Tareck El Aissami: Hugo Chávez’s protege who increased his power under Maduro

The Venezuelan Minister of Petroleum resigned on Monday over a corruption scandal at the state-owned oil company PDVSA after the arrest of senior officials linked to him

Tareck El Aissami
Tareck El Aissami arrives at a signing ceremony for an agreement with Chevron, in Caracas, last December.Matias Delacroix (AP)

Tareck El Aissami Maddah was until now one of the most powerful members of Nicolás Maduro’s government. On Monday, he resigned over a corruption investigation into the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA. El Aissami, who had held the post of Minister of Petroleum since April 2020, stated that he was at the president’s disposal to support him in his “crusade against anti-values.” But the arrest of several high-ranking officials linked to El Aissami suggests a change in the balance of power in the Venezuelan leadership. The former minister was a member of the radical left in the 1990s, when he was a student leader at the University of the Andes (ULA), one of the most traditional educational institutions in the country. There, he befriended one of his lecturers, Adán Chávez, former president Hugo Chávez’s brother and a political activist, through whom El Aissami first dipped his toe in the early currents of Chavism.

He graduated from ULA as a lawyer and expert in criminology, later becoming head of the Federation of University Centers. The second of five siblings, El Aissami is married with two children. Some of his ancestors had close ties to the nationalist, pan-Arabist, secular and revolutionary Ba’ath party, which has held power in Syria since 1964. Shibli al-Ayssami, his great-uncle, was vice-president of Syria in the mid-1960s.

El Aissami, 48, was a relative unknown until 2008, when Chávez named him Minister of the Interior and Justice. In 2005, he won a seat in the National Assembly with the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) representing Mérida, where he was born. To put the trust placed in him by the upper echelons of the Chavista authorities into context, one need only refer back to one of his assignments. It was Chávez himself who entrusted El Aissami with an ambitious strategy to tackle a serious increase in crime and a high homicide rate at the time. In addition, El Aissami held an unusually long presence in the Cabinet: during those four years, his office jailed several Colombian drug lords hiding out in Venezuela, created the Venezuelan National Police force (PNB) and founded its governing institution, the Experimental Security University. El Aissami was also one of the officials involved in the rupture of relations between Venezuela and the DEA, which took place in 2007.

However, El Aissami’s strategy against organized crime resulted in failure. The number of homicides and illegal weapons in circulation increased, in addition to the military weapons falling into the hands of mafias and a spike in kidnappings and prison violence. This surge in criminal activity would become one of the great blemishes on the Chavista administration.

Sibylline, feared, little given to talk and with the reputation of radical, El Aissami was making his way as an emerging revolutionary cadre. Under Chávez’s wing, he was elected governor of the State of Aragua in 2012, a position he held until 2016. During this time, the so-called mega-gangs — armed criminal groups organized into squads of 30 people — ruled over many roads and towns in Venezuela through intimidation and firepower.

When Maduro ascended to power El Aissami was able to increase his sphere of power and influence beyond citizen security matters. A group of businessmen of Arab origin gravitated toward him, positioning themselves on the country’s economic map amid an exodus of millions of Venezuelans. During that time, he adopted a decisive position in favor of an official opening toward the private sector and several emerging businessmen, both Chavist and non-Chavist, flocked to his banner.

As the social and political crisis worsened and the popularity of the Chavist movement began to decline, El Aissami’s name was linked with rumors of corruption. In 2019, the Manhattan Federal Court accused him of involvement in drug trafficking, along with businessman Samarck López. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement added him to the 10 most wanted fugitives list, and the Department of State offered a $10 million reward over allegations of drug-trafficking and narco-terrorism. El Aissami brushed off the accusations, stating that they represented an honor coming from the United States and that his “revolutionary morale” remained intact.

On the international stage, El Aissami has been a natural ambassador and interlocutor for the political ties between Maduro’s regime and Iran and Hezbollah. He was also key to the commercial and political rapprochement with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. These personal and political relationships, vital to obtaining alternative routes for the commercialization of Venezuelan oil in a context of international sanctions, would prove of great use to him in his role at PDVSA. However, on Monday an unprecedented operation led to the arrest of two figures close to El Aissami: Joselit Ramírez, the national superintendent of Crypto Assets, a public agency that manages Venezuela’s increasingly scarce oil industry funds through cryptocurrency operations, and National Assembly Deputy Hugbel Roa.

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