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U.S. Treasury Imposes Sanctions On Venezuelan Vice President

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we are following an extraordinary political crisis this morning in Venezuela. There have been anti-government protests there over food shortages and also triple-digit inflation. Now, in response to that, the president jailed political opponents, canceled elections and cracked down on the press. And now this, the U.S. government has blacklisted that country's vice president saying he is a major drug trafficker. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The U.S. Treasury Department has placed Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela's vice president, on a specially designated sanctions list for his alleged involvement in cocaine trafficking. Treasury officials say El Aissami controlled drug planes flying out of a Venezuelan air base. They say he managed and partnered in enormous drug shipments bound for Mexico and the United States. They also claim that El Aissami worked closely with the ultra-violent Zetas cartel of Mexico and with other foreign drug smuggling gangs.

The sanctions mean that any assets El Aissami may have in the U.S. will be frozen. There was no immediate comment from El Aissami, who was named vice president last month and may run for president next year. But some analysts warn the sanctions could backfire.

DAVID SMILDE: These kind of, you know, processes have unintended consequences that are very troubling for the future of Venezuelan democracy.

OTIS: David Smilde is a Venezuelan expert at Tulane University. He points out that President Maduro is currently holding talks with the political opposition aimed at restoring democratic norms that have withered away ever since the late Hugo Chavez ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1998. They're also discussing ways to guarantee free and fair presidential elections next year. But now that El Aissami has been blacklisted as a drug trafficker, Smilde says he may go all out to prevent the opposition from taking power.

SMILDE: It take someone like El Aissami and increases his exit cost. He's basically thinking, if there's any kind of transitioning power, you know, I'm going to be extradited to the United States.

OTIS: And that, Smilde says, could get in the way of a democratic transition. For President Maduro, surrounding himself with die-hard loyalists who have nothing to lose appears to be something of a habit. Take the case of Nestor Reverol, Venezuela's former anti-drug czar. Last year, he was indicted by a U.S. district court for cocaine trafficking. The very next day, Maduro appointed him interior minister. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.