09:32 GMT19 April 2021
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    Caracas has been forced to come up with some creative ways to come up with funds amid crushing US sanctions targeting its energy sector, exports, and even the import of basic necessities like medical supplies. The crisis has been compounded by the freezing and seizure of tens of billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets held abroad.

    The US-backed Venezuelan opposition has accused Caracas of a scheme involving the shipment of gold to the West African nation of Mali, where it would be sold for much-needed hard currency, refined, and resold to other countries, primarily the United Arab Emirates.

    In a presentation before the US Treasury and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations this week, Julio Borges, self-proclaimed "interim president" Juan Guaido’s chief foreign envoy, suggested that the scheme allowed Venezuela to earn about a billion euros ($1.21 billion) in 2020.

    Borges claimed that Moscow was also involved in the plot, with Russian planes said to have been used to fly the gold to Mali.

    Characterising the alleged sales as a “great theft of Venezuela’s riches,” Borges urged the United States and Europe to further tighten its pressure against Caracas, and to “make their system for dismantling these types of organised crime groups more sophisticated.”

    Moscow dismissed the claims outright, with a Foreign Ministry source describing them as “fantasy.”

    “This question should be addressed to the Venezuelan opposition member; if he has dreamt up anything, let him tell us about it. We do not comment on this kind of unscientific fiction,” the source told Sputnik.

    Years of crushing US sanctions and trade restrictions have forced Venezuela to eat into its gold reserves, with total bullion holdings in 2020 dropping to lows unseen since the 1970s. According to the central bank, the country now has about 86 tonnes of the precious metal in its vaults, equivalent to about $5.1 billion. The figure is down from 105 tonnes officially reported in December 2019. The stockpile has dropped precipitously since the mid-2010s, with a high of 365.7 tonnes in 2014 gradually shrinking in the years since.

    Some of Venezuela’s gold assets remain stuck in foreign banks, with Caracas currently fighting with the Bank of England to recover 31 tonnes of bullion from its vaults. Additional stocks are known to be held in US and European banks. Some of this gold has been pilfered, with Citigroup reporting the selloff of several tonnes of gold serving as collateral on a loan in 2019 after the Venezuelan central bank missed a payment deadline because it could not pay the loan or even access its frozen funds due to sanctions. Additional funds worth hundreds of millions of dollars were quietly transferred into opposition bank accounts and embezzled.

    The alleged clandestine gold selloff comes in the wake of crushing US restrictions on Venezuela’s oil exports – the primary source of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, including sanctions and the threat of secondary sanctions, as well as the seizure of a US subsidiary of Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA operating in the US.

    A 2019 report by a Latin America-based think tank found that even before the US and its allies resorted to extreme sanctions pressure and the outright seizure and freezing of assets, other forms of pressure robbed the country of hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth. The report calculated that as much as $350 billion in revenue was lost in the five years between 2013 and 2017, equivalent to over $12,000 for every man, woman and child in the Latin American nation.

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