The White House warned against trading in ‘stolen’ Venezuelan gold Wednesday amid fears of an attempt to remove 20 tons of the precious metal from its central bank while its president Nicolas Maduro clings to power.
A Russian chartered Boeing 777 – carrying just two crew and no passengers – landed in Caracas Wednesday, allegedly to carry 20 tons of gold from the Central Bank of Venezuela out of the country, ad left later in the day.
John Bolton, Donald Trump’s national adviser, used Twitter to threaten action against anyone trading in Venezuelan commodities.
‘My advice to bankers, brokers, traders, facilitators, and other businesses: don’t deal in gold, oil, or other Venezuelan commodities being stolen from the Venezuelan people by the Maduro mafia. We stand ready to continue to take action,’ he said.
The flight, operated by Russia’s Nordwind Airlines, left Venezuela at 4.52 pm local time, a Reuters witness said.
Another Russian-operated flight, a Boeing 777 cargo plane, arrived at the airport an hour earlier via Cape Verde, according to publicly-available flight data. There are no routine flights between the two countries.
Venezuelan lawmaker Jose Guerra, a former central bank economist, told the opposition-run National Assembly his understanding was that the Nordwind plane would take some gold reserves to Russia. The bank did not respond to a request for comment.
Mystery plane: A passenger jet from Russian company Nordwind was seen leaving Simon Bolivar Airport in Caracas, Venezuela, late Wednesday. There have been claims it was being used to remove 20 tons of gold
Claims: Nicolas Maduro (pictured on Tuesday) said that he has no doubt that President Trump has given an order to the Colombian government – and its mafia – to assassinate him
In the protests: Juan Guaido, who has appointed himself interim president and is recognized as leader by the U.S. walked with medical students of Universidad Central de Venezueladuring a protest against Nicolas Maduro in Caracas Wednesday
Hundreds of Venezuelans demonstrate in front of the Hospital de Ninos J. M. de los Rios against the bad conditions of the patients in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 30
Demonstrators gathered at the behest of self-proclaimed ‘acting president’ Juan Guaido, at Altamira square in Caracas
Sources told Reuters private military contractors who do secret missions for Moscow were in Venezuela last week.
Elliott Abrams, the recently-appointed U.S. envoy for Venezuela, said Washington was looking around the world for more assets of the Maduro government, including gold holdings and bank accounts.
The Kremlin said this week it expected Venezuela to pay its debts. Russia, which like China has loaned and invested billions of dollars to OPEC member Venezuela, called on Guaido to drop his demand for a snap election and instead accept mediation.
Also being hit is the country’s crucial oil industry.
Venezuela’s oil inventories have started to build up at the country’s ports and terminals as PDVSA is finding it cannot export crude at its usual rate due to U.S. sanctions imposed earlier this week, according to sources and shipping data.
Sanctions announced on Monday by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, aimed at driving President Nicolas Maduro out of power after his contested re-election last year, have barred PDVSA’s U.S. customers from transferring payments to the firm. That is effectively limiting state-owned PDVSA from shipping that oil because Maduro’s government cannot collect the proceeds.
As of Wednesday, Venezuela had 25 tankers with nearly 18 million barrels of crude – representing about two weeks of the country’s production – either waiting to load or expecting authorization to set sail. Most of those were anchored near the port of Jose, the country’s largest, according to Refinitiv Eikon data.
PDVSA responded to the U.S. sanctions by prohibiting tankers loading oil bound for the United States to leave Venezuelan ports if cargoes are not prepaid.
In addition, PDVSA’s inability to pay for crucial imports means fuel imports are delayed, adding to the glut of tankers off Venezuela’s coast.
The crisis again raises pressure on Maduro, whose latest claim that he was willing to talk to Guaido was met with skepticism.
Given the failure of previous rounds of dialog between the government and opposition, including one led by the Vatican, opponents are suspicious, believing Maduro uses them to quell protests and buy time.
Guaido’s envoy to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, said the only dialog they were interested in would be a negotiation for Maduro’s departure and new elections. Government officials insist the next presidential election will be in 2025.
Responding to a call by Guaido, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across Venezuela on Wednesday, some waving Venezuelan flags while drivers of cars and buses honked in support.
‘I want this government to go, it has been a total humiliation for the country,’ said Lucy Cordoba, 51, a government worker in the poor hillside town of Petare at the edge of the capital, where she said trash had not been collected for a year and water was scarce.
Cordoba said her children were among the more than 3 million Venezuelans who have left the country in the past couple of years. One went to Peru, and another to the Dominican Republic.
More than 40 people have died so far in and around the protests that began a week ago, the U.N. human rights office said. Hundreds have also been arrested, including children.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump and Guaido agreed to maintain regular communication after Venezuelan authorities opened an investigation that could lead to Guaido’s arrest. Abrams said action against Guaido would be ‘foolish.’
