Some 3,500 miles from Washington, on the African archipelago of Cape Verde, the Justice Department is in a struggle with Venezuela over a U.S. extradition request for Alex Saab.
The Colombian-born naturalized Venezuelan works for the dictatorship of
The regime calls Mr. Saab a diplomat, but a federal grand jury has indicted him for money laundering. Interpol arrested him in June as his plane was refueling on a trip to Iran.
The lengths to which Caracas is going to win Mr. Saab’s release merit attention. It has hired a crack legal team, led by
a controversial Spanish former judge. The U.S. has so far won in court, but the case is on appeal. Mr. Garzón argues that Mr. Saab is not only innocent but protected by diplomatic immunity.
It’s doubtful that Venezuela’s herculean effort to defeat the extradition is explained by concerns for the future of the detained Maduro henchman.
More likely it’s because, as an intermediary in regime business dealings, Mr. Saab may be intimately familiar with how Venezuelan wealth has been siphoned off to enrich the Maduro nomenklatura. If Mr. Saab finds himself plea-bargaining in America, he may be inclined to share that information with U.S. law enforcement, which might then make it public.
In a nation plagued with food, electricity, water and medicine shortages, a detailed forensic report on Maduro & Co.’s stash—including assets held by family members outside the country—would be an international public-relations disaster.
The Venezuelan military, backed by Cuban intelligence, has its knee planted on the neck of the Venezuelan people. It can be confident that the American public has no appetite for a military invasion. Yet the regime isn’t invulnerable. It fears the international isolation that is likely to come with losing the propaganda war.
With Maduro bigwigs living high on the hog, public airing of what Mr. Saab knows would be costly. If linked to a Biden policy maintaining the sanctions pressure used by the last three U.S. presidents, it could be devastating.
For free republics, coexisting with the Maduro regime is like living next door to a narcissist who tyrannizes the other family members and squanders the household income. It’s tough to watch. But efforts to intervene on behalf of the victims—without using force—don’t yield quick results.
Trump administration sanctions failed to unseat Mr. Maduro, and President Biden may be tempted to return to the negotiation strategy used in the early part of the Trump era. That would be a mistake.
A better path is to capitalize on public disgust, inside and outside the country, for the Maduro kleptocracy and organize international opposition to it. Venezuela is a chance for Mr. Biden to prove his coalition-building skills.
He already has a running start. The European Union isn’t happy with the regime’s antidemocratic takeover of the national assembly via fraudulent December elections. Last week the EU expressed its concerns by putting new sanctions on 19 members of the Maduro regime, taking the total number of Venezuelan officials who are under EU asset freezes and travel bans to 55.
Mr. Maduro blames Trump sanctions for Venezuelan hardship. But the facts don’t support the claim. Rather, as sanctions tightened, the dictatorship was forced to liberate prices and the exchange rate, easing dire food shortages.
Now the regime is spreading fear that if recent sanctions on diesel-for-crude swaps aren’t lifted, the country will starve. But the diesel shortage is homemade.
According to a February webinar presentation by
Reuters’s Latin America energy reporter, Venezuela produces 31,000 to 37,000 barrels of diesel a day while consuming 33,000 to 48,000. Post-pandemic demand could go to 60,000.
It would help if Venezuela were to stop sending 4,000 barrels a day to Cuba. But the big problem is reliance on the swaps rather than investing in refinery maintenance to bring production back to where it was before
and Mr. Maduro turned the state-owned oil company, PdVSA, into the ruling elites’ piggy bank.
A staggering collection of corruption allegations against the regime has been cataloged on chavismoinc.com by journalists and other investigators, including a Venezuelan chapter of Transparency International.
The Biden administration also might remind Venezuela that the U.N. World Food Program is awaiting permission to enter the country. Mr. Maduro has blocked this aid because he uses food rationing to control the masses.
Reuters last week captured the cruelty of the dictatorship when it reported on “a sharp spike” in government assaults on nonprofits last year, “including the arrest of five workers from an organization that provides support for people with HIV.” This isn’t a normal government aspiring to improve the well-being of its people. It is an organized-crime cartel with monopoly power—and the singular objective of holding on to it. No negotiation can fix that.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.
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