(MENAFN - Caribbean News Now) President Nicolás Maduro
By Caribbean News Now contributor
CARACAS, Venezuela – The administration of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is selling off his country's gold reserves, through a tight-lipped process in East Africa, a gambit that eludes US sanctions.
Approximately 7.4 tons of gold with a market price over $300 million transported from Venezuela to a refinery in Uganda on two early-March flights, say officials in Uganda and Venezuela, a foreign diplomat and Venezuelan opposition legislators, who have reasoned Maduro's administration transported the gold.
The gold arrived on a Russian charter aircraft in two consignments at the international airport in Entebbe, says Ugandan national-police spokesperson Fred Enanga. The accompanying documents identified the ingots, some with stamped labels partly scraped off, as Venezuelan central-bank property, maintains a senior Ugandan police officer who viewed the bars and papers. Flight records reveal the trips began in Caracas, Venezuela.
The cargoes uncover one connection in a global secret market that many believe is assisting Maduro to clasp to power by circumventing the US-controlled international finance system.
Washington has acknowledged opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's lawful president, slapped financial and other sanctions on Venezuelan officials and organisations and threatened penalties for others doing business with the administration.
The deadlock between the two leaders is reverberating beyond Venezuela, with some 50 nations following the US in supporting Guaidó while others side with Maduro. What was once Latin America's wealthiest economy is dying, its oil transactions have diminished and Venezuelans are suffering through days long power blackouts and deficiencies of essential goods.
Gold sales, US and other officials say, are one of Maduro's final financial lifelines.
The gold that arrived in Entebbe crossed through African Gold Refinery Ltd (AGR), in an area roughly 500 yards from the old runway before being transported to the Middle East, Ugandan police say.
The refinery commenced operations in 2015. Some of the gold it processed was purportedly transported illegally from conflict-torn eastern Congo and other African countries, according to authorities with Ugandan police, the country's Financial Intelligence Authority and regional smugglers.
Gold from AGR has entered into supply chains at US corporations including Starbucks Corp, General Motors Co (GM) and General Electric Co (GE), the firms' filings for 2018 with the Securities and Exchange Commission show, notwithstanding US measures to deter the usage of so-called conflict minerals from Congo.
GM forbids suppliers from utilising forced or involuntary labour or engage in illegal business practices, a spokesperson stated. GE to comment. Starbucks did not reply to calls for comment.
Cherry Anne Dacdac, AGR general manager, says the company has not processed smuggled or conflict gold and refuses to talk on the March shipments. She maintains all AG R's business is legitimate and that in a March 26 executives conference it agreed it would not receive sales linked to Venezuela.
AGR has processed and transported more than 38 tons of gold since it commenced operations, Dacdac says. The scale of its operation assisted in driving gold in 2018 to pass coffee as the foremost export from Uganda, which mines little of it.
The refinery seems to act with assistance from Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, court and other papers examined suggest. A spokesperson for Museveni says the president 'backs the plant just as he does all other investors' in his journey to remodel Uganda's economy.
The Maduro administration's earlier gold sales have been an open point of dispute.
Between late 2017 and February 1, 2019, the central bank sold at least 73.3 tons of gold, with a market price of around $3 billion, to businesses in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, the National Assembly's finance commission announced in February.
In related news, the US Navy's premier hospital ship is set to leave on a five-month humanitarian mission in South and Central America to aid US regional partners with Venezuelan refugees fleeing the continuing crisis in the Latin American country.
The USNS Comfort, presently docked in Miami, will depart the US on June 18, making numerous stops in Costa Rica, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Ecuador, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, St Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia as part of the operation, the Navy stated in a release to the media.
The Navy ship's medical teams will render treatment on board and at land-based medical locations, assisting to alleviate pressure on national medical systems strived partially by an uptick in displaced Venezuelans, service authorities stated.
The humanitarian operation was deemed essential due to the ever-deteriorating humanitarian emergency [tied] to the continuing economic and political uncertainty in Venezuela, the authorities continued.
US-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Guaidó and his supporters in May began the so-called 'final phase' of their attempts to oust socialist leader Maduro from office.
Violent clashes broke out between Guaidó backers, who enjoy clear backing from the Trump administration and government troops in Caracas, which ended when opposition forces were eventually forced to concede as regime forces quickly reasserted control in the capital.