A lot of distinctly unsavory characters have made it into the upper echelons of Venezuelan politics over the past decade or so.
The latest: Tareck El Aissami, the newly appointed vice president who in the course of his 42 years as a Socialist Party functionary of Lebanese-Syrian extraction has accumulated more power more quickly than any of his rivals. In the process, he has positioned himself as the likely successor to hapless President Nicolás Maduro.
And now he has attained a new watershed in his career: Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on El Aissami and one of his business partners, accusing them of direct involvement in drug trafficking. El Aissami responded by denouncing the Americans’ “miserable provocations,” declaring in a tweet that “truth is invincible and we will see this vile aggression dispelled.”
Under Venezuela’s quirky constitution, the presidential term is six years. If the president leaves office in the first four years, new elections are triggered within 30 days, but in the final two years, the vice president serves out the term.
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Tellingly, Maduro appointed El Aissami on Jan. 4, less than a week before the fourth year of his term elapsed. Maduro realized that in his last two years, he would become expendable from the viewpoint of chavistas horrified at the way he has squandered former President Hugo Chávez’s legacy. To keep power, he needed a vice president who his opponents — both inside and outside the government — feared more than they feared him.
El Aissami was perfect. Endowed with smarts, political chops and social-media savvy that Maduro could only dream of, El Aissami is every democrat’s worst nightmare: the guy who could stabilize authoritarianism for the long run.
As governor of Aragua state, about an hour west of Caracas, El Aissami showed considerable flair for enriching himself, signing lucrative deals with foreign companies and taking over a professional baseball team. He even made headlines by getting himself signed up as a player for Aragua’s soccer team, Aragua F.C., as an unlikely 40-year-old among athletes two decades his junior. El Aissami is reported to have set up a sprawling array of front companies to funnel the proceeds of various business deals to himself in difficult-to-document ways.
He is believed to have used a frontman, Samark López, to buy off a company that was once Venezuela’s leading newspaper publisher, the Grupo Ultimas Noticias.
But it’s his alleged entanglements with the drug trade that have drawn the most attention. The U.S. government announced sanctions on El Aissami and López, alleging that the two have set up a sprawling system of offshore companies to hide the proceeds from drug trafficking. After a multiyear investigation that uncovered and froze assets held by a slew of El Aissami-associated companies, while detailing his role in narcotics trafficking, the Treasury Department has reached an unambiguous conclusion. Its press statement describes the vice president as a “prominent Venezuelan drug trafficker.”
It’s important to remember that Venezuela, which boasts the world’s largest oil reserves, has considerable strategic significance to its region and beyond. If a man with El Aissami’s extraordinary background had been made second in command of the country at any other time in the last 40 years, Washington would have gone straight into crisis mode.
But El Aissami and Maduro had the good sense to make their move the same month that Donald Trump became president. That bought El Aissami some cover. Little by little, though, the problem that he represents is sure to come into sharper focus.
Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles blog reporting from Caracas and Montreal.