Venezuela Releases 7 Imprisoned Americans; United States releases 2 prisoners


In a rare softening of hostile relations, the White House said on Saturday that Venezuela had freed seven Americans jailed in the South American country and that the United States had freed two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife, who had been jailed for years on convictions. for drug trafficking.

The exchange of Americans, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, is the largest exchange of detained citizens ever conducted by the Biden administration.

“These people will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones, where they belong,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Today, after years of being unjustly detained in Venezuela, we bring home” the seven men, whom the president cited by name. “We celebrate that seven families will be whole once again.”

The White House said that Biden had spoken with the families and that the men were in stable health and offered a variety of support services, including medical care.

The Maduro government said in a statement that it was releasing US citizens as a humanitarian gesture. He praised the diplomacy that resulted in the release of the two “unjustly imprisoned” Venezuelans imprisoned in the United States and said he “looks forward to the preservation of peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world.”

The exchange amounts to an unusual gesture of goodwill by Maduro, as the socialist leader seeks to rebuild relations with the US after defeating most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months of clandestine diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other US officials: secret talks with a major oil producer that took on added urgency after sanctions on Russia pressured global energy prices.

The transfer took place in a country between the US and Venezuela after the dealmen arrived on separate planes, the Biden administration said.

Among those released are five employees of Houston-based Citgo, Tomeu Vadell, José Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and José Pereira, who were lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the parent company. , the state oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were dragged away by masked security agents who stormed a Caracas conference room.

“I can’t believe it,” Vadell’s daughter, Cristina, said when contacted by The Associated Press in Houston. Holding back tears of joy on her 31st birthday, she said, “This is the best birthday present I’ve ever received. I’m so happy.”

Also released was Matthew Heath, a former US Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the State Department has called “hoax” weapons charges, and the man of Florida, Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.

The United States freed Franqui Flores and his cousin Efraín Campo, nephews of the “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a Drug Enforcement Administration raid in 2015 and immediately taken to New York for trial. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that cast a harsh look at US drug-trafficking allegations at the highest levels of the Maduro administration.

Both men received clemency from Biden prior to release.

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

At least four other Americans remain in detention in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in a botched attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two other men who, like Khan, were detained for allegedly entering the country illegally from neighboring Colombia.

“To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained, please know that we remain dedicated to securing your release,” Biden said in his statement.

His administration failed to release another prisoner long wanted by Maduro: Alex Saab, an insider businessman whom Venezuela considers a diplomat and US prosecutors facilitate the corrupt regime. Saab fought extradition from Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year during a stopover en route to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in federal court in Miami on charges of siphoning off millions in state contracts.

The oil executives were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for a never executed proposal to refinance billions in oil company bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s supreme court upheld their lengthy sentences earlier this year. All the men have pleaded not guilty and the State Department has deemed them, along with the other two Americans released Saturday, wrongfully detained.


Goodman reported from Miami.

Leave a Comment