BOGOTA, Colombia

Until a few months ago, Alex Saab’s name was unknown. Then he became the center of a tug of war between Caracas and Washington and started making headlines around the world. 

On June 12, authorities in Cape Verde arrested Saab, a Colombian businessman close to Venezuela’s government, a move authorities from Venezuela called a violation of international law. Saab did not get further than Cape Verde, an island on Africa’s West coast, where he was making a stopover to refuel his private jet on his way to Iran, according to official US sources.  

His legal defense claims that he was arrested on June 12, but that the Interpol red circular that served as the basis for the proceedings is dated June 13. Hours after his arrest, the Venezuelan government issued a statement in which it described his detention as arbitrary. 

“This fact, in violation of international law and norms, clearly corresponds with the actions of aggression and siege against the Venezuelan people, undertaken by the government of the United States with the aim of abruptly affecting and interrupting efforts on behalf of the Bolivarian government, aimed at guaranteeing the right to food, health and other basic rights of the Venezuelan people,” said the statement on June 13.  

Although Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government did not immediately say where Saab was going, it claimed that he was a Venezuelan citizen and an agent of the Bolivarian Government that was traveling to get food, medicines and medical products to deal with the pandemic.

Saab has been associated with the government in Caracas for close to a decade as a businessman very close to the government, says Ivan Briscoe, the International Crisis Group’s program director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“In fact, his legal defense in Cabo Verde claims that he is working as a Venezuelan diplomat so you can see the extremely close, recognized public relationship with the government.”  

His value, says Briscoe, was of a private citizen, a private businessman that could move around without travel restrictions, “but now that he’s been arrested the government argues that he is their official envoy, their official diplomat and therefore he should be immune from prosecution.”  

Official US sources said to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that when he was arrested, Saab was on his way to Iran to buy fuel in exchange for Venezuelan gold on behalf of the Venezuelan government at a time when gasoline is scarce in the country.   

‘Shady deals’

Saab is under sanctions and is being sought by the US for charges of money laundering involving hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Luisa Ortega Diaz, former prosecutor general of Venezuela and now adversary to Maduro’s government, linked the Colombian, who has also a Venezuelan nationality, to shady deals related to food import contracts on behalf of the government’s subsidized CLAP food program, the construction of houses, the handling of foreign exchange and gold negotiations.

He has also been charged in Colombia with the crimes of money laundering, illicit enrichment, fictitious export and import, and fraud.

But according to Briscoe, in Venezuela Saab has helped circumvent the financial sanctions that Donald Trump has imposed on the government since 2018. Saab has been increasingly seen in recent months as a key facilitator of Venezuela’s relationship with other countries that enable it to survive under the US sanctions to get food and fuel, which has exposed him to increased judicial interest from the US.

He says in a country that is in a massive humanitarian crisis, where an estimated 2.3 million individuals are severely food insecure and in need of immediate assistance, according to a July–September 2019 UN World Food Program (WFP) assessment, “anything which impedes the ability of the government to cater to the basic needs of Venezuelans entails the risk of unrest and instability and that is a core concern of the government.” And Saab knows the “strategy for survival” of the government.  

With the information Saab has at his disposal, the US authorities could hope they could have a much more focused approach towards the survival networks, whether it has to do with the export of gold, the import of fuel, the facilitation of oils sales, the import of food,” Briscoe says. “If you want to apply secondary sanctions in a very effective way to starve the Venezuelan state more completely, you need the right information.”  

Although the US has no extradition treaty with Cape Verde, the justice system in the island confirmed the legality of the arrest and gave the President Donald Trump administration 18 days to formally request Saab’s extradition to that country. Since then, it denied a habeas corpus filed by Alex Saab’s lawyer asking for the businessman’s freedom. 

Washington wants him to face justice in the US and apparently already sent an extradition request to the Cape Verde authorities. According to El Tiempo, the island’s government would have formally accepted the extradition process.  

“All the documents were translated and Cape Verde has already notified the United States that it has accepted the extradition process, which will be resolved in the next few days,” said a federal source to the Colombian newspaper at the end of June.   

Venezuelan demand

On July 3 the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jorge Arreaza sent his counterpart, Luis Felipe Tavares of Cape Verde, a letter asking for Saab to be “treated with justice”.

“Our only demand is that the affirmation of the Honorable President Jorge Carlos Fonseca be fulfilled. This implies that our compatriot be treated with justice and humanity, as he assured us in his letter of June 15, and in accordance with the immunities and privileges that accredit him as the Special Envoy of the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” says Arreaza in the July 5 letter that was revealed by the Cape Verde local media Noticias do Norte.

The same day the letter was sent, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered to support Cape Verde in their “development efforts and maritime security.”

The senior Trump government official praised a relationship of more than 200 years between the two nations following the 45th anniversary of Cape Verde’s independence. The message was taken as a sign to reassure the island’s concern about the consequences of Saab’s extradition.

While the US manages extradition and Venezuela’s government tries to prevent his agent from being extradited to the US, Saab’s future remains to be decided by Cape Verde.

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