Arrested since last year on corruption charges, Colombian businessman Alex Saab, considered a figurehead of the dictator Nicolás Maduro, was extradited from Cape Verde to the United States this Saturday (16).
The government in Caracas reacted. In an official statement, he denounced what he called the “kidnapping of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab by the US government in complicity with Cape Verdean authorities.” Saab received Venezuelan nationality and the title of ambassador after his arrest.
In addition, the Maduro regime announced that it would interrupt the dialogue with the country’s opposition, which was scheduled to resume this Sunday (17) in Mexico City. Saab had been named a member of the government team in negotiations with the opposition.
The businessman and his partner Álvaro Pulido, whose whereabouts are unknown, are accused in the United States of running a chain that was operating a food distribution program in Venezuela. They are accused of transferring about $350 million to accounts they controlled in the United States and other countries, and face up to 20 years in prison.
The businessman became a defendant in 2019 for money laundering in Miami, and was arrested during a plane stopover in Cape Verde, Africa, in June 2020.
After Saturday’s extradition, Venezuelan security forces took six US-linked executives (five naturalized US citizens and one permanent resident) who were already under house arrest to a penitentiary.
Imprisoned since 2017, oil industry entrepreneurs were sentenced to prison for corruption last year, in lawsuits that the US government accuses of being riddled with irregularities.
“My father cannot be used as a bargaining chip,” said Cristina Vadell, daughter of Tomeu Vadell, one of the detainees. She said she was concerned about her father’s health because of Covid’s situation in the country.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó celebrated Saab’s extradition. “We Venezuelans, who have seen justice kidnapped for years, support and celebrate the justice system of democratic countries like Cape Verde,” he wrote on Twitter, where he also regretted the government’s decision not to participate in the dialogue table in Mexico.
Colombian President Iván Duque also celebrated, who wrote on Twitter that Saab’s extradition “is a victory in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and the corruption that led to Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship.” “Colombia has supported and will continue to support the United States in the investigation against the transnational criminal network led by Saab,” he said.
Cape Verde agreed last month to extradite Saab to the United States, despite protests from Venezuela. Saab’s lawyers say the US allegations are politically motivated.
The Maduro government’s biggest fear is that the businessman will give information to the court about money routes and bribery schemes, analysts say. The Venezuelan government has tried to release the businessman from jail a number of times, claiming that Saab suffered ill-treatment and torture in prison. A march was called for this Sunday in Caracas. “Alex Saab, kidnapped by the empire,” reads a poster pasted in the city.
“Never before has Chavismo done so much for anyone,” journalist Roberto Deniz, who is investigating the Saab case and who is wanted in Venezuela for “inciting hatred,” told AFP.
Son of a Lebanese businessman living in Barranquilla, Colombia, Saab started working as a salesman of promotional keyrings before entering the textile sector, where he had 100 warehouses that exported to more than 10 countries, according to official biographies.
“Guided by his cosmopolitan entrepreneur spirit, he seeks to transfer his entrepreneurial skills across the border” and moves to Venezuela “interested in the construction business”, says a series on his YouTube channel entitled “Alex Saab, anti-blockade agent”.
The first contract he signed in Venezuela was in 2011, at the presidential palace in Miraflores. At that time, Maduro was the chancellor of President Hugo Chávez. A young Saab made a “strategic alliance” for “the constitution and installation of kits for the construction of prefabricated houses”. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos attended the event.
It was with Maduro’s arrival at the presidency that Saab became “almost immediately the consenting contractor and then his plenipotentiary minister” behind the scenes, noted Roberto Deniz. According to the journalist, Saab won a contract for the construction of gyms worth 100 million dollars, paid in advance, and an oil contract with an inexperienced ghost company, which ended up falling due to complaints from other companies in the sector.
In 2016, Maduro created the Local Supply and Production Committees (Clap), a subsidized food distribution plan, at a time of shortages of more than two-thirds of basic products. Saab became one of the vendors, winning “important commercial deals” according to his YouTube series.
In 2018, according to this version, he assumed “as a civil servant” the “mission” of acquiring in Russia and Iran “food, medicine, spare parts for refineries and different companies”.
Saab is proud, for example, of the Iranian fuel route that he created “by the instructions, guidance and vision of President Nicolas Maduro.” Iran has sent ships with gasoline to the former oil power, the target of a US embargo.
Former Venezuela’s Attorney General Luisa Ortega called Alex Saab “the main figurehead of the autocracy” of Maduro and his family, and said his extradition “is an achievement for those of us who seek justice against those responsible for the tragedy and the chaos that Venezuelans live”.