Maduro halts 20-tonne gold shipment as jet flies off empty-handed

The embattled Nicolas Maduro regime halted plans to ship 20 tons of Venezuelan gold overseas as a growing international push to ring-fence the country’s dwindling hard assets unnerved those handling the transaction, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The gold bars, which are worth about $850 million, had been weighed and separated for transportation, but will not be sent out anytime soon from the central bank’s vaults in Caracas, the person said. The blocking of the shipment comes just a week after the Bank of England denied Maduro officials’ request to withdraw $1.2 billion of gold stored there.

While the destination of the gold and the nature of the transactions aren’t known with certainty, it’s unusual for a country to be shipping around such massive amounts of gold. And the U.S. officials who are leading the push to have Maduro cede power to a transitional government contend that the attempted transactions form part of his authoritarian regime’s bid to ransack the country in its final days in power.

The law is clear. You will face severe sanctions if you allow Nicolás Maduro to steal the gold that doesn’t belong to him, but to the people of that great country

“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,’’ National Security Adviser John Bolton said in a tweet this week.

The gold bars held both in Caracas and London are an important source of wealth for a country that has plunged into extreme poverty under Maduro’s socialist rule. The central bank’s foreign reserves, including the gold bars, are down to a mere $8 billion. Those assets form a key part of the fierce battle for control of Venezuela’s finances between Maduro and Juan Guaido, the National Assembly leader who is trying to install a transitional government with the support of the U.S. and other countries.

On Thursday, Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who has helped spearhead the U.S.’s hard-line stance toward Maduro, fired off a tweet calling out the United Arab Emirates’ Noor Capital as the financial firm orchestrating the gold transaction with Venezuelan authorities. Rubio went on to warn the firm that both it and any airline it hires to take the gold away will be subject to the sanctions that the U.S. government has been stepping up in recent days.

Noor Capital posted a statement on its website stating that it “does not engage in any illegal or prohibited transactions” and that it is refraining from conducting business with Venezuela until the situation “stabilizes.” The firm said that it bought — legally — three tons of gold from Venezuela last week but said it hasn’t made any purchases since.

A cargo plane operated by E-Cargo, a Moscow-based company, had arrived at Caracas international airport on Jan. 30, fueling speculation that it was the plane that would cart off the gold. It arrived after leaving Moscow on Jan. 29 and stopping in Dubai, Casablanca and Cape Verde, according to data. It left Caracas Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Rubio was warning companies and countries once again to stay away from the Maduro regime, which has been propped up financially in recent years by Turkey, China and Russia.

“Think about it very carefully,” Rubio said in a speech outside Miami. “The law is clear. You will face severe sanctions if you allow Nicolás Maduro to steal the gold that doesn’t belong to him, but to the people of that great country.”

Press officials for Venezuela’s Central Bank and Finance Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Guaido, who declared himself interim president last week, has spoken at great length about his team’s push to safeguard Venezuela’s assets so that they can be used to fund the flow of humanitarian aid into the crisis-torn country.

He has scored several key victories in recent days on this front. The Trump administration imposed fresh sanctions on the national oil company PDVSA, effectively blocking Maduro from exporting crude to the U.S., and granted Guaido control of Venezuelan assets at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. And the Bank of England’s decision last week came after Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo lobbied their U.K. counterparts to help cut off the regime from its overseas assets.

“The English stole the gold in the Bank of England,” Diosdado Cabello, the powerful No. 2 in Maduro’s socialist party, said in a speech broadcast on state television this week. “The imperialist bosses should know that we will never give up.”

 (By Patricia Laya)