Venezuela releases seven Americans in exchange for two Maduro aides: NPR
Posted on Twitter by Jorge Arreaza/Venezuela Foreign Ministry via AP
WASHINGTON — Venezuela on Saturday freed seven Americans imprisoned in the South American country in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife who had been imprisoned for years by the United States for drug trafficking, a said a senior US official.
The exchange of Americans, including five oil executives detained for nearly five years, is the largest exchange of detained citizens ever by the Biden administration.
“We are relieved and happy to welcome home to their families today seven Americans who have been wrongfully detained for too long in Venezuela,” said Joshua Geltzer, Deputy Homeland Security Advisor.
Oil workers traveled to Venezuela to meet the state oil giant
It amounts to a rare gesture of goodwill from Maduro as the socialist leader seeks to rebuild his relationship with the United States after defeating most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months of secret diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other U.S. officials – secret talks with a major oil producer that took on added urgency after sanctions on Russia took a toll. pressure on world energy prices.
Among those released are five Houston-based Citgo employees — Tomeu 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 parent company, state-owned oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were led away by masked security guards who stormed into a conference room in Caracas.
Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Navy corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the State Department called “specious” weapons charges, and a Florida man, Osman Khan, who was arrested in January, has also been released.
The US has released Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of “first fighter” Cilia Flores, as Maduro called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti during a 2015 Drug Enforcement Administration sting and immediately taken to New York to stand trial. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that cast a harsh light on US charges of drug trafficking at the highest levels of Maduro’s administration.
Both men were granted clemency by President Joe Biden before release.
There are dozens of Americans wrongfully detained abroad
The Biden administration has come under pressure to do more to bring home the 60 or so Americans it says are being held hostage overseas or wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the US has so far unsuccessfully tried to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and fellow American Paul Whelan, Venezuela holds the largest contingent of Americans suspected of being used as bargaining chips.
At least four other Americans are still being held 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 arrested for illegally entering the country from Colombia. neighbor.
The Biden administration has not released another prisoner long sought by Maduro: Alex Saab, a businessman insider whom Venezuela regards as a diplomat and US prosecutors as an enabler of 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 for embezzling millions of dollars in state contracts.
Oil executives were found guilty 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 then accused them of “treason”, and Venezuela’s Supreme Court upheld their lengthy sentences earlier this year. The men have all pleaded not guilty, and the State Department has deemed them – and the two other Americans released on Saturday – to be wrongfully detained.