Venezuela’s government is halting negotiations with its opponents in retaliation for the extradition to the US of a close ally of president Nicolás Maduro, who prosecutors believe could be the most significant witness ever about corruption in the South American country.
Jorge Rodríguez, 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 Colombian-born businessman Alex Saab placed on a US-bound plane in Cape Verde after a 16-month fight by Maduro and his allies, including Russia, who consider Saab a Venezuelan diplomat.
The Venezuelan government in September named Saab – who was arrested in June 2020 when his plane stopped in Cape Verde to refuel – as a member of its negotiating team in talks with the opposition in Mexico, where the two sides are looking to solve their political crisis.
Rodriguez, reading from a statement, called the decision to suspend negotiations “an expression of our deepest protest against the brutal aggression against the person and the investiture of our delegate Alex Saab Moran”.
The leadership of Venezuela’s opposition did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Venezuela, in a Twitter post by the ministry of communications, denounced the extradition as a “kidnapping”.
Hours after Saab’s extradition, Venezuela revoked the house arrest of six former executives of refiner Citgo, a US subsidiary of state oil company PDVSA, two sources with knowledge of the situation and a family member told Reuters.
The US Justice Department had charged Saab, who also has Venezuelan citizenship, in 2019 in connection with a bribery scheme to take advantage of Venezuela’s state-controlled exchange rate. The US also sanctioned him for allegedly orchestrating a corruption network that allowed Saab and Maduro to profit from a state-run food subsidy program.
Saab faces up to 20 years in prison. His lawyers called the US charges “politically motivated”.
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 Cape Verde for its professionalism and “perseverance with this complex case”.
Cape Verde national radio reported the extradition on Saturday. The government of Cape Verde was not immediately available to comment.
In a Twitter post, Colombian president Ivan Duque called Saab’s extradition “a triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption by the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro”.
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.
The former Citgo executives, who were arrested in November 2017 after being summoned to a meeting at PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, were taken from their homes to one of the headquarters of the intelligence police, two sources said.
The six former executives had been released from jail and put on house arrest in April.
The group is made up of five naturalised US citizens and one permanent resident. The US government has repeatedly demanded their release.
“My father cannot be used as a bargaining chip,” said Cristina Vadell, daughter of former executive Tomeu Vadell. “I’m worried for his health, even more given the country’s coronavirus cases.”
The ministry of communications and the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report