US Investigators: Venezuelan Officials Suspected of Getting Rich from Food Imports


26 September, 2018

The United States is working with Latin American countries to investigate possible corruption by Venezuelan officials.

The Associated Press says the two sides held two days of talks on the issue in June at a hotel in Panama. Several other meetings are reported to have taken place since April.

The discussions are part of an effort by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to pressure Venezuela's political leadership.

Venezuela is rich in oil and a member of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. But it faces major economic problems, including high inflation, debt and a lack of basic goods. Many Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries, causing a humanitarian crisis.

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The socialist policies of President Nicolas Maduro are widely blamed for his country's problems.

The Trump administration is sharing information about Venezuela with officials from Mexico, Panama and Colombia. They are looking at business ties to the Venezuelan government. They believe that some of the companies are taking money from food import programs.

Since January 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department has taken steps to punish a number of Venezuelan officials. They have faced sanctions over reported corruption, human rights abuses and trafficking in illegal drugs.

U.S. officials look at Venezuelan food program

Several of the people who took part in the Panama meeting spoke to The Associated Press. They asked that their names not be made public because the talks were private.

At the meeting, financial investigators looked at the business dealings of Venezuelan companies said to be under the government's control. They also wanted to study the dealings of businessmen tied to the government.

Last year, Trump suggested to aides and Latin American leaders that Maduro should be removed from office by force. The administration has more recently sought to increase pressure on Venezuela's government with the help of allies in the area.

Marshall Billingslea is the treasury department's Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing. He spoke to reporters at the June meeting. He said the administration chose to pay close attention to Venezuela's food program.

The AP reported in 2016 that top government officials were diverting money from food import deals. Since that time, reports of hunger in Venezuela have spread.

Maduro's government has moved to give out containers of staple foods, such as cooking oil, flour, rice and canned goods. The containers are said to be provided by Local Committees for Supply and Production. They are known as CLAP boxes, from their Spanish acronym.

The CLAP boxes, however, have become a highly disputed issue.

Maduro says the food is a way to fight, what he calls, the "economic war" carried out against him by the U.S. government and its allies.

His critics say the food supplies are a form of social control in which food is given only to Maduro's supporters.

Millions of Venezuelans now depend on the CLAP boxes. They are especially important because of Venezuela's high inflation. A local research company notes that more than 60 percent of Venezuelan homes said they received CLAP boxes in the past three months.

Reports of corruption linked to the way food is given out have led to increased attention.

"This goes beyond just corruption," Billingslea said, "This is literally looting the one social safety-net program left in Venezuela."

Investigators have turned their attention to a Colombian businessman, Alex Saab from Barranquilla. Saab gained attention a few years ago by signing an agreement to build social housing in Venezuela. At the time, he appeared with then-president Hugo Chavez, Maduro and then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Investigators say Saab entered the food business through a Hong Kong-based company, called Group Grand Ltd. But investigators say the group appears to be linked to Saab's building company back in Colombia. Group Grand has received a contract to provide at least 11.5 million CLAP boxes.

The AP says it has received information that Group Grand charged Venezuela's food ministry $41 million for powdered milk in September of 2017. The price was more than 100 percent higher than the market price at the time, the AP report said.

One former Venezuelan law enforcement official, Luisa Ortega, has called for an investigation into Saab's dealings.

Billingslea would not discuss individuals or groups that are under investigation. But he said that going after money stolen from food imports by Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores is a top concern.

The AP reports that U.S. and Colombian officials have been investigating Saab for more than one year. His lawyer, Richard Diaz, has rejected accusations of wrongdoing. Diaz said that if the accusations were true Saab would have been charged long ago.

Billingslea has said that Maduro has refused to deal with the growing problem of hunger in Venezuela by blaming others.

Leaders of Argentina, Colombia and Chile have called for Maduro to be tried in an international court for crimes against humanity.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Joshua Goodman wrote this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter adapted his report for VOA Learning English. His story also includes information from VOA News and other Associated Press reports. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

sanction – n. measure put in place to cause a country to obey international law, usually by limiting or banning trade

divert – v. to change the direction or use of something

staple – adj. used, needed or enjoyed by many people all the time

acronym – n. a word formed from the first letters of each one of the words in the phrase

looting – n. to steal from a place such as a store or house during a time of unrest

contract – n. a business agreement or deal