U.S. sanctions target food subsidy scam in Venezuela, charges businessman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States imposed sanctions on Thursday on 10 people and 13 groups in a Venezuelan food subsidy scheme the U.S. Treasury said lined the pockets of President Nicolas Maduro, his stepsons and others as ordinary Venezuelans suffer food shortages.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan citizens line up to buy food at a store in Caracas, Venezuela, December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo

The Treasury Department said Colombian national Alex Nain Saab orchestrated a vast corruption network for food imports and distribution in Venezuela and profited from overvalued contracts, including the food subsidy program.

Saab bribed Maduro’s three stepsons to win no-bid, overvalued government contracts, said Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

“Alex Saab engaged with Maduro insiders to run a wide-scale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

“Treasury is targeting those behind Maduro’s sophisticated corruption schemes, as well as the global network of shell companies that profit from” the country’s military-controlled food distribution program, he said.

In a state television broadcast on Thursday evening, Maduro called the sanctions a sign of “desperation” by “the gringo empire.”

“Imperialists, prepare for more defeats, because the CLAP in Venezuela will continue,” Maduro said, using the Spanish acronym for the food program. “No one takes the CLAP away from the people.”

Separately, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida said on Thursday it had charged Saab and another Colombian businessman with money laundering related to a 2011-2015 scheme to pay bribes to take advantage of Venezuela’s government-set exchange rate.

The U.S. Treasury said Saab became involved with the food subsidy program in 2016, when he set up a corporate structure to acquire food outside the country and ship it to Venezuela.

Saab reaped profits and imported only a fraction of the food needed for the subsidy program, it said.

Treasury alleged the individuals hit by sanctions had enriched themselves through government contracts, including Maduro’s stepsons Walter, Yosser and Yoswal Gavidia.

Saab also began in 2018 to help the Venezuelan government liquidate gold mined in Venezuela and convert it to foreign currency, Treasury said. The gold was then flown to destinations including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, it said.

The United States imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan gold sector last year. U.S. envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams estimated on Wednesday that Maduro’s government had sold roughly $1 billion in gold in 2019.

Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Tom Brown, Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman