Mérida, October 18, 2021 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan government suspended negotiations with the US-backed Juan Guaidó opposition on Saturday following Alex Saab’s extradition to the United States.
Government envoy Saab was detained in July 2020 on a stop-off in Cape Verde reportedly en route to the Middle East to close food import deals for the Latin American government. Caracas recently appointed the businessman as a delegate at the Mexico-based talks, which were due to enter their fourth round the day after his extradition. US authorities had previously endorsed the dialogue.
Previous negotiations between the Caracas government and hardline opposition in August and September led to the release of a number of opposition politicians who have since signed up to run in November’s regional and local elections, a US $5.1 billion IMF funding injection and a joint agreement to defend Venezuela’s Essequibo Strip. The latest session was reportedly due to address social development issues. Advances on sanctions relief and other major government objectives have not been reported by spokespersons so far.
Following Saab’s extradition, chief government negotiator Jorge Rodríguez announced the “suspension” of his team’s participation in the talks in protest against the “illegal and inhumane” move. It is unclear if the government plans on returning to the table in the future.
On Monday, the Colombian-born import contractor had his request for bail rejected by Southern District of Florida Judge John O’Sullivan during a 15-minute preliminary hearing via Zoom. The arraignment session was fixed for November 1. Over three hundred people reportedly watched Monday’s hearing, including Guaidó’s US representative Carlos Vecchio and allied Deputy Carlos Paparoni. Saab’s US lawyer, Henry Bell, is yet to comment on the case.
In Florida, the sanctioned Saab faces seven charges of laundering a total of US $350 million and one of conspiracy to launder, all levied against him by the US Treasury in 2019. If convicted, he may face up to twenty years in prison.
The magnate is the alleged owner of a number of companies which Washington accuses of fraudulently benefiting from over-priced government contracts and exchange rate disparities, including through the government-run CLAP subsidized food program as well as in the construction, oil, gold and carbon industries. He is also wanted by Colombian authorities, which seized seven of his properties in 2021 including one worth US $7.6 million.
Saab is considered to be one of the architects of the network of logistical and payment channels which the Caracas government has increasingly resorted to in order to dodge Washington’s blockade that has been described as “illegal” and “devastating” by UN experts.
His Cape Verde legal team has been vociferous in denouncing a number of irregularities in his case, including violations of due process during his arrest, imprisonment, and extradition. The attorneys likewise claim that he has been the victim of torture and other human rights abuses, and that the charges are “politically motivated.”
On Saturday, Caracas published a statement denouncing Saab’s “kidnapping,” while on Sunday the president also told the country that “yesterday was a sad day for justice (…) when the blockade kicked in, he [Saab] brought food and oil.”
For his part, US-backed Guaidó blasted the government’s “irresponsible” decision to suspend the Mexico negotiations, while Colombian President and US ally Iván Duque applauded the extradition. In contrast, Moscow and Tehran spoke out against the move.
Saab’s extradition and trial have sparked fierce debates in Venezuelan social media dividing opinions, with many criticizing either the tightening of the US blockade or questioning the government’s backing of the businessman.
Some Twitter users additionally linked the extradition to Cape Verde’s presidential election on Sunday, in which the US-backed candidate Carlos Veiga lost to his leftist competitor José Maria Neves. #AlexSaab was still trending on Twitter on Monday.
Caracas hits back
Hours after Saab’s extradition, the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) picked up five US citizens and one permanent US resident in Caracas.
The six former directors of US-based oil subsidiary CITGO ̶ often referred to as the “CITGO 6” ̶ were found guilty of embezzling US $4 billion in 2017 but had been granted house arrest in May this year.
While no official announcement has been made, family members and lawyers told reporters that authorities have returned José Ángel Pereira, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, José Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio José Zambrano to prison as a direct reprisal for Saab’s extradition.
Following the move, Washington issued a statement in which it claimed that “These six Americans and their families have suffered long enough. The United States continues to call for their immediate release and return.” The ex-oil directors deny all charges.
[This report was amended on October 21.]