US official: Maduro ‘looting’ Venezuela’s gold amid crisis

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2018 file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at the Miraflores Presidential Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela. Prosecutors said Thursday, Oct. 18, that people linked to the Venezuelan government and Mexican companies conspired to overcharge Venezuela for basic food aid packages. President Maduro began distributing subsidized food as his nation fell deeper into political and economic turmoil, but critics say Maduro has essentially weaponized food, distributing the boxes primarily to government workers and supporters. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been illegally exporting tons of his country’s gold to Turkey in a bid to rescue a collapsing economy once bolstered by his country’s vast oil reserves, a top U.S. official said Wednesday.

Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, said Maduro is “looting” his country’s gold in a new strategy to replace Venezuela’s failing state-run oil company, PDVSA.

Maduro’s government in recent months has shipped more than 21 metric tons of gold mostly to Turkey without approval from the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Billingslea said.

“This gold is being removed from the country without any of the customary safeguards that would ensure the funds are accounted for and properly catalogued as belonging to the Venezuelan people,” he said.

Venezuela is in the grips of an economic crisis marked by soaring inflation that leaves residents struggling to afford scarce food and medicine. PDVSA’s crude production is crashing, which critics blame on nearly two decades of mismanagement and corruption under socialist rule.

The U.S. government has sanctioned dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, among economic measures designed at pressuring the country’s return to democracy.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, Billingslea declined to say whether the U.S. is preparing to extend economic sanctions to Venezuela’s gold exports.

Subsidized food boxes that millions of Venezuelan families rely on for survival have begun to come with Turkish-made products, drawing the attention of U.S. officials, said Billingslea, who called the food program a “corruption scheme.”

The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to The Associated Press’ request for comment.

Mining Minister Victor Cano in July announced that Venezuela’s Central Bank had begun refining gold in Turkey that it buys from its miners in the South American country.

Cano said Venezuela was no longer sending its gold to Switzerland, but rather to an allied country, where there was no risk of it being seized under international sanctions.

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