(Bloomberg) -- President Nicolas Maduro’s Colombian financier Alex Saab is being labeled “the people’s savior” in new graffiti across Caracas ahead of a key hearing Friday on his alleged role in bribing Venezuelan officials.
Stenciled graffiti of Saab’s face and pleas for his freedom started to appear on Caracas’ main avenues before a court hearing in Cape Verde, where he has been detained since June pending a U.S. extradition request. The mysterious scribbles reading “The people are with Alex Saab” and “Freedom for Venezuela’s diplomat, fighter and compatriot,” -- when most Venezuelans do not know who Saab is -- suggest the government considers the case important enough to try to drum up popular support.
The Maduro administration admitted Saab was a “Venezuelan agent” and said the U.S. was trying to interfere with the nation’s business after his arrest. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza warned him of his duty to maintain confidentiality of his dealings on behalf of the country if he were to be extradited to the U.S. in a letter filed in court. The graffiti could be a strategy by Saab’s team to turn the case into one of political persecution via grassroots support.
Saab was arrested on the West African island while making a fuel stop on a private plane and later indicted by a U.S. federal court in Florida on federal money-laundering charges. According to the accusations, he has been bribing Venezuelan government officials and funneling more than $350 million to overseas accounts. In 2019 Saab was sanctioned by the U.S. for corruptly helping Maduro’s regime and others make hundreds of millions of dollars from a food-distribution network intended to serve the hungry, charges his lawyers deny.
Saab’s secretive relationship with the Venezuelan government made him one of the Andean region’s most powerful men. In 2018, as Venezuela’s shortage of foreign exchange became acute, Saab worked with members of the government to sell Venezuelan gold to Turkey, the U.S. has said.
“’People’s savior?’,” asked Yanira Rodriguez, whose street kiosk near Caracas’ Petare slum is now in front of one the newly drawn messages. “I don’t even know who he is.”
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