Venezuela’s government has suspended internationally sponsored negotiations with the opposition and revoked the house arrest of six American prisoners after the US extradited a close ally of president Nicolás Maduro to face money laundering charges.
Venezuela’s chief negotiator Jorge Rodríguez said in a televised statement that his side would not attend the next round of talks due to be held in Mexico City on Sunday. This followed news that Alex Saab, a Venezuelan envoy, had been flown to the US on Saturday from the West African island of Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year.
The delegation’s withdrawal is the latest blow to the Mexico negotiations, which are intended to try to find a solution to the political crisis which has engulfed Venezuela since Maduro was accused of clinging to power in a rigged election in 2018.
As part of a broader retaliation for Saab’s extradition, Venezuela also revoked the house arrest of six American executives of the Citgo oil company who have been held in Venezuela since 2017 and sentenced to long jail terms on what the US government regards as trumped-up charges.
One of the relatives of Tomeu Vadell said in an interview that the Venezuelan police came to their home on Saturday afternoon and took the executive away. His current whereabouts are not known.
“Maduro may imagine that he will be able to negotiate a hostage exchange [for Saab], using the case of the Citgo executives. But I think that is most unlikely to happen,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Saab, a 49-year-old Colombian-born businessman, was arrested in Cape Verde when his plane stopped to refuel in June 2020 while on a mission to Venezuela’s close ally Iran.
Venezuela has described him as a diplomat on a humanitarian mission and has accused the US and Cape Verde of illegally kidnapping him, torturing him and arbitrarily holding him prisoner for more than a year.
Saab is expected to make an initial appearance in a Miami court on Monday. He is accused of earning large amounts of money from overvalued contracts, and worked as a key fixer on Venezuela’s state-run housing and food programmes, in an economically and politically crippled country that has faced serious shortages of food and medicine.
Some US officials and Venezuela opposition figures believe Saab also has valuable knowledge about how the Maduro government has circumvented US sanctions and continued selling crude oil and importing key chemicals with the help of Iran and Russia.
Colombia’s President Iván Duque called the extradition “a victory in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption carried out by dictator Nicolás Maduro”.
The future of the Mexico talks is unclear. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó quickly condemned the Venezuelan decision not to attend the next round of negotiations. “With the irresponsible suspension of their attendance in Mexico, they are once again avoiding urgent action in the country, which today suffers from 76.6 per cent extreme poverty,” Guaidó said on Twitter.
Gunson does not believe the Venezuelan government is interested in walking away from the talks in Mexico, noting that they had spoken of “suspending” attendance, rather than breaking off the process completely.
“If they are to be successful, the talks will be long drawn-out and complex, and as things stand at present I don’t think the government is interested in walking away,” he said.
Venezuela’s opposition has problems of its own in the run-up to November 21 regional and local elections, which are expected to be heavily tilted in favour of Maduro’s candidates.
Earlier this week, Peru’s new hard-left President Pedro Castillo dropped recognition of Guaidó’s envoy to Lima as ambassador and the foreign ministry announced it would exchange ambassadors with the Maduro government.
More than 60 countries, led by the US, recognised Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela at the start of 2019. But his diplomatic support has been ebbing as more countries recognise the reality that Maduro remains ensconced in power.