US leniency for Saab is a boon for Maduro, Reuters critics say


© Reuters. Alex Saab, who faced US bribery charges, leaves the Miraflores Palace accompanied by his family and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro after being released by the US government in a prisoner exchange in Caracas, Venezuela, December 20, 2023. REUT

Author: Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – The release of 30 U.S. and domestic prisoners in Venezuela in exchange for the freedom of a key ally of President Nicolas Maduro presents an opportunity for Maduro to bolster his political power ahead of elections next year, analysts said.

US President Joe Biden pardoned businessman Alex Saab and sent him back to Venezuela on Wednesday in exchange for his release.

U.S. prosecutors accused Saab of siphoning about $350 million from Venezuela through the United States in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials.

Saab, who denies wrongdoing, has been held in a federal prison in Miami since October 2021, awaiting trial.

His triumphant return to Caracas — greeted at the airport by Maduro’s wife and then received at the presidential palace by Maduro himself — could help the president win domestic support.

“It’s a demonstration of (Maduro’s) willingness not to abandon his own,” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of consultancy Datanalisis in Caracas. “He’s telling his party members that he’s willing to do anything, even go without resources, to defend them.”

At the time of his arrest in 2020, Colombian businessman Saab Madurem was designated as a diplomat to negotiate the supply of fuel and humanitarian aid from Iran.

Upon his return to Caracas, he thanked the government for not abandoning him and said the Maduro administration would never give up.

The White House has been pressuring Caracas in recent weeks to fulfill its side of the deal, in which Washington provided sanctions relief in exchange for Maduro’s agreement to hold free elections in 2024 and release those the US says are unjustly held in Venezuela. prison.

Maduro said Wednesday’s exchange was in partial compliance with that agreement and marked a step toward a new era of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Government coffers were already well on their way to benefiting from sanctions relief. The government has predicted it will get 27% more revenue from state oil company PDVSA next year, likely allowing it to increase social spending ahead of the 2024 vote.

Critics said the swap would further strengthen Maduro and weaken Washington’s position.

“(Saab’s) firing has dealt a severe blow to America’s credibility in the fight against corruption, especially in Latin America,” Marshall Billingslea, a former deputy US Treasury secretary under President Donald Trump, said on social media.

“It sends a disastrous signal to the partner countries that cooperated with us and believed that Saab would face justice… it is an ‘attack’ on the Venezuelan opposition,” he added.

A US official defended the move, saying President Joe Biden faced a tough choice.

“For this exchange to happen, the president had to make an extremely difficult decision to offer something that his Venezuelan counterparts were actively seeking,” the official said, requesting anonymity to speak freely. “The president did what was difficult but the right thing to do.”

Biden told reporters in Wisconsin that Maduro is upholding his end of the deal so far, but that there is still a long way to go.

PENDING ELECTIONS

Although some well-known opposition figures were among those who could be or were released, much uncertainty remains about Maduro’s compliance with other parts of the electoral agreement.

Three people involved in the campaign of opposition presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado are expected to face arrest warrants, sources said. He declined to comment on Machado’s campaign.

Recently detained Roberto Abdul, who was involved in organizing the October opposition primaries, has also been released, the human rights group said.

But progress is still needed toward lifting the ban on some in the opposition, including Machado, announcing an election date and other guarantees, analysts said.

“We will have to find out if this is just a prisoner exchange or if it means a path to free and fair elections,” said Oswaldo Ramirez of Caracas’s OCR Consultores.