Venezuela halts negotiations after extradition of Maduro ally to US


MIAMI – The Venezuelan government announced on Saturday that it would end negotiations with the country’s opposition in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro wanted for money laundering.

Jorge Rodríguez, who led the government delegation in talks that began in August, said his team would not travel to Mexico City for the next round of talks with his US-backed opponents, although he did not say the government was to abandon talks altogether.

The announcement came hours after businessman Alex Saab was placed on a plane bound for the United States in Cape Verde after failing in a 16-month fight to prevent his extradition to face Miami money laundering charges. Saab was arrested in the African archipelago as it made a stopover on its way to Iran for what Maduro’s government later described as a humanitarian diplomatic mission.

Rodriguez, standing in front of a giant sign reading “Free Alex Saab”, called his arrest an unlawful “assault” by the United States, which has been calling for Maduro’s dismissal for years.

To add to the intrigue, Venezuelan security forces on Saturday arrested six U.S. oil executives who were under house arrest in another politically charged case.

It is unclear whether the men – all of whom were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms last year in a corruption case the United States said was flawed – were returned to prison . A lawyer for the men said he did not know where they were being taken.

The so-called Citgo 6, for the Houston branch of the Venezuelan state oil company, was lured to Caracas in 2017 for a meeting when masked policemen broke into a conference hall and took them into custody for misappropriation of funds linked to a never-executed agreement. to refinance billions in Citgo bonds.

Saab’s arrival in the United States is sure to complicate relations between Washington and Caracas. Maduro’s government has vehemently opposed the lawsuits against Saab as a veiled attempt at regime change by Washington. US prosecutors say Saab amassed a fortune on behalf of the Socialist government, which faces heavy US sanctions.

U.S. officials have targeted Saab for years, believing it holds many secrets about how Maduro, the president’s family and key aides embezzled millions of dollars in government contracts for food and shelter amid widespread famine in oil-rich Venezuela.

However, his supporters, including Maduro’s government as well as his allies Russia and Cuba, regard his arrest as illegal and maintain that Saab was a diplomatic envoy of the Venezuelan government and as such enjoys legal immunity. prosecution when on official mission.

In a statement on Saturday, the Venezuelan government again denounced the “kidnapping” of Saab by the US government “in complicity with the Cape Verde authorities”.

“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela repudiates this serious violation of human rights against a Venezuelan citizen, invested as a diplomat and representative of our country before the world,” the statement said.

The argument failed to convince Cape Verde’s Constitutional Court, which last month allowed his extradition after a year of feuds with Saab’s legal team, which includes former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and BakerHostetler, l one of the largest American companies.

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”, a slang for “the children,” the three men are also under investigation by Miami prosecutors for allegedly being part of a scheme to siphon off. , $ 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, even sending a Navy warship to the African archipelago at one point to keep tabs on the captive.

Saturday. Colombian President Iván Duque hailed Saab’s extradition in a tweet, 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.

Last month, the government appointed Saab to its negotiating team, and other envoys arrived in Mexico carrying signs reading “Free Alex Saab”.

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Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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