Venezuela halts negotiations after extradition of Maduro ally to US

MIAMI (Reuters) – The Venezuelan government on Saturday announced it would end negotiations with its opponents in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro who prosecutors say could be the the most important witness to corruption in this South American country.

Jorge Rodríguez, who led the government delegation, said his team would not be traveling to Mexico City for the next scheduled round of negotiations.

The announcement capped a tumultuous day in which businessman Alex Saab was placed on a plane bound for the United States in Cape Verde after a 16-month fight between Maduro and his allies, including the Russia, who consider the businessman of Colombian origin to be a Venezuelan diplomat.

Hours after news of Saab’s extradition blew Venezuelan social media, six US oil executives under house arrest were brought back to jail by security forces – a sign that relations between Washington and Caracas could be turned upside down after months of quiet diplomacy since Joe Biden entered the White House. The families of the men known as Citgo 6 – for the Houston branch of the Venezuelan state oil company where they worked – have expressed frustration with both governments.

“It is a shame that Mr Saab was in the United States before my father,” said Cristina Vadell, whose father, Tomeu Vadell, is among Americans serving long sentences for what the US government considers bogus. accusations.

“This is further proof that these Americans are being held hostage in Venezuela, and President Biden’s administration must recognize this and secure their release immediately,” she added.

Saab is expected to appear in court for the first time on Monday in Miami, according to Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman, who expressed gratitude and admiration to the government of Cape Verde for its professionalism and “perseverance. in this complex affair ”.

Saab, 49, was arrested in the African archipelago as he made a stopover on his way to Iran for what Maduro’s government later described as a humanitarian diplomatic mission that grants him immunity from lawsuits.

It quickly became a revolutionary rallying cry, with the Venezuelan government declaring months after his arrest that the low-key businessman had earlier been appointed representative to the African Union – credentials whose authenticity and relevance have been questioned by US prosecutors.

Rodríguez, standing in front of a sign reading “Free Alex Saab”, lambasted what he called “brutal aggression” by a US government that has been trying for years, unsuccessfully, to oust Maduro. He said the Venezuelan government would denounce its illegal “extraction” in multilateral forums and, in protest, would not participate in the next round of negotiations, although he did not say the government would abandon the talks altogether.

“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela deplores this serious violation of the human rights of a Venezuelan citizen, invested as a diplomat and as a representative of our country in the world,” Maduro government said in a statement. “This fact sets a dangerous precedent for international law.”

Opponents of the government, including opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the United States recognizes as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, celebrated the prospect of soon seeing one of Maduro’s top insiders behind bars – a sort of moral victory after a series of heartbreaking defeats in the streets trying to break the socialist leader’s grip on power.

“What we Venezuelans feel today is justice,” said David Smolansky, a mayor of the Caracas region who fled into exile after his arrest was ordered for leading protests against Maduro in 2017. “It is the same justice that has eluded us for 22 years. A justice that had to be found beyond our borders. A justice that should seek out all those guilty of corruption, crimes against humanity, hunger and migratory crisis.

U.S. officials have targeted Saab for years, believing it can unravel the mystery of how Venezuela sells gold and tankers full of crude oil in violation of U.S. sanctions. They also believe he holds many secrets about how Maduro, the president’s family and key aides siphoned off millions of dollars from government contracts for food and shelter amid widespread famine in the country’s wealthy Venezuela. oil.

Miami federal prosecutors indicted Saab in 2019 with money laundering charges related to an alleged corruption program that pocketed more than $ 350 million from a social housing project for the Venezuelan government.

Separately, Saab had been sanctioned by the previous Trump administration for allegedly using a network of shell companies spanning the globe – in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia and Mexico – to hide from huge profits from no-offer, overvalued food contracts obtained through bribes and kickbacks.

Some of Saab’s contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult children of Venezuela’s first lady Cilia Flores, according to the Trump administration. Commonly known in Venezuela as “Los Chamos”, slang for “the children,” the three men are also under investigation by Miami prosecutors for allegedly being part of a scheme to siphon off 1 , $ 2 billion from the Venezuelan state oil company, two people familiar with the US investigation told The Associated Press.

But while in private, US officials have long described Saab as a leader of Maduro, he is not identified as such in court records.

The previous Trump administration had made Saab’s extradition a top priority, at one point even sending a Navy warship to the African archipelago to keep an eye on the captive.

Saturday. Colombian President Iván Duque hailed Saab’s extradition, calling it “a triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption carried out by the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro”.

However, the Biden administration downplayed the importance of Saab’s problems, saying he can defend himself in US courts and that his case should not affect the ongoing Norwegian-sponsored negotiations aimed at overcoming the long economic crisis. and politics of Venezuela.

The families of nine Americans imprisoned in Caracas have less hope that Saab’s legal problems can be disentangled from the stealthy attempts at detente.

In addition to the Citgo 6s – who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms last year for an unfinished plan to refinance billions of oil company bonds – they include former US Navy Matthew Heath, who is in custody. for weapons charges linked to a supposed plan to sabotage the refineries, and two former Caracas Green Berets linked to a failed cross-border raid from Colombia to overthrow Maduro.

“In a very disappointing turn of events, American detainees in Venezuela are now being used as political pawns,” former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who visited Venezuela in an attempt to defeat, said in a statement. ‘to secure the release of the Americans. “We were hoping to do wellness tours with them, but now we’re afraid we won’t have the opportunity.”

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