The blacklisting of Venezuela’s vice-president

The EconomistTHE statement by the United States Treasury Department was blunt. It alleges that Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s vice-president, is a “prominent” drug trafficker, who amassed great wealth through his connections to gangs across Latin America, including Mexico’s vicious Zetas. Among the now-frozen American assets linked to him are three lavish apartments in the Four Seasons complex in Miami and a Gulfstream jet. If the allegations are true, Mr El Aissami’s carefully cultivated image as a true believer in the socialist ideology of Venezuela’s government is just a cover.

As normally happens when any outsider accuses anyone in the Venezuelan regime of wrongdoing, the country’s leaders have closed ranks. The foreign ministry accused the United States government of committing “an international crime”. Mr El Aissami himself denounces the allegations as untrue, “miserable and vile”.

But rumours of malfeasance have swirled around the dapper politician since he came to prominence under President Hugo Chávez in the early 2000s. He was interior minister, and then governor of the coastal Aragua state. Defectors accuse him of running his own intelligence agency to intimidate his enemies. They say proceeds from drug trafficking have smoothed his advance, which culminated in his appointment, at the age of 42, to the vice-presidency in January. Venezuela’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, gave him sweeping decree powers to oversee ministries’ spending and expropriate private firms.

Mr El Aissami is not the first Venezuelan official to be branded a drug trafficker. In August 2016 an American court indicted Néstor Reverol, a former head of the anti-narcotics agency, for taking money from drug gangs. The day after the indictment was made public, Mr Maduro made him interior minister. The army, which pledges support to Mr El Aissami, has been accused by human-rights groups of large-scale corruption.

American officials say that the sanctions against Mr El Aissami are the result of a “years-long investigation” and do not necessarily indicate a change of policy towards Venezuela under the new administration. Donald Trump called for the release of a prominent political prisoner on February 15th. The blacklisting of Mr El Aissami is unlikely to moderate the regime’s ferocious crackdown on the opposition. But it hardly reflects well on the regime.

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During the last several decades, the United States has invested billions of dollars in trying to help the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean deliver better lives for their citizens. This has meant helping them increase internal security by combating the illicit growing and trafficking in narcotics and the activities of terrorist groups, as well as helping them to shore up their democratic and free market institutions.

Unfortunately, in recent years, continued progress in these areas has been threatened, not least by the elections of radical populist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. These governments have instituted retrograde agendas that include the propagation of class warfare, state domination of the economy, assaults on private property, anti-Americanism, support for such international pariahs as Iran, and lackluster support for regional counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics initiatives.

We are a group of concerned policy experts that fear the results of these destructive agendas for individual freedom, prosperity, and the well-being of the peoples of the region. Our goal is to inform American policymakers and American and international public opinion of the dangers of these radical populist regimes to inter-American security.