United States and China chess up in Africa’s smallest country: Cape Verde

The United States has announced plans to invest almost half-a-billion dollars in Cape Verde, a set of islands off the coast of West Africa. $400m of the package will be used to build a new embassy in the capital, Praia, sited next to the presidential palace. Once completed, the mission will employ more than 300 local and diplomatic staff.

The money was announced in a special 4th of July speech by US ambassador to Cape Verde, Jeff Daigle who called for greater commercial ties along with, “security and law enforcement co-operation”.

Analysts say the former Portuguese colony has potential to rival Djibouti near the entrance to Suez as a strategic outpost. Djibouti houses the Pentagon’s only permanent military base in Africa at Fort Lemonier, with some 4000 military and civilian personnel, now dwarfed by a new set of Chinese barracks designed to hold 10,000 troops.

Likewise, China is more than matching America’s spend in Cape Verde, including a $50m university completed in July 2021.

The country is comprised of a string of islands lying more than 600 kilometres from the coast of West Africa, placing it well beyond the territorial waters of is closest neighbours including Senegal and Mauretania — key players in the US war against groups like Boko Haram — but close enough for eavesdropping or military strikes.

The Presidential Palace is a neoclassical mansion built in 1894 to house the colony’s then Portuguese governor, and by 2014, it was in dire need of repair. The plan was to preserve as much of the original work as possible and redecorate in keeping with a 120-year-old building. This needed a team of specialists who didn’t come cheap: China paid the bill.

This was followed by a new football stadium, a number of public buildings and the university. Over the past decade, Beijing has outspent all other donors, including the US and Portugal.

The archipelago forms a horse-shoe in the Atlantic Ocean, the two points facing west with its back to Africa. In the south is Santiago, largest of the islands and home to the capital city of Praia. To the north lies St Vincent, smaller but with better harbours and inlets and it’s here that China has a maritime repair station.

In an effort to spread wealth across the lesser islands, St Vincent has been declared a “special economic zone”. The infrastructure will come from China. The strategic importance of the islands is nothing new. Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, and Sir Francis.

Drake all stopped in Cape Verde and the US opened its first consulate more than 200 years ago. During the apartheid era, South African Airways was barred from overflying the continent, but Cape Verde allowed the airline to refuel on the route between Johannesburg and London.

On charts that measure justice, personal liberty and the fairness of elections, Cape Verde is near the top. Freedom House ranks it at No 8 out of nearly 200 countries, well ahead of Britain, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.

The Biden administration has made clear it will favour countries that uphold these values, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has already described Cape Verde as “a model of democratic governance and human rights in Africa”.

There are more Cabo Verdeans living in America than at home and this creates a human and cultural link between the two that other countries find hard to match.

In February, Blinken spoke by phone to the minister for defence and foreign affairs, Mr. Rui Figueiredo, promising to expand US trade and cooperation. Blinken’s spokesman, Ned Price, said the two men also discussed ways to “strengthen our security partnership”.

That partnership is under strain over a request dating from the Trump era to extradite Alex Saab (49), a Venezuelan national of Lebanese decent, born in Colombia and now under house arrest in Praia. Washington accuses Saab of money laundering and propping up the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Caracas by thwarting US sanctions against Venezuela.

The bans started under President Obama and were intensified by Donald Trump in response to what America claims is an “illegitimate” government led by Maduro, and gross abuse of human rights.

On 12 June 2020, Saab set off from Caracas for a diplomatic meeting in Iran which he says was to secure humanitarian supplies. He was carrying a Venezuelan passport and a letter from President Maduro when his private jet stopped to refuel at Cape Verde. Police boarded the plane and arrested him on what they claimed to be a Red Notice from Interpol. It later emerged that the warrant was only issued after Saab had been taken into custody.

The Economic Community of West African States — of which Cape Verde is a member — has ruled the arrest illegal and prosecutors in Switzerland say there is not enough evidence to charge Mr. Saab with a criminal case.

Maduro has since appointed him Venezuela’s ambassador to the African Union and demanded his release, but to no avail. A court in Praia has approved extradition to the US and Saab’s lawyers have appealed the decision. Venezuela demands he be allowed to return to Caracas.

The continued detention of Mr. Saab has potential to damage Cape Verde’s reputation for justice, if as his defence insists, he has diplomatic immunity, and the Interpol warrant was only issued after he was removed from the aircraft. They also question the evidence – rather than hearsay – on which he might be convicted. His lawyers fear that, if a US court exonerates their client, Washington will simply come up with new charges that did not apply when they asked for his extradition.

Canada, Panama and a number of EU states have imposed sanctions on Venezuela and several Latin American countries now restrict entry to members of the Maduro government while Colombia has its own money laundering charges against Mr. Saab.

In 2018, Matthias Krull, a Swiss banker who moved money around the world for Maduro was arrested while holidaying with his family in Florida. Slapped with a 10-year prison term, he revealed the multiple accounts and shell companies used by Venezuela to circumvent sanctions. Some of his testimony is believed to include allegations against Mr. Saab though these might be dismissed as given “under duress”; in exchange for the information, Krull was rewarded with early release in April 2021.

Washington has a wide-ranging statute that criminalizes a person in any jurisdiction if they have used the American banking system or even its currency in certain acts deemed unlawful.

In 2012, Zimbabwean drug dealer Paul le Roux was lured to what he thought was a meeting with a Colombian cartel boss at a hotel in Liberia. It was a sting set up by local police at the behest of the US which has an extradition treaty with Liberia. Le Roux is now serving a 25-year sentence in New York.

Cape Verde has no such treaty and unless the government feels especially cooperative, there is no pressure for them to hand over Mr. Saab who, in July 2021, was also placed on a British list of “sanctioned persons” in connection with his work for Venezuela.

If the sudden interest in Cape Verde along with vast amounts of aid and investment looks like a bribe to get Saab onto US soil, Wikileaks cables dating back almost a decade show otherwise. Messages during Hilary Clinton’s term as secretary of state speculate on a possible military base for the islands.

In 2018, Africom – the US military command for Africa – hosted its annual conference in Cape Verde, and in March 2019, the State Department set out in writing its priorities for the country. Key among these was to, “support Cabo Verdean security forces in deterring and combating a full spectrum of threats, especially crime, trafficking, and terrorism through increased security collaboration between the United States and Cabo Verde.

The report ends with a warning that China is, “also working in these areas and are willing and able to fill any voids”. In Johannesburg, another man accused of breaching US law well beyond its borders has been in custody almost three years. Mozambique’s one-time finance minister, Manuel Chang is accused of signing off a deal for a fleet of fishing boats that left a $2bn hole in the national accounts.

Both the US and Mozambique have applied for his extradition, but South Africa appears in no hurry to comply. Success in this field has not been good. Edward Snowden who revealed secrets from the CIA and other agencies, has been granted permanent residence in Moscow.

Efforts to arrest Julian Assange started during the first Obama presidency and have never come close to fruition. The Wikileaks founder is in a British prison on a charge of slipping bail but will soon be due for release. There is little chance of either man being sent to the US.

Regardless of how many appeals there are or how much the Biden administration spends in Cape Verde, odds are Alex Saab won’t be heading to America any time soon.

Geoff Hill
Geoff Hill
Geoff Hill is a South African journalist.