WASHINGTON — In a rare softening of hostile relations, the White House said Saturday that Venezuela freed seven Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the United States released two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years on drug smuggling convictions.
This is the biggest trade ever made by the Biden government in detention of citizens, with five Americans being held nearly five years.
“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home” the seven men, whom the president cited by name. “We celebrate that seven families will be whole once more.”
According to the White House, Biden spoke with their families. They said that both men are in good health and were offered support services including medical care.
Maduro’s government said in a statement that it was releasing the American citizens as a humanitarian gesture. It praised the diplomacy that resulted in the freeing of the two “unjustly imprisoned” Venezuelans imprisoned in the United States and said it “hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world.”
Maduro’s unusual gesture of goodwill to the U.S. is reflected in the exchange. The socialist leader wants to rebuild relationships with America after he has defeated most of his domestic foes. The deal follows months of back channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other U.S. officials — secretive talks with a major oil producer that took on greater urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.
After the men involved in the deal arrived by separate aircrafts in separate countries, they were transferred to a country in Venezuela.
Those freed include five employees of Houston-based Citgo — Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who were lured to Venezuela right before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent, state-run-oil giant PDVSA. They were taken away by unidentified security officers who broke into the Caracas conference hall.
“I can’t believe it,” said Vadell’s daughter, Cristina, when contacted in Houston by The Associated Press. Holding back tears of joy on her 31st birthday, she said: “This is the best birthday present ever. I’m just so happy.”
Also released was Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the State Department has called “specious” weapons charges, and Florida man, Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.
The United States freed Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Camponephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. In 2015, the men were taken into custody in Haiti as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration raid. They were then immediately transferred to New York City to stand trial. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that cast a hard look at U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of Maduro’s administration.
Before the release, Biden granted both men clemency.
Biden’s administration is under increasing pressure to return the 60 Americans that it feels are being held hostage or detained in a hostile country. The U.S. is focusing mainly on Russia where it has failed to free Brittney Griner, WNBA player, and Paul Whelan. However, Venezuela holds the most Americans believed to be being traded as bargaining chips.
There are currently at least four Americans still in Venezuela. These include two ex-Green Berets who were involved in an ill-conceived attempt to overthrow Maduro in 2019. Khan and two others, both of whom were detained on suspicion that they illegally entered the country from Colombia.
“To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained -– know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” Biden said in his statement.
Maduro had been looking for another prisoner, but his administration failed to release Alex Saab. This insider businessman is Venezuela’s diplomat while the U.S. considers him a corrupt regime supporter. Saab was able to fight extradition from Cape Verde where he was held last year on his way to Iran. He is currently being tried in Miami federal court for siphoning off state contracts worth millions.
The trial was marred with delays and irregularities that saw the prosecution convict oil executives of embezzlement. They were sentenced to between eight years and 13 years in prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s supreme court upheld their long sentences earlier this year. The men have all pleaded not guilty and the State Department has regarded them — and the two other Americans freed on Saturday — as wrongfully detained.
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