Monday, January 24

The secrets of Alex Saab, a new ‘Odebrecht case’ | Opinion

A man walks past a mural in support of Alex Saab in Caracas, Venezuela, last September.
A man walks past a mural in support of Alex Saab in Caracas, Venezuela, last September.Carolina Cabral (Bloomberg)

For many years Alex Saab Morán was a mystery. His arrest in Cape Verde a year and a half ago and his recent extradition to the United States, completed last week, brought his name and image to social media, newspapers and newscasts around the world. The accusation in a Florida state court for laundering hundreds of millions of dollars and his alleged status as a front man for Nicolás Maduro are the accusations that persecute him the most. But there is more: Alex Saab’s secrets go even further.

The power that Saab gained allowed him to interact with political and business circles outside of Venezuela. His friendship with the former Colombian senator and international ally of the Bolivarian revolution, Piedad Córdoba, for example, was key to his landing in Venezuela; When his businesses were already emerging in Venezuela, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda and unconditional ally of Chavismo in international forums, Gaston Browne, granted him in 2014 a kind of diplomatic passport that was valid until 2019. Banks of that Caribbean jurisdiction were, precisely, one of those that Saab used the most to move torrents of the money it received from contracts in Venezuela.

For years Alex Saab and his partners opened and closed paper companies in Hong Kong, Panama, Malta, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates to suit every opportunity; he cultivated relationships with powerful and influential lawyers ready to defend him when needed. More recently, it was the hinge for gold exports to Turkey or for exchanges with the Ayatollah regime in Iran. And when the justice of several countries watched him, he was able to install part of his family and his businesses in Moscow.

All these connections make the Alex Saab case a transnational affair, a kind of new Odebrecht case. Now it is not Brazil, but Venezuela, the axis of a network of dark negotiations with powerful actors in various countries. In the history of Odebrecht, the figure of the “awarded whistleblower” helped the Brazilian justice to expose the modus operandi of the construction giant; here Saab could negotiate with the North American authorities his personal destiny in exchange for this valuable information.

For this reason, the image of Alex Saab handcuffed and dressed in orange in his presentation audience on October 18 is disturbing not only in Caracas. In Colombia, it was announced that the Supreme Court of Justice will investigate this relationship between Saab and former Senator Piedad Córdoba. Abelardo De La Espriella, who was his lawyer for years in that country and staunch critic of the Venezuelan “tyranny,” also came out to explain his client. The Ecuadorian Parliament announced an investigation into the Saab trail through that country in search of any loose ends in the case that the Prosecutor’s Office of that country maintained for years and directly related to that first contract for the construction of prefabricated houses that the Barranquilla businessman made a pact with the Chavista regime.

Almost an exact decade has passed since the signing of that first great business in the Miraflores palace before Hugo Chávez and a Nicolás Maduro, then in the role of chancellor. Nothing suggested that ten years later Alex Saab would become the new hero of the Bolivarian revolution, that he was at the center of a dispute between Venezuela and the United States, that Cuba, Russia and Iran would advocate for him or that Baltasar Garzón would take up his cause. with the same vehemence with which he once tried to apprehend the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Today history allows us to affirm that if anyone benefited from the death of Hugo Chávez and the immediate rise of Maduro, it was Alex Saab. With great secrecy and while Venezuela was sinking into the worst of its economic crises, Saab accumulated contracts of all kinds with the blessing of Maduro: construction of houses, popular gyms or baseball stadiums, access to preferential currencies, oil businesses, food supply, supplier of state supermarkets or the control of Venezuelan gold. Thus until he became a kind of shadow super minister who freely roamed the Miraflores palace and Maduro’s own emissary.

But Alex Saab always denied everything and in the Government no one pronounced his name in public, or explained why so much power fell to one person. In 2017, for example, Saab sued me and my fellow founders of Armando.Info Ewald Scharfenberg, Joseph Poliszuk and Alfredo Meza for “continued and aggravated defamation and injury”. After months of investigating the program of the Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP), we were able to demonstrate in two reports that once again Saab was hiding behind a shell company registered in Hong Kong, whose address in Caracas led to the Colombian’s offices in Caracas and that From the outset, it obtained a contract for 340 million dollars to import these boxes with basic foods, but of very low nutritional quality for the poorest.

With a judicial system co-opted by Chavismo, Alex Saab wanted to silence us and prevent us from continuing to investigate him. His participation in the millionaire business of massive food imports, just when the shortage reached historic peaks and caused Chavismo a resounding defeat in the elections to the National Assembly at the end of 2015, was the confirmation that Saab was something more than a simple contractor, who was, in reality, Maduro’s financial operator.

That was a lit fuse on the way to a powder magazine and Alex Saab wanted to avoid the outbreak by harassing us judicially, without imagining that we would go into exile to continue the investigation. We were not the only ones whom the Barranquilla businessman tried to silence in that way. At the time, his lawyers in Miami sued the Colombian journalist Gerardo Reyes and before he also threatened two reporters from Reuters when they revealed that Saab and his partner Álvaro Pulido, also accused in Florida in 2019 and for whom the United States now offers a reward of 10 million dollars, were behind a billion-dollar contract with the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela.

Alex Saab always denied everything. Not even when the Mexican Prosecutor’s Office confirmed in October 2018 that poor quality food was being sent to Venezuela with surcharges, not even when he was formally accused in the United States and included in the so-called Clinton List, in mid-2019, or when his Wife Camila Fabbri was also accused in Italy in November 2019 of channeling money from Saab businesses, she showed her face or Chavismo explained this relationship.

Still in August 2017 Alex Saab told the newspaper Time from Bogotá who was not “part of the company linked to food” and who did not know Maduro “beyond a couple of formal acts”, such as the one that installed him in a big way in Venezuela in 2011. On that occasion he came to threatening to sue for defamation the Venezuelan prosecutor recently exiled in Colombia, Luis Ortega Díaz, who in those days coined that of the “figurehead of Maduro.”

It was enough that he was detained in Cape Verde on June 12, 2020 for the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry to brand him in just hours as a “special envoy” of Maduro, with Venezuelan nationality. Six months after his capture, Maduro even elevated him to ambassador to the African Union and more recently, last September, “incorporated” him as a representative of Chavismo to the negotiating table with the opposition in Mexico. It was the last of the political maneuvers to stop an extradition that the Constitutional Court of Cape Verde had ratified at the beginning of that month and that was completed with the flight of Saab, aboard a plane of the Department of Justice, from the paradisiac Island of Get out to Miami.

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