The exchange of Americans, including five oil executives who have been under arrest for nearly five years, followed months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy from Washington’s chief hostage negotiator and other U.S. officials — secret talks with a major oil producer who have acquired more greater urgency after sanctions against Russia have come under pressure. on world energy prices.
The deal represents an unusual gesture of goodwill from Maduro, as the socialist leader hopes to restore relations with the US after defeating most of his domestic adversaries.
“I can’t believe it,” Christina Wadell, daughter of Tomeu Wadell, one of the freed Americans, said when she contacted the Associated Press on Saturday. Holding back tears of joy on her 31st birthday, she said, “This is the best birthday present ever. I’m just so happy.”
A senior Biden administration official said the U.S. and Venezuela considered a number of options, but it became clear that “one specific step” – the release of two members of the Maduro family – was necessary to seal the deal. The official said the deal requires a “painful decision” but the administration’s willingness to accept it shows its desire to bring home American citizens held abroad.
Over the past six months, the administration has struck similar deals with Russia and, more recently, with the Taliban. But the official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity in line with ground rules set by the administration, said “the choice remains exceedingly rare.”
The handover took place on Saturday in an unspecified country between the US and Venezuela, after people involved in the deal arrived from their respective locations in different planes, the Biden administration said.
“These people will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones, where they belong,” President Joe Biden said. “Today, after years of illegal detention in Venezuela, we are bringing home” the seven men named by the president. “We note that seven families will become as many as eleven more.”
The Maduro government said in a statement that it is releasing American citizens as a humanitarian gesture. He praised the diplomacy that led to the release of two “unjustly imprisoned” Venezuelans held in the United States and said that it “looks forward to maintaining peace and harmony with all the peoples of our region and the world.”
Among the released are five Houston-based Citgo employees — Wadell, 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 parent company’s headquarters. launched oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were taken away by masked security agents who broke into the Caracas conference room.
Also released were 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 called a “fictitious” weapons charge, and Florida resident Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.
The United States released Franchi Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of “First Fighter” Celia Flores, as Maduro called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a 2015 DEA case and immediately taken to New York to stand trial. The following year, they were convicted of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US, a very serious case that took a serious look at US drug trafficking allegations at the highest levels of the Maduro administration.
Both men were pardoned by Biden before being released.
The Biden administration is under pressure to do more to bring home some 60 Americans it believes are being held hostage abroad or illegally detained by hostile foreign governments. While the focus is on Russia, where the US has so far tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Greener and fellow American Paul Whelan, Venezuela holds the largest contingent of Americans suspected of being used as a trump card.
At least four more Americans remain in Venezuelan custody, including two former Green Berets involved in a sloppy attempt to overthrow Maduro in 2019 and two men who, like Khan, were detained for allegedly illegal entered the country from neighboring Colombia.
“To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones illegally detained, know that we remain committed to securing their release,” Biden said in a statement.
The administration also pointed to an executive order this summer that sought to impose new costs on countries that imprison Americans for no good reason, as well as a new warning indicator designed to warn US citizens against travel to countries such as Venezuela, which have template of wrongful arrests.
The administration has not released another prisoner long sought by Maduro: Alex Saab, a business insider who Venezuela considers a diplomat and US prosecutors considers an accomplice to a corrupt regime. Saab fought for extradition from Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year during a stopover en route to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in Miami federal court on charges of siphoning off millions on government contracts.
Last year, oil executives were found guilty of embezzlement in a trial marked by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to terms ranging from eight to 13 years in prison for a failed offer to refinance billions of dollars in oil company bonds. Maduro charged them with “high treason” at the time, and the Venezuelan Supreme Court earlier this year upheld their long sentences.
All of the men pleaded not guilty, and the State Department considered them, like two other Americans released on Saturday, to be wrongfully detained.