- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Venezuela’s vice president defiantly rejected U.S. sanctions identifying him as a major international “drug kingpin” Tuesday, as the White House revealed details about its first major action against the leftist South American government that President Trump vowed to get tough on during his election campaign.

Recently appointed Vice President Tareck El Aissami responded Tuesday with a defiant spray of social media postings, saying the sanctions against him would only deepen his commitment to the anti-imperialist revolution started more than a decade ago in Venezuela by socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

“They’ll never be able to defeat our unbreakable resolution to be free forever,” he wrote, asserting that the Trump administration’s action represented “miserable and defamatory aggression.”

It will not distract him, he said, from his job of rescuing Venezuela’s economy, which he said was crashing because of sabotage by the nation’s conservative enemies.

Relations between the U.S. and the embattled Venezuelan government of socialist President Nicolas Maduro have been poor for years, but the decision to target the vice president may have sent bilateral ties to a new low.

Newly confirmed Trump administration Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin told a White House briefing Tuesday that the slate of sanctions targeting Mr. El Aissami and his “frontman” Samark Lopez Bello will result in the freezing of “tens of millions of dollars” in assets. He said the threat of sanctions against Mr. El Aissami began under President Obama and were carried forward under Mr. Trump.

The Trump administration’s goal, Mr. Mnuchin said, is to send a clear “message” to Venezuela — whose economy continues to depend heavily on oil imports to the United States — that “we will not stand for illicit activities, whether they’re drug trafficking or terrorism.”

His comments came a day after the administration announced that it was using the “Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act” against Mr. El Aissami in response to his alleged role facilitating multiple massive shipments of cocaine shipments from Venezuela.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has separately accused Mr. Bello — believed to be a close associate of the Venezuelan vice president — of laundering illicit drug profits through a network of 13 companies and luxury real estate properties he owns in the U.S., Panama, British Virgin Islands and Venezuela.

A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity Monday night, said five of the companies are based inside the U.S. and there were “significant real estate holdings in the Miami, Florida, area” as well.

More aggressive approach

But it was the inclusion of Mr. El Aissami — the highest-ranking Venezuelan official ever to be sanctioned by the U.S. — that has prompted speculation over whether an even more aggressive U.S. approach to Venezuela is in the works.

Mr. El Aissami, 42, has been the target of U.S. law enforcement investigations for years, stemming from his days as interior minister when dozens of fraudulent Venezuelan passports ended up in the hands of people from the Middle East, including suspected members of the Iran-backed, Lebanon-based organization Hezbollah.

But it was only last month, after Mr. Maduro tapped Mr. El Aissami as vice president, that American officials decided to proceed with the “kingpin” designation.

The sanctions against Mr. El Aissami make no mention of Hezbollah, and, in his remarks Tuesday, Mr. Mnuchin said only that the Trump administration’s action was the result of “a very long effort” by U.S. investigators.

Mr. Obama leveled sanctions against seven Venezuelan government officials in 2015, citing concerns over human rights abuses and a crackdown on opposition leaders by the Maduro government. But the Obama administration was careful not to call for the unpopular Mr. Maduro’s removal, as the opposition has been seeking, choosing instead to support a Vatican-sponsored dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition leaders aimed at avoiding bloodshed in Caracas.

Mr. Maduro’s term ends in 2019, and he seems to have survived — barely — a campaign by the opposition-dominated national legislature to force him to leave early.

Michael Shifter who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said Mr. Trump is embracing “a much more ramped-up and publicly noisy way of dealing with the Maduro regime than we saw under Obama.”

“I’m not sure it’s going to be effective,” Mr. Shifter said in an interview Tuesday. “It could harden the Maduro government in a way that they could double down and become more oppressive or more authoritarian than they have been.”

“There is a high degree of criminality in the Venezuelan government, and they certainly don’t want to risk losing power,” he said. “The likely effect here will be that they also take a more combative stance toward the United States.”

Chris Sabatini, the editor of Latin America Goes Global, a website that tracks U.S. policy toward the region, said that “patience has worn out” among officials and lawmakers focused on Venezuela in Washington.

“There’s a mounting sense of frustration, even in the State Department and on the Hill,” Mr. Sabatini told The Associated Press.

New tactics

The Trump White House has so far remained mum over what further actions it may have in mind for Venezuela. However, Mr. Sabatini noted that this week’s sanctions signaled what appeared to be a shift in tactics by the administration.

Unlike previous sanctions, issued under legislation that had allowed Mr. Obama to go after Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses, the latest asset seizure was carried out by the Treasury Department under the 1999 drug kingpin legislation that in theory is driven by law enforcement investigations.

The Trump administration’s use of the legislation suggests that the White House may seek to shift Washington’s focus away from human rights in Venezuela and toward more crime-centered investigations aimed at weakening the Maduro government.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill long critical of Mr. Maduro’s government are calling on the administration to proceed on that front.

“This is just the tip of the corruption iceberg in Venezuela,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Miami, said of the sanctions against Mr. El Aissami.

Ms. Ros-Lehtinen cited a recent Associated Press investigation detailing how top Venezuelan government officials pocketed bribes from fraudulent food imports — a report referenced in a bipartisan letter to Mr. Trump last week urging sanctions — in calling for additional measures.

“While these announced sanctions were a critical first step, it pales in comparison to the dire humanitarian situation that Maduro and his cronies have created for the people of Venezuela,” said Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who discussed Venezuela on Monday in a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence.

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