The Donald Trump administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s Vice President on Monday evening, accusing him of “playing a major role” in international drug trafficking.
Tareck El Aissami has been under investigation for several years for allegedly helping drug traffickers move tons of U.S.-bound cocaine through Venezuela. Investigators have also accused him of selling Venezuelan passports to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Monday's sanctions were imposed by the U.S. Treasury, which has added El Aissami and one of his associates to a list of global drug traffickers that U.S. citizens are prohibited from doing business with.
The sanctions will bar El Aissami and his alleged frontman, Samark Lopez Bello, from traveling to the U.S. Their properties in the U.S. will also be seized. According to the Treasury Department, that includes an airplane and three apartments in Miami’s exclusive Brickell neighborhood, all registered under Bello’s name.
El Aissami has consistently denied any wrongdoing and fired out a series of tweets on Tuesday morning where he accused the U.S. of using sanctions to threaten governments that do not fall in line with its “imperialist” interests.
“Personally I receive this miserable aggression as a recognition of my status as an anti-imperialist revolutionary,” El Aissami wrote on Twitter. “We will overcome!”
In Washington on the other hand, several congressmen celebrated the sanctions on Twitter.
Menendez and Ros-Lehtinen recently led a group of representatives in writing a letter to Trump asking for a fresh round of sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in corruption schemes and human rights violations. The South American country’s economy is quickly unravelling amidst food shortages and the world’s highest inflation rate, while its government has become increasingly authoritarian, canceling elections for local governors last year, as well as a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro’s rule.
But not everyone thinks the sanctions are the best way to nudge Venezuela’s socialist regime toward democracy. David Smilde, a Venezuelan analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that while the sanctions against El Aissami might help to curb illicit activities, they might also help Venezuela’s president by accidentally supplying him with a “loyal core” of officials who will do whatever it takes to stay in power.
“Anyone who has a sanction just thinks to themselves, ‘If this government ends, they’re going to turn me over,’” Smilde said. “They will basically be more loyal and committed.”
Smilde said Maduro has become “very adept” at surrounding himself with officials who are actually in trouble with the U.S. A former director of Venezuela’s National Guard who was indicted in the U.S. for drug trafficking in August was promoted to Maduro’s cabinet just two days after his indictment was unsealed. An intelligence director was promoted to Minister of the Interior in 2015 after the Obama administration placed him on a list of Venezuelan officials sanctioned over human rights abuses.
El Aissami was just recently promoted to Vice President in January after serving as Governor of Aragua for five years.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.