Venezuela, US prison swap: 7 Americans, 2 Venezuelans released

This is the largest trade in jailed citizens ever conducted by the Biden administration.

WASHINGTON — In a rare softening of hostile ties, Venezuela on Saturday freed seven jailed Americans in exchange for the United States releasing two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife, who have been jailed for years on drug convictions.

The American swap, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, follows months of diplomacy by senior US officials — secret talks with a major oil producer that gained urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.

The deal comes as an unusual gesture of goodwill from Maduro as the socialist leader seeks to rebuild ties with the US after defeating most of his domestic opponents. While the White House denies that a policy change toward Venezuela is underway, the Americans’ liberation could create political space for the Biden administration to ease crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela if Maduro shows progress in talks with his opponents .

“I can’t believe it,” Cristina Vadell, daughter of Tomeu Vadell, one of the freed Americans, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

On her 31st birthday, she held back tears of joy, saying, “This is the best birthday present ever. I’m just so happy.”

The transfer took place on Saturday in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is ruled by a Maduro ally, three people in Venezuela who have been briefed on the matter told the AP on condition of anonymity. The prisoners arrived from their respective locations on separate planes, the Biden administration said.

“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of loved ones where they belong,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Those rescued include five Houston-based Citgo employees — Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Pereira — who were lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the Citgo’s parent company company, the state, to participate. Oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were dragged away by masked security officers who burst into a conference room in Caracas.

The men were found guilty of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities and were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for an unfulfilled proposal to refinance billions of dollars in the oil company’s bonds.

Also released were Matthew Heath, a former US Navy corporal from Tennessee who was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela in 2020, and a Florida man, Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.

The State Department had deemed all the men wrongly imprisoned.

To facilitate a deal, Biden granted clemency to Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro calls his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a 2015 Drug Enforcement Administration stabbing and convicted the following year in New York in a highly charged case that scrutinized US drug trafficking allegations at the highest level of the Maduro administration.

Describing the men only as Venezuelans “wrongly detained” in the US, the Maduro government said in a statement it “welcomes the outcome of these talks and hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all nations of our region and the world.” ”

The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the 60 or so Americans it believes are being held hostage abroad or wrongfully arrested by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the US has so far unsuccessfully sought the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela holds the largest contingent of Americans suspected as bargaining chips to be abused.

At least four other Americans remain jailed in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets – Luke Denman and Airan Berry – who were involved in a 2019 slapdash attempt to oust Maduro, and two other men – Eyvin Hernandez and Jerrel Kenemore – the es like Khan were jailed for suspected illegal entry from neighboring Colombia.

“To all the families who are still suffering and are separated from loved ones who are unjustly imprisoned — know that we remain committed to their release,” Biden said in his statement.

Saturday’s swap quietly came together over several months of backchannel conversations.

In July, Maduro officials upped the ante at meetings in Caracas with Roger Carstens, the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, and Ambassador James Story, who heads the Venezuela affairs department in neighboring Colombia. It replaces the US embassy, ​​which the Trump administration shut down in 2019 to protest Maduro’s re-election in an election widely viewed as a sham.

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In exchange for releasing the nephews and inside businessman Alex Saab, Maduro was willing to release all Americans, a US official briefed on the operation told the AP.

In the end, Saab — Venezuela considers him a diplomat and US prosecutors a corrupt regime enabler — was never seriously considered, according to the US official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the talks.

Unlike the nephews, who were arrested as a result of a drug sting and are halfway through their 18-year sentences, Saab fiercely fought his extradition to the US from Cape Verde, where he was arrested in 2020 during a stopover en route to Iran became. He is now awaiting trial in a Miami federal court on charges of skimming millions from state contracts.

However, it is unclear whether the release of the prisoners will lead to a broader thaw in relations.

The Biden administration has been limited in its commitment to Maduro, particularly in the battleground state of Florida, where Latino voters whose families fled authoritarian rule in Cuba and Venezuela are influential.

“Another appeasement from Biden that will result in more anti-US dictators holding more innocent Americans hostage in the future,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Twitter of Saturday’s exchange.

Though the US has struck similar deals with Russia and, more recently, the Taliban over the past six months, a senior Biden administration official downplayed any suggestion that they would give in to hostage-takers, saying such exchanges remain “extraordinarily rare.” “. The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules laid down by the government, also pointed to an executive order this summer aimed at imposing new costs on countries that jail Americans without cause.

Meanwhile, many Maduro supporters remain suspicious of the US “empire,” recalling the Trump administration’s decision to impose sanctions on a Venezuelan governor who brokered the release of another American, Joshua Holt, in 2018.

However, some longtime Venezuela watchers say they hope this time will be different.

A visit to Caracas in March by Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s chief adviser on Latin America, was in itself a remarkable gesture towards a leader whom the US believes is illegitimate and who is accused of drug terrorism. The Biden administration has also promised to review sanctions if Maduro can point to progress in talks with opponents that have taken place in Mexico aimed at creating fairer conditions for the 2024 presidential election

“President Biden did the right thing,” said Caleb McCarry, a former Republican staffer who recently met with Maduro to free Americans and improve bilateral ties. “This is serious diplomacy and can only help get the Mexico talks back on track. It’s a win for the families, the American people, and the Venezuelan people.”

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