A Libyan militia commander allegedly trading US dollars for Venezuelan gold adds to mounting evidence that President Nicolás Maduro now welcomes all buyers in his effort to sell off the country's reserves of the precious metal.
The Libyan and US governments have tracked the private jet of Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, to Venezuela, according to an exclusive Wall Street Journal report. The jet is suspected of having picked up illegal gold, carrying it to Europe and then the Middle East, according to European, Libyan and US security officials who spoke to the newspaper.
The United States started looking into these reports in June, according to Reuters.
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Reports say Haftar's associates flew on multiple occasions to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, according to flight-tracking information cited in the Wall Street Journal. The gold was then shipped to vaults in Switzerland and the Middle East.
Haftar was previously a high-ranking member of Libya’s military under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi, the late Libyan leader who was captured and killed in 2011. After becoming commander of the Libyan National Army, Haftar has since taken over large parts of eastern Libya and remains engaged in a civil war with the UN-backed Government of National Accord.
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The allegations of the dollars-for-gold trade with Haftar follows a pattern of Maduro’s regime selling gold to players in the Middle East.
Haftar fits the bill as a prospective trading partner: He is currently fighting the UN-backed government in Libya, and he is supported by Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which have also helped Venezuela sidestep US sanctions by buying its oil and gold.
The Maduro government also has been draining the gold reserves of the Venezuelan Central Bank (Banco Central de Venezuela -- BCV) in exchange for oil and refinery parts from Iran. In June, the United States sanctioned five Iranian ship captains who delivered 1.5 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela to block Iran's energy trade and to put further pressure on Maduro, Reuters reported.
The investigation into Haftar’s alleged bartering of US dollars for illegal gold adds to the already complex links between Venezuela and powerful actors in the Middle East.
In May, Adel El Zabayar, a former Venezuelan congressman, was indicted in the United States for reportedly acting as a go-between for Maduro and groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
As Venezuela's oil production has dried up, Maduro has increasingly relied on minerals like gold to keep his government afloat. He has even turned a blind eye to dissident elements of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC) and guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN) controlling illegal mining deposits in the country. The illicit gold has created a criminal pipeline for funds that have proven critical to his government’s survival amid continued sanctions.
In addition, Maduro finds himself increasingly cornered after the capture of one of his most trusted financiers in early June. In the face of growing economic constraints, the shadowy Colombian businessman Álex Saab had helped Maduro’s government negotiate gold sales with Turkey, among other dealings.
As the pressure mounts on Maduro, it would come as little surprise to see his government working with other US-defined bad actors in the Middle East like Haftar to secure much-needed funds.