El Callao, Venezuela — Venezuela’s most successful financial operations in recent years have not taken place on Wall Street, but in primitive gold-mining camps in the nation’s southern reaches. With the country’s economy in meltdown, an estimated 300,000 fortune hunters have descended on this mineral-rich jungle area to earn a living pulling gold-flecked earth from makeshift mines. Their picks and shovels are helping to prop up the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro. Since 2016, his administration has bought 17 tons of the metal worth about $650m from so-called artisan miners, according to the most recent data from the nation’s central bank. Paid with the country’s near-worthless bank notes, these amateurs in turn supply the government with hard currency to buy badly needed imports of food and hygiene products. This gold trade is a blip on international markets. Still, the US is using sanctions and intimidation in an effort to stop Maduro from using his nation’s gold to ...

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