Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday named former Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami as his vice president.
The appointment comes as part of a cabinet reshuffle in which Maduro also lined up a new economy czar and oil minister.
Despite boasting the world's largest oil reserves, falling oil prices coupled with a massive budget deficit have seen Venezuela plunge into deep recession. The economic crisis has prompted severe shortages in basic amenities, such as food and medicines.
Venezuela also has the world's highest inflation rate, estimated by the International Monetary Fund to have reached 475 percent by the end of 2016.
Maduro's potential successor?
Maduro told his cabinet in a televised address Wednesday that he had appointed El Aissami as "executive vice-president of the republic so that he can take up the role from 2017 to 2018 with his youth, experience, commitment and courage."
The vice presidential post holds extra significance this year. Venezuela's center-right opposition has demanded a popular vote to remove Maduro from office, blaming him for the current economic crisis engulfing the country. Should the opposition be successful, El Aissami would likely assume the presidency until the next election, scheduled to take place in 2019.
Under constitutional rules, the opposition has missed the deadline to spark a fresh election through a referendum. Therefore, any election held after January 10 this year would allow Maduro to pass the presidency on to a hand-picked successor.
El Aissami: 'Courage' in the face of adversity
El Aissami, who is of Syrian and Lebanese ancestry, served as interior and justice minister under former President Hugo Chavez, before being elected governor of the violence-plagued central state of Aragua in 2012. He replaces Aristobulo Isturiz, who had been Maduro's vice president since January 2016.
"I told him, Tareck, get to work day and night working for the security of the people," Maduro said Wednesday. The president also called on his No. 2 to wage a "fight against criminals, the fight to clean up the regional police forces, the fight against far-right terrorists."
Opposition lawmakers have accused El Aissami of participating in drug trades. El Aissami has rejected the claims, calling those who accuse him traitors seeking to harm Venezuela.
dm/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)