decree Power

Venezuela’s public prosecutor charged a national police officer last month in the fatal shooting of a teenage boy during a protest in the western city of San Cristobal, the first death this year as sporadic protests across Venezuela broke out in response to Maduro’s crackdown on opposition politicians with the arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.

Maduro, speaking in a national address to respond to the sanctions, said he will request special legislative powers to be able to rule by decree on Tuesday.

“I have put together a law that gives me special powers to preserve the peace, the integrity and the sovereignty of the country before any situation that presents itself due to this imperialist aggression,” he said.

Venezuela recalled its charge d’affairs in Washington, Maximilien Arvelaiz, for immediate consultation, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said.

U.S. Embassy

Maduro on Feb. 28 ordered his foreign ministry to reduce the number of officials allowed to work at the U.S. embassy in Caracas, alleging the country was trying to destabilize his government. The U.S. State Department has called his allegations baseless.

“The sanctions imposed against these officials are highly unlikely to influence or pressure the Venezuelan government,” Carlos Cardenas, deputy head of Latin America analysis at IHS Country Risk, said in a note to clients. “The sanctions are likely to cement unity within the government and could potentially increase political instability. They will allow Maduro to further repress the political opposition.”

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