WASHINGTON — Venezuela released seven imprisoned Americans on Saturday in return for the United States freeing two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife who had been imprisoned for years on narcotics convictions.
The exchange of the Americans, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, is the result of months of back channel diplomacy by senior U.S. officials — secret talks with a major oil producer that took on a greater sense of urgency following the imposition of sanctions against Russia, which put pressure on global energy prices.
The agreement represents an uncommon display of goodwill by Maduro, who is attempting to restore relations with the United States after defeating the majority of his internal opponents. While the White House has denied any change in policy toward Venezuela, the release of Americans could give political leeway for the Biden administration to reduce Venezuela’s debilitating oil sanctions if Maduro makes progress in his intermittent negotiations with his opponents.
Cristina Vadell, the daughter of one of the liberated Americans, Tomeu Vadell, told The Associated Press on Saturday, “I can’t believe it.”
On her 31st birthday, she fought back tears of excitement and exclaimed, “This is the nicest birthday present ever.” I’m just really delighted.”
The transfer occurred on Saturday in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is run by a Maduro loyalist, according to three Venezuelans briefed on the subject who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity. According to the Biden administration, the convicts flew separately from their different destinations.
President Joe Biden stated in a statement, “These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and returned to the arms of their loved ones, where they belong.”
Five employees of Houston-based Citgo were released, including Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Pereira. They were lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the offices of the company’s parent, state-owned oil firm PDVSA. Once they arrived, they were taken away by camouflaged security operatives who broke into a meeting room in Caracas.
In a trial hampered by delays and irregularities, the defendants were found guilty of theft and sentenced to between eight and thirteen years in jail for a never-executed plan to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds.
Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee who was caught in 2020 at a checkpoint in Venezuela, and Osman Khan, a Florida man who was captured in January, were both released.
The State Department believed that all of the guys were unlawfully held.
Biden gave clemency to Franqui Flores and his relative Efrain Campo, nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro refers to his wife, in order to clinch a deal. The men were caught in Haiti in 2015 during a Cocaine Enforcement Administration sting operation and convicted in New York the following year in a highly contentious case that shed a critical light on U.S. allegations of drug trafficking at the top levels of Maduro’s administration.
In a statement, the Maduro government referred to the men solely as Venezuelans “unjustly imprisoned” in the U.S., adding that it “welcomes the outcome of these talks and aspires for the preservation of peace and harmony with all nations in our region and the world.”
The Biden administration is under pressure to do more to bring home the about sixty Americans it believes are being held hostage by hostile foreign governments or are being unlawfully detained abroad. While the United States has attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, from Russia, Venezuela has the biggest number of Americans believed to be used as bargaining chips.
At least four other Americans remain detained in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets — Luke Denman and Airan Berry — involved in a botched attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two other men — Eyvin Hernandez and Jerrel Kenemore — who, like Khan, were detained for entering the country illegally from neighboring Colombia.
Biden stated in his statement, “To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their wrongly jailed loved ones, know that we are committed to ensuring their release.”
The exchange on Saturday was arranged in secrecy over several months of backchannel discussions.
In July, Maduro authorities raised the stakes in meetings with Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage issues, and Ambassador James Story, the head of the Venezuela Affairs Unit in neighboring Colombia. It replaces the U.S. Embassy that the Trump administration closed in 2019 to protest Maduro’s reelection in an election largely viewed as fraudulent.
Maduro was willing to release all Americans in exchange for the freedom of his nephews and the businessman Alex Saab, a U.S. official briefed on the negotiations told the Associated Press.
Saab, whom Venezuela considers a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors a supporter of a corrupt dictatorship, was never really considered, according to a U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss the negotiations.
In contrast to his nephews, who were nabbed in a heroin bust and are halfway through 18-year terms, Saab battled vehemently against his extradition to the United States from Cape Verde, where he was arrested in 2020 while en route to Iran. He is currently awaiting trial in federal court in Miami on charges of embezzling millions in state contracts.
However, it is uncertain whether the prisoner release will result in a broader thawing of relations.
The Biden administration’s engagement with Maduro is circumscribed, particularly in the battleground state of Florida, where Latino voters whose family escaped autocratic rule in Cuba and Venezuela wield significant influence.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, tweeted regarding Saturday’s exchange, “Another Biden appeasement that will lead to more anti-U.S. dictators kidnapping innocent Americans in the future.”
In the past six months, the United States has reached similar agreements with Russia and, more recently, with the Taliban. However, a senior Biden administration official dismissed any notion that the U.S. was giving in to hostage-takers, stating that such exchanges remain “extraordinarily unusual.” The official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity in accordance with the administration’s procedures, also referenced an executive order from this summer that tried to impose new consequences on countries that arbitrarily imprison Americans.
In the meantime, many Maduro supporters continue to mistrust the U.S. “Empire,” recalling the Trump administration’s decision to slap penalties on a Venezuelan governor who facilitated the release of another American in 2018 (Joshua Holt).
However, some veteran observers of Venezuela express optimism that this time will be different.
The March visit to Caracas by Juan Gonzalez, the senior National Security Council adviser for Latin America, was an unusual gesture toward a regime the United States believes illegitimate and has charged with narco-terrorism. The Biden administration has also pledged to revisit sanctions if Maduro can demonstrate progress in Mexico-based discussions with his opponents aimed at establishing more equitable circumstances for the 2024 presidential elections.
Caleb McCarry, a former Republican staffer who recently met with Maduro in an effort to liberate Americans and strengthen bilateral relations, stated, “President Biden did the right thing.” This is serious diplomacy that can only aid in reviving the Mexico negotiations. It’s a victory for families, the American and Venezuelan peoples.”