WASHINGTON (AP) – In a rare easing of hostile relations, Venezuela has released seven imprisoned Americans in exchange for the United States freeing two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years on drug-trafficking conspiracy convictions of drugs, the White House said Saturday. .
The exchange of the Americans, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, follows months of back-channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other US officials: secret talks with a major oil producer that take on more urgency after sanctions on Russia pressed. on global energy prices.
The deal is an unusual gesture of goodwill from Maduro as the socialist leader seeks to rebuild relations with the US after defeating most of his domestic opponents.
“I can’t believe it,” Cristina Vadell, daughter of Tomeu Vadell, one of the freed Americans, said Saturday when contacted by The Associated Press. Holding back tears of joy on her 31st birthday, she said: “This is the best birthday present. I’m so happy.”
A senior Biden administration official said the US and Venezuela had explored a range of options, but it was clear that “one particular step” – the release of the two Maduro family members – was essential to reach an agreement. The official said the deal required a “painful decision,” but the administration’s willingness to do so shows its commitment to bringing home U.S. citizens detained abroad.
The administration in the past six months has reached similar deals with Russia and, more recently, with the Taliban. But the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration, said it “remains extraordinarily rare for a choice like this to be made.”
The transfer took place Saturday in an unspecified country between the United States and Venezuela after the deal men arrived from their respective locations on separate 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 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 again.”
Maduro’s government said in a statement that it was releasing the US citizens as a humanitarian gesture. He praised the diplomacy that led to the release of the two “unjustly imprisoned” Venezuelans jailed in the United States and said he “looks forward to the preservation of peace and harmony with all nations in our region and the world.”
Among those released are five Houston-based Citgo employees, Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira, who were lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent company, the state. the oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were escorted by masked security officers who entered a conference room in Caracas.
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 “spicy” weapons charges, and a Florida man Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.
The United States released Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of the “first fighter” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in 2015 in a Drug Enforcement Administration raid and immediately brought to New York to stand trial. They were convicted the following year of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States, a highly charged case that scrutinized American allegations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of the Maduro administration.
Both men received clemency from Biden before their release.
The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the roughly 60 Americans it believes are being held hostage overseas or wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the U.S. has so far tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela has kept the major contingent of Americans suspected of being used as bargaining chips.
At least four other Americans remain detained in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in a brutal attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two 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 their release,” Biden said in his statement.
The administration also pointed to an executive order this summer that sought to impose new costs on countries that imprison Americans without proper cause, as well as a new warning sign designed to warn American citizens against traveling to countries, such as Venezuela, that have a pattern of illegal detentions.
The administration did not release another prisoner long sought by Maduro: Alex Saab, a privileged businessman who Venezuela considers a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors consider an enabler of the corrupt regime. Saab fought extradition from Cape Verde, where he was detained last year during a stopover en route to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in federal court in Miami on charges of embezzling 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 considered them – and the other two Americans released on Saturday – to have been wrongfully detained.
Goodman reported from Miami.