Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Thursday that drug trafficking charges by the United States against President Nicolas Maduro announced earlier in the day showed the “desperation” of the “Washington elite”.
Arreaza said the decision by the administration of US President Donald Trump to offer rewards for the capture of Maduro and other high-ranking officials accused of drug trafficking show the administration’s “obsession” with Venezuela, which he said was due to its desire to reap “electoral returns” in the US state of Florida.
Trump was “once more attacking the Venezuelan people and its democratic institutions, using a new form of coup d’etat based on miserable, vulgar and unfounded accusations,” Arreaza added.
In an extremely rare criminal case against a foreign head of state, the US Department of Justice indicted Maduro and several of his top ministers after accusing him of leading a cocaine-trafficking group called “The Cartel of the Suns”.
The US Department of State offered a reward of up to $15m for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Maduro, whose country has been convulsed by years of a deep economic crisis and political upheaval.
The indictment marks a serious new phase against Maduro by Washington at a time when some US officials have privately said Trump is increasingly frustrated with the results of his Venezuela policy.
US Attorney General William Barr, announcing charges that include narco-terrorism conspiracy, corruption, and drug trafficking, accused Maduro and his associates of colluding with a dissident faction of the demobilised Colombian armed group, the FARC, “to flood the United States with cocaine”.
“While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption,” Barr said of Maduro and the others who were indicted.
Maduro is already under US sanctions and has been the target of a US effort aimed at pushing him from power. He took office in 2013 after the death of his mentor President Hugo Chavez, a staunch foe of the US.
Other Venezuelan officials whose indictments were announced on Thursday include Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, senior socialist leader Diosdado Cabello, and the chief justice of the country’s supreme court, Maikel Jose Moreno Perez, who was charged with money laundering. The US government is offering $10m for information leading to Cabello’s arrest.
The US and dozens of other countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, regarding Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham. But Maduro has remained in power, backed by the country’s military and by Russia, China and Cuba.
US officials have long accused Maduro and his associates or running a “narco-state,” saying they have used proceeds from drugs shipped from neighbouring Colombia to make up for lost revenue from a Venezuelan oil sector hit by heavy sanctions by the US.