Venezuela’s powerful vice president on Tuesday called his blacklisting by the United States on drug charges an “imperialist aggression” in the first bilateral flare-up under new US President Donald Trump. “We shall not be distracted by these miserable provocations,” Tareck El Aissami, the most senior Venezuelan official yet sanctioned by the United States, said in a series of defiant tweets.
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“We will see this vile aggression dispelled.” The US Department of Treasury on Monday labeled El Aissami a drug “kingpin,” accusing him of facilitating shipments by air and sea, and having links to drug gangs in Mexico and Colombia.
The kingpin designation allows the Treasury Department to freeze any assets of individuals in the United States and prevents the person from conducting financial transactions going through the United States. El Aissami joined a sanctions list that already includes a half-dozen other Venezuelan officials or former officials.
The United States also sanctioned Samark Lopez, a man it termed El Aissami’s “frontman.” Lopez also called the move politically motivated.
“Mr. Lopez is not a government official and has not engaged in drug trafficking,” said a statement on his website describing Lopez as a “legitimate businessman.” Socialist President Nicolas Maduro has frequently cast U.S. and opposition accusations of drug trafficking, corruption and human rights abuses as a false pretext to justify meddling in Venezuela and trying to topple him.
Maduro, 54, narrowly won election in 2013 to replace the late Hugo Chavez, but his popularity has plummeted amid an economic crisis in the nation of 30 million people. Though he frequently lambasted former US President Barack Obama, the Venezuelan president has so far refrained from criticizing Trump.
The sanction on El Aissami, a 42-year-old lawyer and criminologist, will dent Maduro’s hopes that Trump might avoid a confrontation with Venezuela but could also help him by providing a nationalist card to play, said David Smilde, a Tulane University professor and Venezuela expert. “This is a tremendous gift to Maduro as it ensures El Aissami’s loyalty. It essentially increases El Aissami’s exit costs and gives him a personal stake in the continuation of ‘Chavismo’,” he said.
“To be clear, El Aissami and others should be held responsible for their actions. However it should be understood this process has pernicious unintended consequences. I think we are effectively witnessing the creation of a rogue state.” El Aissami, whom local media say is of Syrian and Lebanese descent, grew up poor in the Andean state of Merida. He was a lawmaker, interior minister and state governor for the ruling Socialist Party before becoming vice president last month.
A long-time confidant and member of Chavez’s and Maduro’s inner circles, El Aissami was given wider powers as vice president in a decree last month and is being touted in some circles as a possible future president.
MAJOR DRUG HUB?
Venezuelan opposition groups have long accused El Aissami of repressing dissent, participating in drug trafficking rings, and supporting Middle Eastern groups such as Hezbollah. Narcotics experts say Venezuela has become a major global hub for drug shipments. The Treasury Department said he oversaw or partially owned shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) on multiple occasions, including to Mexico and the United States.
The citation did not specify the drug, though the most common narcotic trafficked in the region is cocaine. The sanctions prohibits U.S. citizens from transactions with the individuals on the list, and freezes their assets.
“As a result of today’s action, significant real property and other assets in the Miami, Florida area tied to Lopez Bello have been blocked,” it said, referring to Samark Lopez. The sanction was a departure from the so-called “soft landing” approach taken by Obama’s White House. At times it had clashed with efforts by the U.S. Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, which worked with informants in Venezuela to nab influential officials for money laundering and drug trafficking.
Since 2015, the Obama administration had sought to use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ease acrimony with Caracas and the fallout from a string of U.S. drug indictments against Venezuelan officials, including Interior Minister Nestor Reverol. “When the right wing attacks us, it shows we are advancing. Nothing and nobody will stop our victorious march to peace,” Reverol tweeted on Tuesday in defense of El Aissami.
The blacklisting of Venezuela’s vice president follows the U.S. convictions last year of two nephews of the country’s first lady, Cilia Flores, over a multimillion-dollar drug deal. Opposition leaders said it was further evidence of the rotten nature of Venezuela’s state and institutions.
One of them, Henry Ramos, scoffed that Venezuela would no doubt claim drugs had been planted on officials “just like they plant evidence on Venezuelan opponents to make them rot in the regime’s jails.”
Venezuela is holding more than 100 activists in prison, according to local rights groups. The government denies the existence of political prisoners, saying all politicians in jail are there on legitimate charges.