Caracas, Venezuela, Feb 15 – Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday demanded the United States apologize for slapping sanctions on his vice president over alleged drug trafficking.
Maduro said he had told the foreign ministry to send an official protest note to Washington demanding it “retract and apologize publicly to our vice president,” Tareck El Aissami, for the sanctions against him.
“This is without doubt an attack that Venezuela will respond to step by step in a balanced and forceful way,” the embattled socialist president said.
El Aissami himself earlier slammed the US Treasury Department’s sanctions as a “miserable and vile attack.”
El Aissami, 42, is next in line to Maduro and would take over if the opposition succeeded in its bid to oust the president in a vote.
The US accusations against El Aissami triggered the latest row between Venezuela’s leftist government and Washington, the “imperialist” power it loves to hate.
Maduro himself had so far been cautious in his approach to US President Donald Trump, who has not yet detailed his stance on the situation in Venezuela.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday’s move against El Aissami was part of a broad crackdown on drug trafficking and “terrorism.”
“This action demonstrates the president’s seriousness about fighting the scourge of drugs in the United States,” Mnuchin told reporters.
– Cocaine shipments –
The US Treasury Department on Monday accused El Aissami and an ally, businessman Samark Jose Lopez Bello, of being major drug traffickers and froze their US assets.
It said El Aissami protected and oversaw large shipments of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States while serving as interior minister and governor of Aragua state.
El Aissami was allegedly in the pay of Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia to protect shipments, and coordinated them with Mexico’s violent Los Zetas cartel, the Treasury said.
– ‘Face of repression’ –
The US Treasury said the sanctions were part of a multi-year investigation and unrelated to El Aissami’s recent promotion to vice president.
He formerly served as a minister under Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chavez, the father of Venezuela’s “socialist revolution.”
In a January 31 decree, Maduro granted El Aissami new powers to seize property and approve ministers’ budgets.
Maduro also named him head of a security task force which promptly arrested several prominent political opponents, accusing them of plotting an uprising.
Opposition deputy Luis Florido called El Aissami “the face of repression.”
Retired military commander Cliver Alcala, a leading former ally of Chavez but a critic of Maduro, accused the vice president of “abuse and persecution of those who think differently.”
– Private jet, luxury condos –
The United States did not say whether it is seeking the arrest and extradition of either El Aissami or Lopez Bello.
The sanctions freeze their assets on US territory, and also ban US citizens and entities from doing business with either man or the 13 companies.
Officials said they had frozen assets worth tens of millions of dollars, including a private jet and what appeared to be several luxury condos in Miami controlled by Lopez Bello.
– Drug scandals –
It is the latest US drugs case targeting prominent figures tied to the Venezuelan government.
In November, a federal court in New York convicted two of Maduro’s wife’s nephews of drug trafficking.
And the current interior minister, army general Nestor Reverol, was indicted in the US in August for cocaine trafficking.
Venezuela is lurching through an economic nightmare of food shortages and hyperinflation brought on by low prices for its key export, oil.
Maduro blames the crisis on what he calls a capitalist conspiracy backed by Washington. Opponents blame the country’s oil-dependent socialist economic model.