Crisis & Critique: US Back to ‘Maximum Pressure’ with Saab Extradition

VA columnist Ociel López examines some of the implications of Washington’s recent move.

Alex Saab, the recently extradited Colombian-born businessman, faces charges of money laundering in the United States.

For some, it has proved difficult to fight for a businessman as rich as Saab, especially considering that he rarely entered the public limelight. Saab benefited from Venezuelan state contracts and enjoyed privileged conditions to acquire state assets that had been nationalized for the people by Hugo Chávez. These included [supermarket chain] Abastos Bicentenario.

However, Washington’s double standards in the case are stark.

If Saab ends up being prosecuted for money laundering, Chilean or Ecuadorian Presidents Sebastián Piñera and Guillermo Lasso, both implicated in the Pandora Papers, should also be prosecuted. If US spokespeople and press outlets continue to infer supposed connections between Saab and the drug industry, then Colombian President Iván Duque should be extradited first, since he has overt links with the drug trade.

But that won’t happen due to their proximity to Washington.

There is also little debate about why a country can assume the role of global judge and executioner despite multilateral organizations (including the UN) requesting the accused be released.

It seems obvious that the witch-hunt against Saab is because he collaborated with the Caracas government at a time when others were trying to starve the country.

However, scare tactics against those trading with Venezuela are not applied to everyone. Large numbers of small and medium-sized private businessmen and women from Saab’s native country, Colombia, continue to trade with Venezuela without any consequences or accusations from Washington. Many Colombians who trade with Venezuela also live or travel frequently to the US and do their banking on US soil.

Saab’s extradition came just hours before the fourth round of negotiations between the [Venezuelan] government and [US-backed] opposition in Mexico. These negotiations are now paralyzed. The extradition also came a few weeks before the first elections since 2015 in which almost all the opposition parties and even some of their most radical leaders are due to participate.

With this in mind, it is difficult not to think that the extradition has only one purpose: to sabotage the negotiations and to avoid a political and economic normalization in Venezuela at all costs.

And that goal has been achieved.

It is not necessarily correct to claim that the extradition constitutes an attack against President Nicolás Maduro, for whom the United States has already offered a US $15 million reward on allegations of drug trafficking.

How much Saab — accused by the commercial media of being a drug lord — could contribute in this regard is unclear. The Florida court currently trying him only charged him with money laundering, a much lesser crime than that which could be landed against former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, for example.

In any case, Maduro is not directly affected by all this. On the contrary, the extradition is an excellent opportunity for him to paralyze any attempt at political normalization that could have put the president in trouble in the context of a more competitive [presidential] election in the future.

Without negotiation, the creation of a more even electoral playing field will be an uphill battle. A process to revert political barring, balance the National Electoral Council leadership and encourage opposition participation was clearly underway until now, but that is over now.

Why would the United States want to undermine this process?

Why would Washington prefer that Maduro be forced to fight to preserve his life and the life of his associates and family, as well as close the political map and attempt to prevent a more balanced and competitive political playing field?

The reason is hard to comprehend, just as it was with Cuba’s blockade, which torpedoed the political map for more than fifty years.

It was a Florida court that filed for Saab’s extradition. Florida is precisely the place where Cuban and Venezuelan lobbies have enough pull to swing a US election. It is also where the strategy to combat enemy governments in Latin America is plotted, always with disastrous results for those countries. It is a decisive state.

If one reviews the latest statements coming out of these lobbies concerning the negotiations in Venezuela, one can see that, for now, their main enemy is not Maduro but the opposition that opted for the political and electoral path. The lobbies have pounced on these sectors, looking to sabotage any attempt at dialogue and imploding it with the recent extradition.

The group that has been most harmed by Saab’s extradition is the opposition sector that separated itself from the violent path led by Donald Trump. In other words, most damage was done to the sectors that have now accepted the defeat of Guaidó’s insurrection, decided to breathe deeply and accept Maduro’s conditions for talks, trying to establish another way of doing things.

That opposition is now in limbo with an uncertain future. Its only card left is the negotiating table. No matter what the November 21 electoral results are, this opposition will need the negotiations to generate the necessary conditions to challenge Maduro’s government in the next presidential elections.

Saab’s extradition puts Venezuela further away from having an electoral outcome with more participation, unless the government decides motus propio to return to the table and ignore Miami’s sabotage. It would be the intelligent though not necessarily the desirable option for the ruling party, which is being targeted by brutal international persecution.

Venezuela is also further from seeing the political enablement of those barred from running for office, or the release of [so-called] political prisoners. In contrast, Maduro and his entourage are more in need of hanging onto power.

Another issue is what the military will think about the arrest and imminent extradition from Spain to the US of [former intelligence boss] Hugo Carvajal, the military man who abandoned the Maduro government when Guaidó offered him full guarantees and amnesty.

These moves are made to weaken Maduro and encourage the reactionary rightwing media to persecute Chavismo. For the Cuban and Venezuelan lobbies in Miami, it is unthinkable not to persecute their enemies. This strategy would be weakened if Venezuela’s political crisis were resolved. Paradoxically, in so doing, they end up entrenching the government in power.

It sounds very basic, but no other explanation can be found: persecuted globally, Maduro and his team have no choice but to stay in power.

The beginning of the negotiations in Mexico made us think that the Biden administration was going to place its bets on another strategy, but the events in Afghanistan may have persuaded him that it is necessary to keep up a tough rhetoric. Similarly, they may have taught him that negotiations, as Trump’s security adviser John Bolton said (according to Elliott Abrams), are a “sign of weakness.”

With Saab and Carvajal’s extradition, Washington (and especially Miami) will feel empowered. This empowerment is real and concrete regardless of whether it prevents a political solution to the Venezuelan crisis and ends up perpetuating the Maduro government.

Ociel Alí López is a Venezuelan researcher who has published numerous written and multimedia works. He analyzes Venezuelan society for several European and Latin American media outlets. He is also co-founder of the alternative state television station Avila TV and recipient of the CLACSO/ASDI research prize and the Luis Britto García literature award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.