Turmoil and Terror in a South American Country

Venezuela is a mess.

The South American country’s currency is deeply devalued and its citizenry, suffering unprecedented poverty and shortages of basic goods, is caught in a political showdown between a dictatorial president, Nicolás Maduro, and a claimant to his office, Juan Guaidó, who enjoys wide support among the populace.

Mr. Guaidó, who leads the country’s National Assembly, has been recognized as acting President of Venezuela by 54 governments, including those of the U.S. and Israel.

But Cuba, China, Russia, Turkey and Iran have continued to recognize Maduro as president.

Mr. Maduro was hand-picked in 2013 by his predecessor, the rabidly anti-American Hugo Chavez, and narrowly won the country’s presidential election that year. The election was contested as fraudulent, but Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled in Maduro’s favor.

In the face of intensifying inflation and poverty, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have protested over high levels of criminal violence, corruption and chronic scarcity of basic goods due to government policies.

In 2017, opposition leaders branded Maduro a dictator and he proved himself worthy of that title by stripping the National Assembly of its powers.

Last week came word about the extent of the criminality of one of Mr. Maduro’s closest confidants, the country’s industry minister, Tareck El Aissami. He was indicted in March in a Manhattan federal court and sanctioned two years ago by the Treasury Department, accused of working with drug lords.

Now we learn that he has not only been heavily involved in criminal activities but has been doing so on behalf of Hezbollah terrorists.

According to a secret dossier compiled by Venezuelan agents and recently revealed by the New York Times, Mr. El Aissami and his family went into business with a drug lord, shielded 140 tons of chemicals believed to be used for drug production and helped sneak Hezbollah terrorists into the country. As his fellow Venezuelan citizens suffered shortages of basic goods, El Aissami, an immoral man, made himself a very wealthy one.

According to multiple informants, El Aissami and his father, Carlos Zaidan El Aissami, a Syrian immigrant who had worked with Hezbollah on return visits to his native country, recruited Hezbollah terrorists to help expand spying and drug trafficking networks in the region.

The Venezuelan intelligence agents contend that the elder El Aissami planned to train the terrorists in Venezuela to help expand intelligence networks throughout Latin America and at the same time engage in drug trafficking.

The younger El Aissami helped the plan along, it was revealed, by using his authority over residency permits to issue official documents to the Hezbollah terrorists, enabling them to stay in the country.

Over past weeks, the Venezuelan opposition worked on a comprehensive blueprint to finally force Maduro from office. Several of his top military and civilian aides were said to have been persuaded to switch sides, while others would be allowed to leave the country. There was a strong suggestion that Maduro himself might peacefully fly to Havana.

But last Monday, despite Mr. Guaidó’s call on the citizenry to rise up against Maduro, a call responded to by thousands and that resulted in numerous clashes between the uprisers and the military, the government remained intact. The Trump administration publicly blamed Russia and Cuba for convincing Maduro to hold his ground.

It isn’t clear what role, if any, the U.S. military might play in Washington’s future efforts to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that a peaceful resolution was still desired but that “military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.”

White House national security adviser John Bolton echoed that sentiment. “All options are open,” he said, adding that “We want a peaceful transfer of power. But we are not going to see Guaidó mistreated by this regime.”

President Trump has shown little willingness to militarily plunge into Venezuela, according to current and former aides, and non-military pressure would seem to be the prudent path for the moment.

Venezuela’s Jewish community has been depleted by the crisis. From 25,000 members in the 1990s, it’s down to about 6,000 now, due to emigration to the U.S., Israel and other countries.

Much of the community arrived during the post-Holocaust years, and from North Africa after the 1967 Six-Day War. Venezuela’s remaining Jews have tried, understandably, to not take sides in the civil conflict.

The Venezuelan public is not known to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. But Maduro and his predecessor Chavez have vilified Israel for years. That, and the fact that a criminal like El Aissami has courted Hezbollah — not to mention that Maduro is being propped up by players like Cuba, Turkey and Iran — does not bode well for Jewish Venezuelans should Maduro remain in power.

May Hashem protect them throughout the ongoing conflict, and, after it is resolved, beyond.