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Venezuela initiates visa requirement for US travellers

[CARACAS] Venezuela on Tuesday began requiring US travellers to seek visas before visiting the South American nation amid an escalation of diplomatic tensions between Washington and the administration of President Nicolas Maduro.

The socialist government on Monday ordered the US Embassy in Caracas to slash its staff by 80 per cent, days after Mr Maduro said several Americans had been detained on suspicions they were involved in espionage.

A resolution published in the Official Gazette eliminates the United States from a list of 65 countries exempt from tourist visa requirements, and instructs US passport holders to comply with "established legal norms" to obtain visas.

Mr Maduro said over the weekend that Americans would have to pay the same consular fees as Venezuelans travelling to the United States, which currently ranges from US$160-US$190.

The resolution also contains a list of US political figures barred from entering Venezuela for having committed "acts of terrorism and grave human rights violations."

The list includes former President George W Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former intelligence chief George Tenet, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Bob Menendez, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Like his predecessor Hugo Chavez, Mr Maduro has frequently clashed with the United States and often accuses Washington of backing conspiracy efforts against him.

Although the Bush administration did endorse a coup against Mr Chavez in 2002 before back-tracking when he returned to power, Washington has repeatedly denied meddling in Venezuelan affairs.