In the increasingly bitter global rivalry between China and the US, the case of Venezuela’s special envoy Alex Saab can only be a sideline. But it is a good reminder of the different political and diplomatic priorities of the two superpowers battling for influence in key regions of the world, including West Africa.
Saab, a Colombian businessman and close ally of the ailing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, is not as well known as the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich. That says something about the extraordinary double standards of the western mainstream media. Not only are the circumstances of their arrests remarkably similar, Saab’s case is arguably even more outrageous. Since the abuser of power is not Belarus but the United States, there was hardly any international press coverage and criticism was practically non-existent.
Washington and Western governments have of course been shouting from the roof over Protasevich, who was arrested in Minsk after his plane was forced to land in May by the Belarusian Air Force alleging a bomb threat.
However, they maintained a deafening silence as the US attempted to extradite Saab, who has been detained in the island state of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa since last June. At that time, under pressure from the US, neighboring African countries reportedly refused to land on his plane for refueling, forcing it to land in Cape Verde. He was reportedly on his way to Iran to trade Venezuelan gold for fuel and medicine as both countries are under crippling US sanctions. The Swiss bank UBS, for example, has blocked Venezuela’s payments to the international COVAX vaccine-sharing facility for fear of violating US sanctions.
Washington has charged Saab with money laundering and violating unilateral US sanctions. Caracas has argued, not wrongly, that it enjoys full diplomatic immunity. Both the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States have called for his release. His case is now before the Cape Verde Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court.
Despite China’s competing influence with the US in Cape Verde, Beijing and the Chinese state news media have largely kept Saab silent. Had the case been reversed, Washington would no doubt scream bloody murder over illegal incarceration, kidnapping and human rights abuses. Chinese diplomats prefer not to play this game.
But why not? Although the former Portuguese colony is only a small nation of around 550,000 people, China has already helped it build a presidential palace, a large government building, and a soccer stadium, and is funding a $ 60 million university expansion this year. This against the background of a previously uncommitted US $ 400 million package that Washington is dangling off Cabo Verde, including the construction of a huge US diplomatic compound.
About 570 km off the west coast of the African continent, in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Verde is an important sea and air refueling location. Securing access to the archipelago will be a huge geopolitical win for Washington or Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, the US has thought long and hard about building a military base there. In 2018, the US Central Military Command for Africa (Africom) held its annual conference in Cape Verde. However, the country’s constitution prohibits the establishment of foreign military bases. China obviously has similar geopolitical and commercial interests.
Saab’s case thwarted this complicated diplomatic dance. Cape Verde does not want to be seen as a vicarious agent of Washington, but must remain in its good favor. Washington wants to maintain a semblance of legality, although its case against Saab has clearly been motivated from day one by its ongoing campaign to overthrow the Maduro government, which includes the side of Maduro’s archenemy and opposition leader Juan Guaido. There have been allegations that Cape Verde Attorney General Luís José Landim was close to US interests while still serving as a prosecutor in East Timor (or Timor-Leste), another former Portuguese colony. Beijing is friends with Maduro and wants him to stay in office.
The representatives of Maduro and Guaido are now negotiating in Mexico City with the mediation of the Norwegian government. Progress has been made, but the Saab case remains a major obstacle to any deal in which Washington will have a major stake. One reason for this is that Guaido’s faction is fragmented despite Western support; and the Venezuelan economy has improved despite US sanctions. That will significantly increase the chances of Maduro and his United Socialist Party in the upcoming general election in November.
Given all of these complex factors, the outcome of Saab’s extradition case was the wild card. He was Maduro’s main fixer and dealmaker. Beijing may well have an incentive to draw attention to the injustice of this case, which is typical of the out-of-court superiority of the US, which, among many others, has long angered the Chinese. After all, it bears many similarities to the ongoing U.S. extradition proceedings against Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and its founder’s daughter in Canada.
Despite U.S. bank fraud allegations and violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran that a Meng company sought to do business with, her case was clearly part of Washington’s campaign to destroy the 5G pioneer and one of China’s top national champions in high- Tech area. It came after former Hong Kong Interior Minister Patrick Ho Chi-ping was arrested in the US for bribery and money laundering in a case involving his promotion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure aid and cooperation program, in Chad and Uganda .
Ho described himself as “the first of the sacrificial lambs” in the US trade war with China, and Ho’s business in Africa was in no way tied to American interests. But Washington was able to target him because some financial transactions were being made in the US. Despite such irritations, there is currently much going in favor of Beijing, Venezuela and elsewhere, as the US is distracted and discredited by its catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan. It shouldn’t overdo it in Cape Verde.
*Jo Lee (wife) is a seasoned journalist focused on Hong Kong and mainland China affairs.