Maduro imposes U.S. visa restrictions, limits embassy staff amid growing tensions

Venezuela said it will limit the number of U.S. diplomats allowed to work in the country, require all U.S. visitors to apply for visas, and ban a number of U.S. politicians — including Florida legislators and former President George W. Bush — from entering the South American nation.

President Nicolás Maduro announced the actions in a nationally televised speech Saturday, marking a new low for the two countries, which have important trade ties but haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Maduro said U.S. meddling and coup-plotting had forced him to take the measures. It’s unclear when they might go into effect, but they could pose a formidable new obstacle to diplomacy and trade.

Maduro couched the moves as retaliation. Earlier this year, the United States passed a law denying visas and freezing the assets of Venezuelan officials connected with human rights abuses and corruption.

On Saturday, Maduro said he was producing his own list of U.S. officials who would be barred from entering Venezuela for their roles in Iraq, Syria and Vietnam. Topping that list, he said, were President Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and the former head of the CIA George Tenet. Florida lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Republicans and outspoken critics of Venezuela, are on the list, as is New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.

“They cannot enter Venezuela because they’re terrorists,” Maduro said before a crowd of supporters. “Out of here, terrorists.”

In addition, Maduro said U.S. citizens will now need visas to enter the country. The U.S. charges Venezuelans $160-$190 for most temporary visas and Maduro said his country would respond in kind.

Tourists, business travelers and athletes are “always welcome,” he said, but the changes were needed to “protect the country.”

A senior Obama adminstration official told the Miami Herald that they had received “no diplomatic communications from the Venezuelan government regarding these matters and have no further comment at this time.”

Ros-Lehtinen, however, fired back in a statement to the Herald.

“I’m honored to be prohibited from entering Venezuela by its thug-in-chief, Maduro,” she said. “This is just another example of Maduro taking orders from the Castro regime [in Cuba] and trying to create a distraction from the deprivations of liberty in Venezuela and his disastrous policies.”

Diaz-Balart took to Twitter with a sarcastic tweet: “I’ve always wanted to travel to a corrupt country that is not a free democracy. And now Castro’s lap dog won’t let me! #quepena #maduro.”

Said Rubio in a statement to the Herald: “No matter where I am, I will continue exposing the murders, human rights abuses and economic disaster that Nicolas Maduro and his regime are responsible for in Venezuela.”

Citing Ministry of Tourism figures, the Associated Press said 36,000 U.S. citizens visited the country in the first nine months of 2014, about half the number that visited in 2012.

It’s unclear what kind of impact the move might have on commerce and trade. Venezuela is one of the world’s largest oil producers and the U.S. is among its top clients.

Finally, Maduro said the U.S. Embassy will have to shed staff.

“They have 100 officials here and we have 17 there,” he said. “We have to have equal terms.”

U.S. Embassy officials will also have to get prior clearance for any meetings through the foreign ministry, he said.

The announcement came as government loyalists and the opposition took the streets Saturday in dueling demonstrations.

Red-clad supporters of the socialist administration clogged parts of Caracas to mark the 26th anniversary of the Caracazo riots.

The opposition was driven to the streets in part by last week’s arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and the shooting death of a 14-year-old during an anti-government protest.

The government has accused Ledezma of being part of a U.S.-backed coup. As proof, it has pointed to a statement he signed demanding a peaceful political transition in the country.

On Saturday, the Alianza Bravo Pueblo political movement said more than 52,000 Venezuelans had signed that document as a show of support.

In the troubled border state of Táchira, Maria Corina Machado, who was also one of the original signatories of the document and was stripped of her congressional seat last year, said the government was desperate.

“It’s clear that Maduro has no limits on what he’s willing to do to stay in power,” she said in a statement. “Society has to put limits on the dictator, and that’s what we’re asking of all citizens.”

Facing a severe economic crisis and soaring crime as the nation is gearing up for congressional elections, Maduro has insisted that the protests and tumult are part of a plot by the United States and the opposition to oust him from power.

On Saturday, Maduro claimed that security forces had captured a U.S. pilot of Latino origin in Táchira along the border with Colombia. He said the man was engaging in “secret activities” and “espionage” and that he was cooperating with authorities.

Earlier this month, Maduro said the United States had co-opted military officials who planned to use an airplane to assassinate him and bomb government buildings. The State Department called those allegations a “ludicrous” ploy to distract from Venezuela’s troubles.

Also on Saturday, Venezuela released four missionaries from North Dakota who were detained several days ago, the AP reported. They were banned from the country for two years.

Since taking office almost two years ago, Maduro has often claimed that he’s the victim of coup plots and assassination attempts.

On Saturday, Maduro blamed President Barack Obama for the deteriorating relations.

“I’m very sorry, Mr. President, that you have gone down this dead end,” he said. But he also added that the actions were not directed at the citizenry of the “brother nation” but “against the imperial elite.”

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this story.