Oil prices rose nearly 3 percent on Wednesday, as investors remained concerned about supply disruptions.
In the country, the political atmosphere has grown even more febrile with Maduro trying to shut social media, and claiming Trump has ordered the Colombian government and mafia to assassinate him.
Maduro said that he has no doubt that the president ‘gave the order to Colombia to kill me’ and that if something happens to him ‘Donald Trump will be responsible’.
Despite his hard line against Trump, Maduro said he is willing to negotiate with Juan Guaido, who was recognized as president by the US and most Western nations as of last week.
President Trump also urged Americans not to travel to Venezuela amid the mounting tensions, echoing his State Department’s warning that the country is unstable.
He also said in a tweet on Wednesday morning that the stringent US sanctions placed on Venezeula and the fact he had cut off oil revenue were the reason why Maduro was considering negotiating with the opposition.
Maduro’s remarks in an interview with Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday came amid a dire political crisis in Venezuela.
‘Without a doubt, Donald Trump gave the order to kill me, told the Colombian government, the Colombian mafia, to kill me,’ Maduro said.
‘If something happens to me, Donald Trump and Colombian President Ivan Duque will be responsible.’
President Trump also warned Americans not to travel to Venezuela amid the mounting tensions. He also
Military backing: President Nicolas Maduro and Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, left, are seen taking part in a ceremony during military exercises at the Libertador Air Base in Maracay, Aragua state, Venezuela, on Tuesday
Maduro counts on the support of the military, and is unlikely to back down unless that changes
Maduro is seen addressing troops during a military exercise at the Libertador Air Base in Maracay, Aragua state, Venezuela
His comments came just hours after Bolton was seen on TV at the White House holding a notepad containing the note ‘5,000 troops to Colombia’, which neighbors Venezuela.
Video footage shared on social media earlier today allegedly shows armoured Colombian Army vehicles near the border with Venezuela, however their purpose is not yet known.
Maduro, who spent Tuesday taking part in military exercises at an air force base, also told Ria Novosti that he is ‘willing to sit down for talks with the opposition for the sake of Venezuela’s peace and its future’.
However, while Maduro opened up for talks with Guaido, his government is preparing an investigation that could lead to the opposition leader’s arrest.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court has imposed a travel ban on Guaido and frozen his bank accounts in apparent retaliation for US sanctions.
The 35-year-old opposition lawmaker, who is president of the National Assembly, has called for clean elections, arguing that Maduro fraudulently won a second term last year. Guaido is offering an amnesty to tempt military officials to join him.
Maduro, who accuses Guaido of staging a U.S.-directed coup against him, counts on the support of the military, and is unlikely to back down unless that changes. Russia and China are also key benefactors, giving him diplomatic backing at the U.N. Security Council.
A former union leader who succeeded his charismatic mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, Maduro has overseen a shrinking economy and the migration of more than 3 million Venezuelans fleeing food and drug shortages and hyperinflation.
Guaido called for more protests on Wednesday and a mass march on the weekend, in a bid to keep up pressure on Maduro in the streets. Wednesday’s action would not be a major march, but a series of small concentrations, Guaido said.
The U.N. human rights office said the protests had so far led to the deaths of more than 40 people.
Government supporters have also attended large rallies led by Maduro’s political allies, while the president visited military bases including overseeing live-fire exercises in recent days.
Students walk past a painting of US President Donald Trump on a wall in Caracas on Tuesday
Venezuelan opposition demonstrators, chant slogans during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, last week
He ordered the creation of 50,000 popular defense units, community groups he said would be charged with the ‘integral defense of the fatherland.’ While it was not clear if they would be armed, the strategy reflects the government’s concern the United States could try to defeat Maduro militarily.
The Pentagon has refused to rule out military action, although is it not considered likely by most experts. Trump’s top advisers include Cold War-era hawks.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met Guaido’s designated envoy to the US on Tuesday. Pence said they discussed recent sanctions actions, ‘highlighting that these deprive Maduro and his cronies access to corrupt income and … preserve the country’s wealth for the people of Venezuela.’
While the Venezuelan Army officially backs Maduro, there have been several defectors who have fled the country and are calling for the US government to give them military assistance and weapons.
‘As Venezuelan soldiers, we are making a request to the US to support us, in logistical terms, with communication, with weapons, so we can realize Venezuelan freedom,’ former soldier Carlos Guillen Martinez told CNN.
The sanctions are also expected to hit daily life hard in Venezuela, where public spending is almost entirely funded by oil revenues. The government is eager to blame Guaido for the measures, which, once they begin to bite, could diminish his popularity.
Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek Saab sought the preliminary investigation of Guaido on the basis that he had helped foreign countries interfere in internal matters.
Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno, announcing the investigation, the travel ban and the financial restrictions, said the decision was taken expressly to ‘protect the integrity of the country.’