Venezuela's Maduro calls nephews' drug conviction 'U.S. imperialism'

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday that the United States convicted his wife’s nephews on drug charges last week to weaken his leftist government.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady were found guilty earlier this month in a jury trial on charges that they tried to carry out a multimillion-dollar drug deal to obtain a large amount of cash to help their family stay in power.

In his first comments since the conviction, Maduro blasted what he said was a clear sign of “U.S. imperialism.”

“You think it’s just by chance that the imperialists created a case that had as its only objective to attack the First Lady, the First Combatant, the wife of the president?” Maduro said in an hours-long speech during a “Women’s March” in Caracas, accusing Washington of seeking to weaken his administration.

The case has been an embarrassment for the leftist leader amid an economic crisis in the oil-rich nation that has left millions going hungry because they cannot find or afford food. The high-profile case was one of several in which U.S. prosecutors have linked individuals tied to the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking.

Venezuela’s opposition has seized the case as evidence that top echelons of the government are involved in narcotics, and has demanded a full explanation and investigation.

But compliant state media have barely touched on the case amid a wider official silence.

Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 31, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 30, nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife and a big player in the country’s politics, were convicted by a federal jury in Manhattan of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

The pair were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 and flown to the United States following a sting operation orchestrated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Prosecutors said the two men plotted to use a Venezuelan airport’s presidential hangar to send 800 kgs of cocaine to Honduras for shipment into the United States.

The United States and Venezuela have had a difficult relationship since the late Hugo Chavez was elected to power in 1998, reaching a nadir when Chavez called George W. Bush the “devil” in 2006.

Maduro routinely blames the United States for waging an “economic war” against Venezuela.

The U.S. government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During Friday’s speech, Maduro also praised President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, blaming the United States for fighting there, before an 8-year-old girl sang a tweaked version of “Jingle Bells” that lauded Chavez.

Reporting by Girish Gupta; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Leslie Adler