CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Embattled socialist President Nicolas Maduro reshuffled his Cabinet on Wednesday and named a hard-line former interior minister as Venezuela's vice president.
The No. 2 job being taken over by Aragua state Gov. Tareck El Aissami is an appointed position, and Maduro has swapped it out in the past. But the vice presidency holds extra significance this year as the opposition has vowed to force Maduro from office. That could lead to his vice president serving the rest of his term, which ends in 2019.
The 42-year-old El Aissami is a rising star in the socialist party who got his start in the National Assembly and later as interior minister was in charge of public security. Maduro said that will again be his focus as vice president.
"The top priorities will be the fight against criminals, the fight to clean up the national and regional police force, and the fight against the terrorists in the extreme right wing," Maduro said.
Critics of the socialist administration denounced the appointment and said Maduro was putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. The opposition has accused El Aissami of participating in the drug trade and calls him "the narco of Aragua." El Aissami has called those who speak ill of him traitors who seek to harm Venezuela.
El Aissami is one of several senior Venezuelan officials being investigated by U.S. prosecutors for possible involvement in drug trafficking, according to two people familiar with the investigations. They agreed to reveal that information only if not quoted by name because they weren't supposed to discuss the case.
Maduro also appointed a number of ministers in what he called a "renewal" of his Cabinet. He named economist Ramon Lobo head of the ministry of economy and finance and Nelson Martinez as oil minister.
The president's approval ratings have sagged below 20 percent as Venezuelans blame him for severe food shortages, the world's highest inflation and pervasive crime that has major cities under informal curfew.
Outgoing Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz had initially been seen as a relative moderate, someone who might be able to build bridges between the opposition and the government. But the past year has seen both sides dig in deeper and pledge to destroy their political opponents.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hannahdreier . Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .