In a rare de-escalation of hostilities, Venezuela released seven U.S. prisoners on Saturday and the United States in return freed two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife who had been held for years on drug-trafficking convictions.
The swap of the Americans, who include five oil executives held for almost five years, is the result of months of indirect diplomacy by top US officials — that is, secret talks with one of the major oil producers and who acquired more urgency after sanctions imposed on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.
The deal marks a rare gesture of goodwill from the socialist ruler Maduro, who is seeking to rebuild relations with the United States after besting most of his domestic opponents. Although the White House denied that it had changed its policy towards Venezuela, the release of the Americans could create political space for the Biden administration to relax Washington's harsh sanctions against Venezuela's oil sector in the event that Maduro shows progress in his intermittent dialogue with the opposition.
“I can't believe it,” Cristina Vadell, daughter of Tomeau Vadell, one of the freed Americans, told The Associated Press.
Holding back tears of joy on her 31st birthday, Cristina Badell said: “This is the best birthday present I have ever received. I feel very happy".
The exchange took place on Saturday on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is ruled by a Maduro ally, three people in Venezuela with knowledge of the operation told the AP, requesting anonymity. The prisoners arrived from where they were in separate planes, according to the Biden administration.
"These people will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones, where they belong," Biden said in a statement.
Among those released were five employees of the Houston-based company 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 its parent company, state oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were detained by security agents with their faces covered, who burst into a conference room in Caracas.
The employees were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities in which they were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison over a never-realized proposal to refinance billions of dollars in oil company bonds. .
Also released were Matthew Heath, a former United States Marine Corps corporal originally from Tennessee who was detained in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela, as well as a Florida man, Osman Khan, arrested in January.
The State Department noted that all of them were wrongfully detained.
In order to facilitate the agreement, Biden granted clemency to Franqui Flores and his cousin Efraín Campo, nephews of the “first combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro calls his wife.
Both were arrested in Haiti in 2015 during an undercover operation by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and found guilty the following year in New York, in a very sensitive case that attracted the spotlight. US accusations of drug trafficking against the highest levels of the Maduro government.
After referring to both nephews as "two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned" in the United States, the Maduro government said that it "welcomes the outcome of these talks and hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world".
The Biden administration has come under pressure to do more to bring back to the country 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 United States has tried in vain to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela has been holding the largest number of Americans suspected of having been used as currency.
At least four other Americans remain in detention in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets—Luke Denman and Airan Berry—who were involved in an impromptu attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two other men—Eyvin Hernández and Jerrel Kenemore—who, like Khan, were arrested for allegedly entering the country without legal authorization from neighboring Colombia.
Saturday's swap took place quietly after months of secret talks. Roger Carstens, the US president's special envoy for hostage affairs, has visited Venezuela several times in the past year to discuss a possible deal and meet with the detained Americans.
In July, Maduro officials increased their demands during meetings in Caracas with Carstens and Ambassador James Story, who heads the US Foreign Office for Venezuela in neighboring Colombia. The unit replaces the US embassy that the Trump administration closed in 2019 in protest at Maduro's re-election in what was widely viewed as an electoral sham.
In exchange for the release of Alex Saab, a businessman close to the government, and the nephews of Maduro's wife, the Venezuelan president was willing to release all Americans, a US official familiar with the communications told the AP. .
In the end, Saab, whom Venezuela considers a diplomat and is labeled by US prosecutors as an enabler of a corrupt regime, was never seriously included in the negotiations, according to the US official, who insisted on anonymity when discussing the negotiations.
Unlike the nephews, arrested in a sting operation and nearly halfway through their 18-year sentences, Saab strongly opposed his extradition to the United States from Cape Verde, where he was detained in 2020 during a stopover on a trip. to Iran. Saab awaits trial in federal court in Miami accused of siphoning off millions of dollars in state contracts.
However, it is unknown if the exchange of prisoners will contribute to a further thaw in relations.
The Biden administration has refrained from further engaging with Maduro, especially in the state of Florida, where Latino voters from families who fled authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela carry heavy electoral weight.
“Another Biden settlement that will result in more anti-US dictators taking more innocent Americans hostage in the future,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, tweeted about the trade on Saturday.
Although the United States has struck similar deals over the past six months with Russia, and more recently with the Taliban, top officials in the Biden administration played down any suggestion that it was caving in to hijackers, saying such deals remain “extraordinarily rare.” ”. The official, who requested anonymity from reporters in accordance with government rules, also cited an executive order this summer to further punish countries that imprison Americans without justification.
For their part, many Maduro supporters remain mistrustful of what they describe as the US “Empire” and recalled the Trump administration’s decision to sanction a Venezuelan governor who had negotiated the release of another American, Joshua Holt, in 2018.
However, some Venezuelan analysts say they are confident that this time it will be different.
The visit that Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council's top adviser on Latin America, made to Caracas in March was in itself a remarkable gesture toward a ruler whom the United States considers illegitimate and who has been charged with narco-terrorism. The Biden administration has also pledged to review sanctions if Maduro advances talks with the opposition in Mexico to create fairer conditions for the 2024 presidential election.
“President Biden did the right thing,” said Caleb McCarry, a former Republican adviser who recently met with Maduro in an effort to free Americans and improve bilateral relations. “This is serious diplomacy and can contribute to the resumption of negotiations in Mexico. It is a victory for families, for the American people and for the Venezuelan people.”