Perhaps “state of doubt” could be the term that most accurately describes the current situation in Venezuela, this Latin American country that used to be one of the richest in the world due to is massive oil reserves. Now, the country is suffering from a major economic and political crisis, whose outcome is difficult to predict.
Up until 1999, Venezuela had been ruled by the right and centrist wings, but that year, the system was toppled by late leader Hugo Chavez, who brought about a new “21st century socialism.” The system was kept in place by his successor Nicolas Maduro, who is now facing one of the worst economic and social crises in the modern history of South America.
Many have turned to the Venezuelan president’s second in command, Tareck El Aissami.
Many see the Syrian native as Maduro’s potential successor, describing him as the strong “man in the shadows”, who has found himself in the spotlight.
Socialist Maduro is facing daily opposition protests by the citizens against his government. The leader has however sought to escape his current problems with the formation earlier this week of the Constituent Assembly that has the power to rewrite the constitution. Clearly, Maduro is seeking to weaken the opposition-controlled parliament through the formation of this assembly. The parliament is controlled by the liberal right opposition that is backed by some neighboring countries, and more importantly, the United States and European Union.
The outlook for Venezuela seems complicated as the economic crisis has led to a major shortage in food and medicine and amid a political crisis that observers believe will take a long time to be resolved. At a time when the leftist government is keen to tighten its grip on power, it seems that negotiations between it and the opposition will not be possible at this moment given the rising death toll in the protests that have raged for months. The opposition itself seems divided over a number of issues, but they are united over their desire to overthrow Maduro.
Options for change
Despite all this, many observers believe that the options for change in Venezuela lie either through a real negotiation process that would lead to a middle ground that appeases the government or opposition. This could take the form of the establishment of a transitional government or an overhaul of the cabinet and system of governance.
The armed forces, however, are a central component of any possible change in the country, noted experts. Chavez, who led the 1999 socialist revolt, was an army officer. Today, many active and retired officers hold government positions.
Vice President and Interior Minister Aissami is one of the non-military “graduates of the Chavez school”, who can replace Maduro.
As commander of the defense and security council of Venezuela, Aissami is responsible for national defense and the strategy of maintaining internal security in the face of protests and disturbances. He is in fact the second man in the pyramid of power in the South American country.
Despite this, analysts and researchers in the US and Colombia, Venezuela’s “right-wing” neighbor, have not ceased their campaign of accusing him of all sorts of charges, ranging from money-laundering to corruption to supporting terrorism. These are all claims that Aissami has denied and which he considers to be an integral part of the political war that Washington is waging against the leftist system in Caracas.
Tareck Zeidan El Aissami was born on November 12, 1974 in El Vigía, Mérida in western Venezuela. He is the son of a Druze immigrant family that came from Syria’s Sweida region. He was born to Zeidan “Carlos” Amin El Aissami and a mother from the Lebanese Maddah family. He grew up among five children, is now married and has two children of his own.
During his youth, Aissami became a member of the local Arab Baath socialist party in Venezuela. He was a supporter of Chavez during his failed coup in February 1992.
He is also a direct blood relative of Shibli Aissami, general aide of the popular command of the Iraqi branch of the Baath Party.
The Aissami family originally hails from the town of Amtan in the southern Syrian district of Sweida and the town of Hasbaya in southeast Lebanon. Aissam is the name of a small village that lies on the eastern foothills of Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon) in western Syria.
His mother’s Maddah family hails from the town of Maymas in Hasbaya in southeast Lebanon.
Radical student activity
Tareck El Aissami attended the University of the Andes (ULA) in Mérida where he studied law and criminology. While still a student, he met Adan Chavez, former minister of education (from 2007-2008) and the older brother of the future President Hugo Chavez. Influenced by the older Chavez, he soon became close to him and became active in leftist student groups that are inspired by revolutionary movements. Aissami soon joined the Utopia leftist student movement and eventually was elected head of the university’s student union.
A few days after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tareck and his father Zeidan attended a press conference by the Iraqi ambassador to Venezuela to voice their solidarity with the Iraqi people. That year marked the beginning of Tareck El Aissami’s relationship with Hugo Chavez. During his post graduate studies, Aissami, began supporting Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement. He continued to bolster his ties with Chavez following his graduation and many of the friends he made during his university years went on to assume government positions under the late leader’s rule.
Aissami kicked off his rapid political rise after the success of Chavez’s 1999 and 2013 “revolt”. He was elected to parliament in 2005 and in 2007 was appointed deputy interior minister for citizen security.
His major political leap however took place in 2008 when Chavez appointed him interior and defense minister. He retained these two portfolios even after being elected governor of the state of Aragua in 2012.
After Chavez’s death and Maduro’s ascension to power in 2013, Aissami remained a key figure in political life and he was chosen as vice president in January 2017.
A Colombian academic pointed out that the constitution does not grant the president of Venezuela power over security agencies. Aissami is in fact the real head of national security and defense through his command of the defense and security council.
Accusations and denial
Along with his rise in the political ranks, western intelligence, political and economic circles were attempting to charge Aissami with all sorts of accusations. Director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and security and terrorism expert Joseph Humire accused Aissami and First Lady Cilia Flores of running a major criminal organization in the Venezuelan government.
Aissami’s appointment as vice president was considered “very controversial” on the local and international scenes due to his alleged connections to drug trafficking and terrorism, said Humire. Aissami’s role in drug trafficking came to the forefront in 2010 after the arrest of Walid Maklad, a major drug trafficker. The Venezuelan of Syrian origins was arrested in Colombia.
Maklad alleged at the time that the Venezuelan government also had ties with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), organized crime and drugs smuggling operations.