Alex Saab extradition: Venezuela halts talks after Cape Verde hands over businessman

Venezuelan envoy could face up to 20 years in prison for money laundering

Venezuela is to suspend negotiations with the opposition after Cape Verde extradited Colombian businessman and Venezuelan envoy Alex Saab to the US on money laundering charges.

Socialist party legislator Jorge Rodriguez, who heads the government's negotiating team, said the Venezuelan government would not attend the talks set to begin on Sunday.

The Venezuelan government in September named Mr Saab, who was arrested in June 2020 when his plane stopped in Cape Verde to refuel, as a member of its negotiating team in talks with the opposition in Mexico, where the two sides are looking to solve their political crisis.

Mr Rodriguez, reading from a statement, called the decision to suspend negotiations “an expression of our deepest protest against the brutal aggression against the person and the investiture of our delegate Alex Saab Moran”.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido condemned the decision on social media.

“With this irresponsible suspension of their assistance in Mexico, they evade once again urgent attention for the country, which currently suffers from extreme poverty of 76.6 per cent," he said on Twitter. Mr Guaido said he would continue to insist on finding a solution to the country's crisis.

Mr Saab, a Colombian citizen, and his business partner Alvaro Pulido are charged in the US with running a network that exploited food aid destined for Venezuela, an oil-rich nation mired in an acute economic crisis.

They are alleged to have moved some $350 million out of Venezuela into accounts they controlled in the US and other countries. They face up to 20 years in prison.

Mr Saab, who also has Venezuelan nationality and a Venezuelan diplomatic passport, was charged in July 2019 in Miami for money laundering and was arrested during a plane stopover in Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa in June 2020.

The 49-year-old diplomat is the son of a Lebanese immigrant who had settled in the city of Barranquilla, Columbia. He has been under arrest since June 2020 for alleged corrupt deals for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela, in a Twitter post by the Ministry of Communications, denounced the extradition as a “kidnapping”.

Hours after Mr Saab's extradition, Venezuela revoked the house arrest of six former executives of refiner Citgo, a US subsidiary of state oil company PDVSA, two sources and a family member told Reuters.

The US Justice Department charged Mr Saab in 2019 in connection with a bribery scheme to take advantage of Venezuela's state-controlled exchange rate. The US also sanctioned him for allegedly orchestrating a corruption network that allowed Mr Saab and Mr Maduro to profit from a state-run food subsidy programme.

Mr Saab's lawyers have called the US charges “politically motivated”.

Cape Verde national radio reported the extradition on Saturday. The government of Cape Verde was not immediately available to comment.

A US Justice Department spokesperson confirmed Mr Saab's extradition and said he was expected to make his initial court appearance on Monday in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

In a Twitter post, Colombian President Ivan Duque called Mr Saab's extradition “a triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption by the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro”.

The former Citgo executives, who were arrested in November 2017 after being summoned to a meeting at PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, were taken from their homes to one of the headquarters of the intelligence police, two sources said on Saturday.

The six former executives had been released from jail and put under house arrest in April. The group is made up of five naturalised US citizens and one permanent resident. The US government has repeatedly demanded their release.

“My father cannot be used as a bargaining chip,” said Cristina Vadell, daughter of former executive Tomeu Vadell. “I'm worried for his health, even more given the country's coronavirus cases.”

Updated: October 17th 2021, 11:38 AM