Russian aircraft might be whisking gold out of Caracas
A Russian-owned freight airliner took off from Venezuela on Friday afternoon, the latest of two mystery flights last week that have raised questions about Russia’s role in the unfolding crisis.
A Boeing 757 registered to a newly established Moscow air freight company, spelled intermittently as Erofey, Yerofei and Erofei, left an airport near Caracas in the early afternoon and headed on a trans-Atlantic route.
Two commercial flight tracking services, Radarbox24 and flightradar24, showed the flight approximating the journey it took three days earlier when it left Moscow, flew to Dubai, on to Casablanca in Morocco and the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic before arriving at Simon Bolivar International Airport near Caracas.
What was aboard the aircraft was unknown, but a Russian media outlet, Novaya Gazeta, reported Thursday that Russia may be helping embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro remove 20 tons of gold out of his country for fear he may not hang onto power.
Another passenger jet, chartered from the Russian company Nordwind, landed at themain airport near Caracas onMonday evening and returned to Moscow two days later.
Themystery flights draw attention to the broader issue of how Russia has become a patron to Maduro, partly to poke a stick at the United States but also to protect about $17 billion in investments and credits the Russian state and Russian companies have made to Venezuela’s shattered oil sector.
Some analysts saw in the flights echoes of what has transpired in the final days of other authoritarian rulers around the globe.
“Historically, what dictators do when they believe they are about to lose power, or worry about it, they basically take everything they can carry and they spirit it out of the country to some safe place,” said R. Evan Ellis, a Latin America expert at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Ellis said he didn’t know what was aboard the two aircraft but that the flights are an indication that Russia may be assisting Maduro’s government in moving assets.
“The presumption is that it is gold. I don’t know what else you would want to move,” Ellis said.
Erofey, the Moscow air freight company, which also does business as E-Cargo, began operations last July out of Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Russian aviation publications said its chief executive had run aircraft manufacturing operations in Russia, and that the Boeing 757 was once operated by United Airlines and later converted to cargo use.
Russia struck up warm relations with Venezuela under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, a charismatic populist who governed from 1999 until his death in 2013, when Maduro took the helm.
“Chávez was endlessly traveling to Russia,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, editor of the Russia File blog at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, a think tank in Washington.
Amid the sharp unraveling of Venezuela’s economy, Maduro began his second term as president on Jan. 10. But the United States and about 20 other countries denied him recognition, saying his re-election was not free and fair, and threw support behind National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as interim president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro meet Dec. 8 outside Moscow. Russia may be helping Maduro remove 20 tons of gold out of his country.