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Maduro suspends contacts with opposition after Colombian businessman Alex Saab's extradition to the US

US justice to try alleged chavista front man in money laundering case as Maduro calls for his inclusion at Mexico's negotiating table
Nicolás Maduro

REUTERS/MANAURE QUINTERO  -   Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela

The tentative rapprochement between chavismo and the opposition has been suspended. Nicolás Maduro cancelled the Venezuelan government's participation at the negotiating table in Mexico City on Saturday in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of businessman Alex Saab, an alleged front man for chavismo. This was announced by the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, at the head of the delegation negotiating with opposition leaders in the Aztec capital.

Born in Barranquilla and of Lebanese origin, Saab has been under US surveillance for years for crimes of money laundering, illicit enrichment and fraud, among others. The State Department included him and his associates and family members in an organised crime scheme in 2019, and judicial investigations have been opened in at least three countries against him.

Saab is also accused of belonging to the Chavista regime's organisation chart, where he served as an official emissary and allegedly supported a network of shell companies that served Caracas to circumvent the sanctions imposed under the Trump Administration. Through these companies, chavismo was doing business in the shadows without the knowledge of the international community, in sectors such as energy and food, according to several investigations by the Armando.info website.

The businessman was finally arrested in June 2020, when his plane stopped in the volcanic archipelago of Cape Verde to refuel. He was travelling to Iran, a country with which Venezuela has developed strong ties since the imposition of Washington's sanctions regime, which harasses both economies. He would not reach his destination, however, as the authorities would detain him on the basis of a US request issued through Interpol for the next 16 months, during which time he has awaited extradition.

Juan Guaidó
REUTERS/MANAURE QUINTERO  -  Venezuela's self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó

The decision of the Cape Verdean judiciary has caused a major blow to Venezuela's future. The fractured Latin American country is living in what many describe as the worst crisis in its history, characterised by hyperinflation, high levels of poverty and, above all, extrajudicial executions, repression and unlawful killings by the security forces.

Maduro's constitutional coup in 2018 irrevocably separated the government from the opposition, and gave wings to the figure of Juan Guaidó, former president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, who arrogated to himself the power to call himself president in charge of Venezuela, being recognised by more than 50 countries. An institutional division that has persisted to date and which, until now, both parties have been trying to reconcile.

On 1 September, the main political groups outside Chavismo joined forces to put an end to the generalised boycott of the electoral processes organised by President Nicolás Maduro, opening a dialogue with the government in Mexico City and moderated by Norway. However, one month and three rounds of talks later, hardly any significant progress has been made.

The date for the fourth meeting has not been set, making it difficult to participate in the upcoming municipal and regional elections, scheduled for 21 November. Even less so after the disagreement between Chavismo and the Norwegian delegation caused by the statements made by the Nordic Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, during her speech at the UN General Assembly, where she spoke about human rights violations in Venezuela.

Memorando Venezuela
AFP/ CLAUDIO CRUZ  -  The president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, the Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, the director of the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution NOREF, Dag Nylander and the head of the Venezuelan opposition delegation, Gerardo Blyde Pérez

Chavismo intended to include businessman Alex Saab in the pro-government delegation negotiating with opposition forces. However, the businessman will not travel to Mexico City, but to Florida; and he will not sit at the negotiating table, but in the dock of the Southern District Court of the southern state of the United States, where he will be tried for his alleged involvement in a money laundering case linked to the Venezuelan government.

"We Venezuelans who have seen justice hijacked for years support and celebrate the justice system of democratic countries like Cape Verde, a nation we recognise for its independence and firmness in the midst of so much pressure," Juan Guaidó said on his Twitter account. For its part, Chavismo issued a statement in which it described the extradition as a "diplomatic kidnapping" and where it denounced the alleged torture of Saab, a testimony released by his family.

The businessman's defence, led by Spanish lawyer Baltasar Garzón, claimed that the action was carried out "without prior notification to any member of the defence team, who also did not have the relevant documentation or resolution on the matter". Saab's legal staff claimed a 'ne bis in idem' violation, whereby someone cannot be tried more than once for the same offence, as the Geneva prosecutor's office found no evidence to support the money laundering charges.

Rupture

Nicolás Maduro's decision to suspend all participation in the talks highlights the importance of the Colombian businessman in the Chavista organisation chart. The heir to Hugo Chávez and the top echelons of his government want to avoid at all costs that the US justice system has a close look at the inner workings of the regime, its strategy to survive in the face of sanctions and the path of Venezuelan public money.

Memorando Venezuela
AFP/ CLAUDIO CRUZ  -  The president of the National Assembly and head of the pro-Chávez delegation in Mexico, Jorge Rodriguez

Venezuela's vice-president, Delcy Rodríguez, has defended Saab's innocence and assured that he is being persecuted for "having served our country in the face of the immoral imperial blockade". A position unanimously shared by all the members of the executive, who have also charged against the political coup against chavismo with the arrest of a member of the negotiating delegation with the opposition.

The president of the National Assembly and head of the chavista delegation in Mexico, Jorge Rodríguez, assured that the regime will use "all available means at its disposal" to bring justice to Alex Saab and pointed to the government of Iván Duque, the United States and, ultimately, the "irrational sectors of the Venezuelan ultra-right", in reference to opposition leaders Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López, for having provoked the end of the talks.

The recent moves have pushed opposition forces, persecuted by Maduro's government, to rethink their roadmap in the Mexico City negotiations. Candidates have previously acknowledged the likelihood that the upcoming November elections will again be rigged against them, despite renouncing the boycott, yet the frontal break from chavismo has made opposition leaders doubt whether trying to keep the dialogue table is positive.

The decision to open a channel of contact with the Venezuelan regime irritated some opposition figures, who saw the rapprochement as a letter of legitimacy to Maduro. The strategy of recent years has not been effective and has barely destabilised Chavism enough, which was the justification for trying new options. Even more so when the figure of Guaidó was beginning to stagnate. Venezuela will have to keep waiting.

Latin America Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.