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A close ally of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has been extradited to the United States on money laundering charges, throwing negotiations aiming to ease the country’s political crisis into disarray.
Prosecutors believe that Colombian businessman Alex Saab, who was arrested in June 2020 when his plane stopped in Cape Verde to refuel, could be the most significant witness ever about corruption in the South American nation. His laywers said the charges are “politically motivated”.
The 49-year-old Venezuelan envoy is due to make his initial appearance at court in Miami on Monday, a US Justice Department spokesperson said, in a move welcomed by the country’s Washington-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, who also claims to be president.
But the Venezuelan government reacted furiously to his extradition from the mid-Atlantic archipelago, which it labelled a “kidnapping”, appearing to upend months of quiet diplomacy with US president Joe Biden’s new administration.
In retaliation, Mr Maduro’s government said it would not travel to Mexico City on Sunday for the latest round of internationally-mediated negotiations with Mr Guaido’s opposition, in a move that could delay any further easing of US sanctions, which have exacerbated Venezuela’s dire economic collapse.
Venezuelan security forces also rounded up six American oil executives previously held under house arrest and took them into prison.
Known as the Citgo 6, the former executives at the Houston subsidiary of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA were arrested in Caracas in 2017 and are serving long sentences on what Washington believes are trumped-up charges.
Families of the men expressed frustration with both governments. “The fact that Mr Saab is in the US before my father is a disgrace,” said Cristina Vadell, who told The New York Times that her 62-year-old father, Tomeu Vadell, had been taken to the infamous El Helicoide prison in Caracas.
Their return to prison after six months of house arrest is “additional proof that these Americans are held hostage”, Ms Vadell said, urging the Biden administration “to recognise this and win their release immediately”.
American authorities have been targeting Mr Saab for years in the belief that he can unlock the mystery of how Venezuela has been selling gold and tankers full of crude oil in violation of US sanctions.
They also believe he holds numerous secrets about how Mr Maduro, his family and his top aides allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts for food and housing amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.
Federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Mr Saab in 2019 on money-laundering charges connected to an alleged bribery scheme that pocketed more than $350m (£255m) from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government.
Separately, Mr Saab was sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly utilising a worldwide network of shell companies to hide huge profits from no-bid, overvalued food contracts obtained through bribes and favours.
The Trump administration alleged that some of Mr Saab’s contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult children of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores. Commonly known as los chamos – “the kids” – in Venezuela, they are under investigation in Miami for allegedly forming part of a scheme to siphon $1.2bn (£880m) from Venezuela's state-owned oil company, according to two people familiar with the probe.
But the Venezuelan government, which insists that Mr Saab was acting as an envoy on a humanitarian mission during his arrest en route to Iran, said his extradition “sets a dangerous precedent for international law”.
Standing in front of a sign reading “Free Alex Saab” and pledging that the government would denounce the “brutal aggression” on the international stage, Mr Maduro’s lead negotiator Jorge Rodriguez announced the Venezuelan government would not take part in the next round of the Mexico negotiations – but stopped short of saying it would abandon the talks altogether.
The Biden administration had insisted that Mr Saab’s case should not affect the negotiations, which are being sponsored by Norway.
Mr Guaido, who had hoped to use the negotiations to pressure Mr Maduro to guarantee the looming regional elections in November will be fair, condemned the decision to suspend negotiations, which he claimed made it clear that Mr Maduro’s priority is not the interests of Venezuelans.
Accusing the Maduro government of turning hunger into a weapon of social control and a business, Mr Guaido said: “We Venezuelans who have seen justice kidnapped for years, support and celebrate the justice system of democratic countries like Cape Verde, a nation that we recognise for its independence and firmness in the midst of so much pressure.”
David Smolansky, a Caracas-area mayor who fled into exile after his arrest was ordered for leading protests against Maduro in 2017, said: “What we Venezuelans feel today is justice.
“It's the same justice that has evaded us for 22 years. A justice that had to be found beyond our borders. A justice that should seek all those guilty of corruption, crimes against humanity, hunger and the migration crisis.”
Additional reporting by agencies