It’s probably just a coincidence.
One day after a Russian official warned that Venezuela would struggle to meet its financial obligations to Moscow under a $3.15 billion debt-rescheduling deal, Bloomberg is reporting that a mysterious Russian Boeing 777 had landed in Caracas on Tuesday and ferried away 20 tonnes of gold – equivalent to roughly 20% of the country’s holdings of the shiny metal – to an unknown location with little explanation. The story cited a “bombshell tweet” sent by Venezuelan lawmaker Jose Guerra, a “former central bank economist who remains in touch with old colleagues there”, and the “welter of social media speculation” that followed (though Guerra provided no evidence).
To be sure, many outlandish claims have been made in the week since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the legitimate democratically-elected leader of what was once Latin America’s wealthiest nation – creating the biggest threat to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s rule since the socialist dictator took office in 2013.
Moving the 20 tonnes of gold bars, worth some $840 million, occurred shortly after the UK denied the Maduro regime’s request to retrieve some $1.2 billion in gold being kept in the vaults of the Bank of England.
And with the country owing billions of dollars to Russia and China (not to mention the Venezuela’s long-suffering bondholders), the story’s implication is clear: was this collateral paid to Russian President Vladimir Putin?
On Monday, a plane belonging to Nordwind Airlines, a popular Russian charter operator based in Moscow, landed at the international airport near Caracas, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24. A Nordwind spokesman declined to comment Wednesday on the purpose of the flight.
While Finance Minister Simon Zerpa declined to comment on the nation’s gold, he said there was no Russian plane at Simon Bolivar International Airport: “I’m going to start bringing Russian and Turkish airplanes every week so everybody gets scared,” he said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry also had no information about the charter jet, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a message Wednesday. There are no plans to evacuate Russians from Venezuela, she said.
According to BBG, Venezuela has been trying for years to increase its gold reserves via mining. The state gold processor Minerven melts ore into gold bars which are transported by the military (which controls the mining) to the central bank.
The US announced sanctions against the Maduro regime earlier this week, including restrictions on buying the country’s oil, to try and starve his regime of money, while opening access to Venezuelan assets frozen in the US to Guaido to try and help him cement his control of the country.
By Wednesday morning, the regime was feeling pressure to capitulate and begin negotiations, with Maduro reportedly saying he’d be “open to talks” with the opposition, though, as the New York Times noted, ” it is “not clear if the comments were a genuine offer for negotiations with the opposition or a bid to buy time for his embattled government.”
“I am ready to sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition so that we could talk about what benefits Venezuela,” Mr. Maduro said.
Maduro listed several potential mediators for the talks, including Mexico, Uruguay, Bolivia, Russia, the Vatican and other European governments that had encouraged a dialogue. The purported capitulation comes after Maduro had threatened to use the country’s Supreme Court to impose a travel ban on Guaido in what appeared to be an attempt to intimidate him.
President Trump welcomed Maduro’s announcement, while reiterating a warning to US citizens not to travel to Venezuela.
Maduro willing to negotiate with opposition in Venezuela following U.S. sanctions and the cutting off of oil revenues. Guaido is being targeted by Venezuelan Supreme Court. Massive protest expected today. Americans should not travel to Venezuela until further notice.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2019
Still, he has rejected international calls for new elections, which could soon lead to several Western European nations joining the ranks of countries recognizing Guaido as the country’s legitimate ruler.