Pawns in Venezuela drug case languish behind bars

The Bay Area venture Mubadala Development Co received a $1.5bn loan last week from a Chinese bank, in a sign of oil-backed investment that is once again ramping up

Four years after Venezuela acquired an oil company from a small American firm for $1.5bn, the four executives imprisoned on US drug charges in what was a hoped-for showcase for socialism remain pawns in a US-Venezuela standoff.

The case of two executives and two Venezuelan nationals, Victor Sanchez and Claudio Melgar, has become a symbol of the conflict between Washington and Caracas, which claims the charges are baseless but which agreed last week to open its trial to an unnamed foreign justice, meaning the Department of Justice, one wonders.

The men, convicted of conspiring to smuggle heroin from Venezuela into the US, remain in federal prison but are now covered by Article 58 of the 1982 Venezuelan constitution. That allows prison to be shortened if charged with a crime for which they had previous convictions, and four years is commonly assumed to be a guarantee for any man charged with drug trafficking.

Four years later, the promise of potential leniency in the form of unearthing more evidence against the men in the form of Cuban drones, has turned out to be largely empty. There is a sense of scandal that promises have been broken: a judge in Miami freed two Venezuelan nationals on a drug trafficking charge a week after Sanchez and Melgar’s conviction.

Four years later, the promise of unearthing more evidence against the men in the form of Cuban drones has turned out to be largely empty. There is a sense of scandal that promises have been broken.

It’s unlikely the four executive now in prison in Louisiana and Maryland will get out any time soon. Sanchez’s sentencing date is expected to be on 28 July, though his lawyers have requested a two-week postponement. Melgar’s sentencing is now set for 10 August.

Their attorney, Jacqueline Mense, has argued that Sanchez, 43, Melgar, 47, and the others should be put on house arrest because of drug trafficking in their native Honduras. So far, two of the men’s wives have been granted that limited rights, two others have visited with their prisoners on Friday, and now Mubadala, a Saudi-based oil company, has received a $1.5bn loan.

Tensions between the White House and Caracas remain high, with Donald Trump tweeting on Wednesday morning: “If I weren’t president of the United States I would be willing to bet that they would be five foot high!”

The US state department spokesperson Heather Nauert insisted Washington is “in full support of the Venezuelan government’s attempts to address the country’s economic problems through free and fair elections.” But it hasn’t provided any monetary support, or diplomatic help, to employees of oil company Citgo, whose operations were suspended from Venezuela by a court order at a general strike protest.

Foreign Policy called the injunction against Citgo “a desperate power grab”. The order “effectively shuts down the company,” Rep Stan Rupp said during the action. “The United States should be helping the country not blocking the way. It’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Supporters of Chavez, and of Hugo Chávez before him, have long claimed that under socialism the system will work – and they have plenty of time to wait: socialism in Venezuela is seven decades old.

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