07:28 GMT22 October 2020
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    The US Treasury slapped the businessman with sanctions last July, accusing him of involvement in a corruption scheme involving a Venezuelan program to produce and distribute food to impoverished communities. The program was started in 2016, partly as a result of food shortages stemming from US pressure on the Latin American nation.

    Authorities in Cape Verde have arrested Venezuela-affiliated Colombian businessman Alex Saab, the US Justice Department announced Saturday.

    Saab, formally charged with spearheading a money laundering and bribery scheme in Venezuela by the US last July, was said to have been arrested on the basis of an Interpol red notice issued in Miami, Florida.

    A source said to be familiar with the situation told the Associated Press that Saab was arrested while his plane was refueling on a flight from Venezuela to Iran.

    The Justice Department claims that Saab, 48, and another Colombian businessman profited from overvalued contracts related to a Venezuelan food distribution program known as the ‘Local Committees for Supply and Production’ (Spanish acronym CLAP). The US Treasury Department slapped him and companies he was connected to with sanctions over the program last summer.

    Saab’s arrest follows the freezing of some $9.28 million in assets in his home country of Colombia on Tuesday.

    Over the last year, the US Treasury and Justice Department has targeted multiple persons and at least 16 companies involved in importing food under the CLAP program.

    CLAP has helped around six million Venezuelan households (or more than sixty percent of the country’s population of 30 million), to maintain a healthy calorie intake through free food deliveries, and has allowed Venezuelans to purchase heavily subsidized foodstuffs on local markets managed by the program. The program is vulnerable to US pressure, however, because most of the food that’s distributed continues to be imported from abroad despite Caracas’s best efforts at import substitution.

    Venezuelan officials have not yet commented on Saab’s arrest, but have previously lambasted the US over its efforts to bully the country into submission via sanctions, arrests, and failed coup attempts.

    Observers have expressed fears that US pressure on CLAP can have a devastating impact on the country’s food security, and subsequently, knock-on effects on Venezuelans' health, the amount of food they have access to, and the government's political stability.

    The US has been openly attempting to overthrow the Venezuelan government since January 2019, recognizing opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as the country's 'interim president'. The US has sought to help Guaido topple President Nicolas Maduro by placing tough sanctions on Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, and freezing billions of dollars' worth of Venezuelan state assets abroad. Before that, the US waged nearly a decade-long campaign to try to weaken and overthrow the Latin American nation's democratic socialist government using various means. In 2019, the Latin American Geopolitical Strategic Center think tank estimated that a US-led financial blockade had cost Caracas between $260 billion and $350 billion in lost earnings between 2013 and 2017.

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