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Analysis | Spectacular prisoner exchange between Washington and Caracas

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Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro receives Alex Saab at the presidential palace in Caracas.

  • François Brousseau (View profile)François Brousseau

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The reunion scene in Caracas on December 20 was touching. Two friends – a businessman accused of embezzling millions of dollars of public money for personal gain, and his associate, the socialist president of an internationally isolated regime – engaged in a hug and lyrical declarations in front of television cameras.

After 1,280 days of sequestration, the truth has triumphed, the president said.

It’s the miracle of freedom, the miracle of justice, added the businessman. The latter, also presented as a diplomat and a meritorious representative of Venezuela abroad, is called Alex Saab.

The president is Nicolas Maduro, in power in Caracas since 2013.

Saab returned to his country (he is also Colombian, with dual nationality), just pardoned and released by the American justice system, with a helping hand from President Joe Biden, as part of a prisoner exchange between Caracas and Washington.

Here is a rather juicy story of prisoner exchange between Venezuela and the United States. Who is this Alex Saab? Who or what was he exchanged for? Why was he arrested and why is he now released?

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For supporters of the Chavista regime in Caracas, Alex Saab was unjustly arrested three and a half years ago, by an African country in the pay of Washington, which then extradited him to the United States. A martyr whose regime has made a cause celebre in his country, even speaking of a kidnapping.

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A demonstration took place on December 16, 2022 in front of the National Assembly in Caracas to demand the release of Alex Saab.

For the United States, Alex Saab is rather a crooked businessman who has been involved, in Venezuela and Colombia, in all kinds of stories of embezzlement, overbilling and various frauds, including in the areas of social housing and the distribution of food to the needy.

A character who fits perfectly into the setting of a Venezuela with elites corrupted by power and oil.

The man, who led a large lifestyle and whose destinations included Russia and Iran, was intercepted in Cape Verde in 2020, from where he was supposed to return to Tehran. He was also investigated by Colombian authorities for allegedly laundering US$25 billion between 2004 and 2011, according to Bogota's El Espectador daily. Many prosecutions and murky cases are therefore associated with his name.

But for Caracas, Alex Saab is today a national hero. However, according to the edition of the newspaper El Pais of February 24, 2021, the Venezuelan regime has long denied any link with this sulphurous businessman, before suddenly making him a standard bearer of the national cause, from the moment of his extradition to the United States, the hated enemy.

After more than three years of detention in Cape Verde and then in the United States, Saab is now released as part of a major political transaction with Washington, then welcomed with great fanfare at the presidential palace in Caracas.

Who was Alex Saab traded for? There are a lot of characters in this story, especially on the Venezuelan side.

His release is part of an agreement by which Washington obtained, in exchange, the return of 10 Americans imprisoned in Venezuela, six of them unjustly detained, according to the White House. In other words, they were political hostages. Washington also achieves – this is the main prize of the operation – the extradition, from Venezuela to the United States, of a criminal known by the nickname Fat Leonard.

This is Leonard Glenn Francis, a private military contractor based in Singapore, active in shipbuilding, who hatched one of the largest corruption scandals in the history of the United States Navy. This is the other august character in this story, the second star of this episode, the American counterpart of Alex Saab.

Fat Leonard was arrested in Caracas last year, after escaping American justice, in a case of fraud and corruption. This affair led to criminal charges against more than 30 US Navy officials and defense contractors, in addition obviously to Fat himself, who falsely believed he had taken shelter in Venezuela, a reputed state hostile to the United States.

Maduro's government had obviously arrested him with the idea of ​​using him as a bargaining chip, in possible negotiations with the Biden administration that we have just seen.

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Nicolas Maduro, speaking here at the microphone, has been in power in Venezuela since 2013.

In this case, the majority of American military defendants (more than 25) pleaded guilty, admitting to having received bribes in kind: millions of dollars in luxury travel, accommodation, prostitute services, courtesy of Fat Leonard, all in exchange for lucrative military contracts for his Singaporean company.

Among the people returning to the United States today as part of this exchange, there are good guys and bad guys: innocent people captured by the Maduro regime, but also a famous fraudster for whom American justice now reserves a big trial.

Important detail: the announcement of the exchange was made by the White House. President Joe Biden himself commented that reuniting unjustly detained Americans with their loved ones is a priority of my administration. Just like the return to the United States of those who flee justice.

This agreement is closely linked to Venezuelan domestic politics, but also to the evolution of relations between Caracas and Washington.

The negotiated agreement also stipulates the release of 21 Venezuelan political prisoners, including Roberto Abdul. This is the prime contractor for this fall's primary elections, organized by the opposition to the Chavista regime. The agreement also provides for the revocation of three arrest warrants against opponents of the regime, close to opposition leader Maria Corina Machado.

It was Machado who won, in October, the primary of the unified opposition in anticipation of the 2024 elections. A primary that the Maduro regime allowed to take place, as had previously been agreed with Washington. Which did not subsequently prevent harassment against those around Ms. Machado, who was also declared by the judicial authorities in Caracas not eligible to run for president in 2024! Contradictions.

This exchange of December 20, 2023 is therefore clearly in line with a difficult dialogue between Caracas and Washington. The United States has suspended its oil embargo against Venezuela since October.

The opposition in Caracas is clearly supported by the United States, with pressure from Washington to guarantee truly free and transparent elections in 2024 that the Chavista regime has every reason to fear. Machado is a popular figure in Venezuela, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Henrique Capriles, who obtained 49% of the vote in the 2013 presidential election, compared to Nicolas Maduro's 51%, in the country's last honest elections.

We can speak, with this agreement, of a cautious and fragile thaw between Washington and Caracas, which has been taking place, with hiccups, since the beginning of the Ukrainian war, while Washington wanted Caracas to put more oil on international markets.

We will have to see whether mutual promises – for example on non-rigged elections next year in Venezuela, or on the continued lifting of American sanctions – will be kept or not.

Obviously, we ended up concluding in Washington that the policy of systematic hostility (maximum pressure) pursued at the time by the Trump administration, with the dismal operation of the opponent Juan Guaido in 2019, failed. And today, we must try another approach.

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