On July 25, the United States imposed sanctions on three of Nicolás Maduro’s stepsons for their role in a scheme that stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food-import contracts at a time of widespread hunger in Venezuela.
“Using a social welfare program that many Venezuelans are forced to depend on for their survival,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Maduro and his cronies turned the program into a political weapon and self-enriching mechanism.”
Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman also sanctioned, who amassed a large number of contracts with Maduro’s socialist government, ran the scheme.
According to the U.S. Treasury, Saab used a network of shell companies spanning the globe — in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia, and Mexico — to hide profits from no-bid, overvalued contracts obtained through bribes and kickbacks.
“Saab engaged with Maduro insiders to run a wide-scale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “They use food as a form of social control, to reward political supporters and punish opponents, all the while pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars through a number of fraudulent schemes.”
Some of Saab’s contracts, says the Treasury, were obtained by paying bribes to Yoswal, Yosser, and Walter Flores, the children of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, from a previous relationship.
In total, the actions blocked 10 individuals from doing business in the United States, including Saab’s partner and fellow Colombian Alvaro Pulido and several of his family members, as well as Maduro’s stepsons.
As hunger has spread in Venezuela, Maduro has moved to assert greater control over food importation and distribution. In 2016, he began selling monthly boxes of subsidized food staples that have become a tenuous lifeline for millions of citizens suffering from shortages and hyperinflation that reached 130,000 percent last year.
Critics accuse Maduro — in addition to allowing rampant corruption — of essentially weaponizing food, making the food boxes available primarily to government workers and supporters. The allegations have fueled calls from several Latin American governments, Canada, and France for Maduro to be tried at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
“This goes beyond just corruption,” U.S. Treasury Assistant Secretary Marshall Billingslea said in a 2018 interview with the Associated Press. “This is literally looting the one social safety net program left in Venezuela.”