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Talks Re: Maduro Break Down   10/17 10:13

   

   MIAMI (AP) -- Venezuela's government said Saturday it would halt 
negotiations with its opponents in retaliation for the extradition to the U.S. 
of a close ally of President Nicols Maduro who prosecutors believe could be the 
most significant witness ever about corruption in the South American country.

   Jorge Rodrguez, who has been heading the government's delegation, said his 
team wouldn't travel to Mexico City for the next scheduled round of 
negotiations.

   The announcement capped a tumultuous day that saw businessman Alex Saab 
placed on a U.S.-bound plane in Cape Verde after a 16-month fight by Maduro and 
his allies, including Russia, who consider the Colombian-born businessman a 
Venezuelan diplomat.

   A few hours after news of Saab's extradition blew up Venezuelan social 
media, six American oil executives held on house arrest were taken back to jail 
by security forces -- a sign that relations between Washington and Caracas 
could be upended after months of quiet diplomacy since Joe Biden entered the 
White House. Families of the men known as the Citgo 6 -- for the Houston 
subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company where they worked --- 
expressed frustration with both governments.

   "The fact that Mr. Saab is in the U.S. before my father is a disgrace," said 
Cristina Vadell, whose father, Tomeu Vadell, is among the Americans serving out 
long sentences on what the U.S. government considers trumped-up charges.

   "This is additional proof that these Americans are held hostage in 
Venezuela, and President Biden's administration needs to recognize this and win 
their release immediately," she added.

   Saab is expected to make his initial appearance in court on Monday in Miami, 
according to Justice Department spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman, who expressed 
gratitude and admiration to the government of Cabo Verde for its 
professionalism and "perseverance with this complex case."

   Saab, 49, was arrested in the African archipelago while making a stop on the 
way to Iran for what Maduro's government later described as a diplomatic 
humanitarian mission that gives him immunity from prosecution.

   He quickly became a revolutionary rallying cry, with Venezuela's government 
saying months after his arrest that the low-profile businessman had been 
appointed earlier a representative to the African Union -- credentials whose 
authenticity and relevance U.S. prosecutors have questioned.

   Rodrguez, standing in front of a sign reading "Free Alex Saab," blasted what 
he said was a "brutal aggression" on the part of a U.S. government that has 
been trying for years, without success, to oust Maduro. He said the Venezuelan 
government would denounce his illegal "extraction" in multilateral forums and 
in protest wouldn't partake in the next round of negotiations, although he 
stopped short of saying the government would abandon the talks altogether.

   "The Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela deplores this 
serious violation against the human rights of a Venezuelan citizen, who is 
invested as a diplomat and as a representative of our country to the world," 
the Maduro government said in a statement. "This fact sets a dangerous 
precedent for international law."

   Government opponents, including opposition leader Juan Guaid, who the U.S. 
recognizes as Venezuela's legitimate leader, celebrated the prospect of soon 
seeing one of Maduro's top insiders behind bars -- something of a moral victory 
after of string of heartbreaking defeats on the streets trying to break the 
socialist leader's grip on power.

   "What we Venezuelans feel today is justice," said David Smolansky, a 
Caracas-area mayor who fled into exile after his arrest was ordered for leading 
protests against Maduro in 2017. "It's the same justice that has evaded us for 
22 years. A justice that had to be found beyond our borders. A justice that 
should seek all those guilty of corruption, crimes against humanity, hunger and 
the migration crisis."

   American authorities have been targeting Saab for years, believing he can 
unlock the mystery of how Venezuela has been selling gold and tankers full of 
crude oil in violation of U.S. sanctions. They also believe he holds numerous 
secrets about how Maduro, the president's family and his top aides siphoned off 
millions of dollars in government contracts for food and housing amid 
widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.

   Federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Saab in 2019 on money-laundering 
charges connected to an alleged bribery scheme that pocketed more than $350 
million from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government.

   Separately, Saab had been sanctioned by the previous Trump administration 
for allegedly utilizing a network of shell companies spanning the globe -- in 
the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia and Mexico -- to 
hide huge profits from no-bid, overvalued food contracts obtained through 
bribes and kickbacks.

   Some of Saab's contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult 
children of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, the Trump administration 
alleged. Commonly known in Venezuela as "Los Chamos," slang for "the kids," the 
three men are also under investigation by prosecutors in Miami for allegedly 
forming part of a scheme to siphon $1.2 billion from Venezuela's state-owned 
oil company, two people familiar with the U.S. investigation told The 
Associated Press.

   But while in private U.S. officials have long described Saab as a front man 
for Maduro, he is not identified as such in court filings.

   The previous Trump administration had made Saab's extradition a top 
priority, at one point even sending a Navy warship to the African archipelago 
to keep an eye on the captive.

   On Saturday. Colombian President Ivn Duque lauded the extradition of Saab, 
calling it a "triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering 
and corruption led by the dictatorship of Nicols Maduro."

   However, the Biden administration has downplayed the importance of Saab's 
problems, saying he can defend himself in U.S. courts and that his case 
shouldn't affect the ongoing negotiations being sponsored by Norway aimed at 
overcoming Venezuela's long running economic crisis and political tug of war.

   The families of nine Americans jailed in Caracas are less hopeful that 
Saab's legal troubled can be disentangled from the furtive attempts at a 
detente.

   In addition to the Citgo 6 -- who were sentenced last year to long prison 
sentences over a never-executed plan to refinance billions in the oil company's 
bonds -- they include former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who is being held on 
weapons charges tied to a supposed plan to sabotage refineries, and two former 
Green Berets Caracas tied to a failed cross-border raid from Colombia to 
overthrow Maduro.

   "In a very disappointing turn of events, American detainees in Venezuela are 
now being used as political pawns," former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, 
who has traveled to Venezuela to try and secure the Americans' release, said in 
a statement. "We had been hoping to do wellness visits with them, but now we 
fear we will not be given the opportunity."

 
 
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