Alex Saab's legs shaken nervously as he sat down, handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit and waited for the start. The hearing was conducted via Zoom and more than 350 journalists were present, gazing at Maduro's opponents and Saab's relatives.
Saab's extradition from Cape Verde to the U.S., where he was held 16 months ago has already been ricocheted far.
Maduro's government stopped negotiations with Venezuela's U.S.-backed opposition just hours after Saab was transferred onto a Department of Justice aircraft. Six American oil executives, whom it claims are guilty of corruption, were also sent back to jail. They were under house arrest in a politically charged case that included allegations of wrongful detention.
Maduro's government has called Saab a diplomat envoy. It has made every effort to release the Colombian-born businessman who was detained on an African warrant by the U.S. while making a fuel stop to Iran.
It was joined Monday by Russia's ally, whose Caracas ambassador tweeted his "most energetic, categorical protest against Saab's kidnapping."
Saab, 49 years old, raised his eyebrows, but remained silent as Judge John O'Sullivan (through an interpreter) informed him that he was facing eight charges of money laundering. Saab was allowed to plead guilty at a second hearing scheduled by the judge in two weeks.
Saab was indicted on money laundering charges in 2019. He was accused of bribing Venezuelan officials, and falsifying import documents in order to get more than $350million from a low income housing project. The Trump administration sanctioned him for using a network consisting of shell companies from Turkey, Mexico, Hong Kong, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates to conceal windfall profits from high-valued food contracts.
However, Saab's connections go deeper.
Maduro's stepsons are among those that the U.S. alleges he paid in order to secure government contracts. Two people familiar with the U.S. investigation said that the three adult children of Cilia Flores, the first lady, have been under investigation for many years by Miami prosecutors.
"Saab is a good example of the enormous corruption in Venezuela and its consequences for the region," Diego Area, a Latin America specialist at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said.
Michael Penfold, a Venezuelan analyst, stated that Saab's extradition will likely stop all efforts to build trust between the Maduro government, and its opponents. Since August, the two sides met in an attempt to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. This has caused more than 5,000,000 people to flee the country.
Biden's administration has attempted to minimize the political impact of Saab being extradited. This is key to those talks' success. Venezuela's cash-starved government has been resolutely cracking down on its enemies for years. Now, the Trump administration is looking to reverse the crippling sanctions placed on Venezuela, one of the largest oil producers in the world, in return for more freedoms.
Maduro's withdrawal from the negotiations was criticized by the U.S. State Department, who claimed that U.S. law enforcement is independent of politics and that Saab's charges predate the talks.
Ned Price, a spokesperson, stated that they are placing the case of one person above the welfare, well-being, and livelihoods of millions of Venezuelans, who have made it clear their aspirations to democracy, greater freedom, prosperity, and at the most basic level, relief from the humanitarian suffering the regime has inflicted upon the Venezuelan people.
Norway, the sponsor of the fledgling talks urged restraint following Maduro's announcement that it wouldn't travel to Mexico City for its next round.
"We will continue working for the parties, to, as soon as they can, continue their important work at the negotiating table in order to achieve an inclusive political solution, for the benefit of Venezuelan people," Norway’s foreign ministry stated in a statement.
Saab’s wife, an ex-Italian model, led a small protest Sunday in Caracas' Plaza Bolivar against what they call Saab’s "kidnapping."
Camilla Fabri, a nervous-sounding woman, said that she didn't intend to lie to support the U.S. in a letter she read. "I have not committed any crime in the U.S.A or anywhere else."
Maduro, who was defending the U.S., said that the U.S., not his government, had delivered a "mortal defeat" to the dialogue effort. The U.S. will also be participating in next month's gubernatorial election, which pits a bitterly divided opposition and a slate of proMaduro candidates.
He also claimed, without evidence, that Cape Verde interrogators used electric shocks on Saab to torture him and extract a false confession. This was not true in the end.
Maduro stated on state television that they wanted to make him a monster and a false accuser of Venezuela, against me, and against the Bolivarian Revolution -- something he never permitted."
Families of the nine Americans held in Caracas have found these out-of-court maneuvers particularly troubling. They published an open letter to the White House requesting that it remain engaged in Venezuelan affairs over the weekend.
"Mr. "Mr. "The people responsible for protecting and returning wrongfully held Americans have not taken the first step to directly engage with Venezuelans who are holding our loved one."
Six executives from Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA were among those sentenced to lengthy prison terms last year for embezzling funds from an unexecuted plan to refinance Citgo bonds. The Citgo 6 families and the U.S. government strongly rejected the allegations and considered the men wrongfully held.
Security forces took Saab and the other oil executives back to Helicoide jail within hours. They've been there since they were lured to Caracas, Venezuela in 2017, for a meeting. At that meeting, they were confronted by masked officers who stormed the conference room. Former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath is being tried on weapons charges related to a plan to sabotage refineries. Two former Green Berets Caracas have been charged with a failed cross-border raid to overthrow Maduro.