Businessman Alex Saab is suspected of embezzling $350 million from the state-backed Venezuelan food programme. He has been in the eyes of the United States for many years, not least for his links with controversial Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.
Overnight into Sunday, it was reported that Saab had been extradited to the United States from Cape Verde, where he had been imprisoned since last year. Saab was then in the air, on his way to Miami.
The handover soon had repercussions in the form of representatives of Maduro’s government withdrawing from negotiations with the opposition and not appearing at upcoming talks in Mexico under Norwegian leadership.
Background of the power struggle
The background to the debate is the power struggle in Venezuela between Prime Minister Nicolas Maduro and the opposition, Juan Guaido. Juan Guaido declared himself president in 2019 after the 2018 elections which he believed were illegitimate due to election fraud. Guaido has been recognized as interim president by the United States, among other countries.
Maduro, backed by the military and allies such as Russia, China and Cuba, has not relinquished power despite US sanctions and opposition attempts to oust him.
In September, Maduro’s government appointed businessman Saab as one of its representatives in the talks. The rest of the delegation were demanding a difficult “liberation”.
Maduro’s government has criticized the extradition by calling it a kidnapping and a violation of Saab’s human rights, both as a private person and as a diplomat.
Maduro bestowed the diplomatic title on Saab last year after he was arrested in Cape Verde, where he stopped on his way to Iran. According to Maduro, the trip was a diplomatic mission.
Saab and his business partner are suspected of running a corruption network that benefits from a state-subsidized food program in Venezuela. It has been known to the United States for several years, and since 2019 it has been subject to sanctions. If Saab is convicted by the United States, he risks 20 years in prison.
Saab is also believed to be sitting on a lot of information about how Maduro, his family and closest aides embezzled millions of dollars from the food program. According to US accusations, Saab used, among other things, three of Maduro’s wife’s sons, Celia Flores, who are now grown as intermediaries and are suspected of involvement in a scheme to embezzle $1.2 billion.
Kidnapping of American prisoners
On the other hand, Maduro’s allies see Saab as a diplomat and his arrest illegal. In Cape Verde, lawyers on both sides have since last year tried to convince a constitutional court of a difficult status as a diplomat, and in September the court ruled that he could be extradited.
While the opposition rejoices that one of Maduro’s closest men may end up behind bars in the United States, the extradition has affected the situation of nine Americans detained in Venezuela. Six of them were placed under house arrest but removed from the homes they were in on Saturday.
“We were hoping to visit them and see how they’re doing, but now we’re afraid we won’t get a chance to do so,” New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is in Venezuela, said in a statement.
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