US accuses Maduro of putting extradited businessman above country

Washington (AFP) –


The United States on Monday criticized Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro's suspension of dialogue with the opposition, saying he was putting the fate of an extradited businessman accused of money laundering above the country's future.

State Department spokesman Ned Price hit out at Maduro as Colombian national Alex Saab appeared in a Miami court after his Saturday extradition from the West African island nation of Cape Verde.

Maduro -- whose legitimacy is contested by the United States and most Latin American and European countries -- reacted furiously to the extradition and suspended talks with Juan Guaido, the opposition leader considered interim president by Washington.

"They are putting the place of one individual above the welfare, above the well-being, above the livelihoods of the millions of Venezuelans who have made clear their aspirations for democracy, for greater freedom, for prosperity," Price told reporters.

"Nicolas Maduro needs to end the human rights abuses and needs to allow the Venezuelan people -- his people -- to participate in free and fair presidential, parliamentary, regional and local elections."

Price said that the charges against Saab "long predate and have no relation" to the political negotiations, which Washington supports.

- Exploiting food aid -

Saab and his business partner Alvaro Pulido are charged in the United States with running a network that exploited food aid destined for Venezuela, an oil-rich nation mired in an acute economic crisis.

A man holds a sign in support of Alex Saab at a demonstration demanding his release in Caracas, on October 17, 2021
A man holds a sign in support of Alex Saab at a demonstration demanding his release in Caracas, on October 17, 2021 Federico PARRA AFP/File

They are alleged to have moved $350 million out of Venezuela into accounts they controlled in the United States and other countries. They risk up to 20 years in prison.

Saab appeared Monday at the US district court hearing in Miami held by videoconference, where Judge John J. O'Sullivan said he was charged with eight counts of money laundering.

The next hearing will take place on November 1.

Price also urged the release of six former executives of oil company Citgo, all of whom have US citizenship or permanent residency, who were taken back into custody shortly after news of Saab's extradition broke.

"They are holding them as political pawns," Price said.

"Having already spent four years wrongfully detained in Venezuela on these specious charges, they should be immediately and unconditionally released."

Saab, who also has Venezuelan nationality and a Venezuelan diplomatic passport, was indicted in July 2019 in Miami for money laundering, and was arrested during a plane stopover in Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa in June 2020.

Cape Verde agreed last month to extradite Saab to the United States, despite protests from Venezuela, which said he had been abducted by Washington.

Venezuela's opposition has described Saab as a frontman doing shady dealings for the populist socialist regime of Maduro.

Colombia President Ivan Duque said Monday that he hopes Saab's trial will shed light on Maduro's "drug dictatorship."

Duque has often accused Maduro's regime of drug-trafficking to raise money, and of harboring armed Colombian rebels on its soil.