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February 21, 2017
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Venezuela’s Maduro names new vice-president in ‘renewal’

Embattled head of state appoints former Interior minister, who faces allegations of narcotics-trafficking in US, to key post

CARACAS — Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro reshuffled his Cabinet on Wednesday as part of a “renewal” process, naming a hard-line former interior minister as the country’s vice-president, a key post amid opposition-led efforts to remove him from power.

The number two job being taken over by Aragua state Governor Tareck El Aissami is an appointed position, and Maduro has swapped it out in the past. But the vice-presidency holds extra significance this year as the opposition has vowed to force Maduro from office. That could lead to his vice-president serving the rest of his term, which ends in 2019.

The 42-year-old El Aissami is a rising star in the socialist party who got his start in the National Assembly and later as Interior minister was in charge of public security. Maduro said that will again be his focus as vice-president.

“The top priorities will be the fight against criminals, the fight to clean up the national and regional police force, and the fight against the terrorists in the extreme right wing,” Maduro said.

Critics of the socialist administration denounced the appointment and said Maduro was putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. The opposition has accused El Aissami of participating in the drug trade and calls him “the narco of Aragua.”

El Aissami, using the regular language of many United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lawmakers, has called those who speak ill of him “traitors” who seek to harm Venezuela.

Trafficking allegations

El Aissami is one of several senior Venezuelan officials currently being investigated by US prosecutors for possible involvement in drug-trafficking, according to two people familiar with the investigations. They agreed to reveal that information only if not quoted by name because they weren’t supposed to discuss the case.

Maduro also appointed a number of ministers in what he called a “renewal” of his Cabinet.

Economist Ramón Lobo, who has been serving as a legislator for the PSUV, will assume two roles as finance minister and economy vice-president — making him the country's top economic authority.

“You shall assume, with a firm hand, the oversight of the economy,” said Maduro during a televised broadcast, describing Lobo as an expert in budget matters.

Nelson Martínez, who has led the US-based refiner Citgo, will take on the role of oil minister. Outgoing minister Eulogio Del Pino will remain on as president of state oil company PDVSA. The oil minister has traditionally served as the representative to OPEC, where Venezuela has for nearly three years been one of the strongest voices for production cuts.

Cabinet shuffles have been relatively common in Venezuela since the 14-year rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013. Officials tend to come from the inner circle of the PSUV.

The president’s approval ratings have sagged below 20 percent as Venezuelans blame him for severe food shortages, the world’s highest inflation rate and pervasive crime that has major cities under informal curfew.

Outgoing Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz had initially been seen as a relative moderate, someone who might be able to build bridges between the opposition and the government. But the past year has seen both sides dig in deeper and pledge to destroy their political opponents.

Nonetheless, the appointment of El Aissami implies that Maduro intends to advance his party into more hardline territory to challenge the opposition, which won control of the National Assembly in recent midterm elections.

— Herald with AP, Reuters

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