In exchange, Venezuela let out seven American prisoners in exchange for the US letting out two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife who had been in jail for years because of drug charges.
The swap of the Americans, including five oil executives who had been held for almost five years, came after months of secret talks between senior US officials and a major oil producer. The talks became more important after sanctions against Russia pushed up energy prices around the world.
In a statement, President Joe Biden said, “These people will soon be back with their families, where they belong, in the arms of their loved ones.” To all the families whose loved ones are still being wrongfully detained and causing them pain and separation, know that we are still committed to getting them released.
The deal is an unusual show of goodwill by Maduro, who wants to fix his relationship with the US after getting rid of most of his opponents at home. Even though the White House has said that there are no plans to change policy toward Venezuela, the release of Americans could give the Biden administration room to ease crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela if Maduro makes progress in his on-and-off talks with his opponents.
Cristina Vadell, the daughter of one of the freed Americans, Tomeu Vadell, said, “I can’t believe it.” On her 31st birthday, she held back tears of happiness as she said, “This is the best birthday present ever.” I’m just so happy. “
The transfer happened on Saturday on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and Grenadines, which is run by a Maduro ally, according to three Venezuelans who spoke on the condition of anonymity and knew about the situation. The Biden administration said that the prisoners came from different places on different planes.
Five employees of Houston-based Citgo were freed. They are Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Pereira. They were lured to Venezuela right before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA. When they got there, masked security agents burst into a Caracas conference room and took them away.
In 2021, the men were found guilty of embezzling after a trial that was full of delays and mistakes. They were sentenced to between eight and thirteen years in prison for a plan that was never carried out to refinance billions of dollars in oil company bonds.
Matthew Heath, a former US Marine corporal from Tennessee who was caught at a roadblock in Venezuela in 2020, and Osman Khan, a man from Florida who was caught in January, were also let go. The State Department thought that all of the men were being held against their will.
‘A win’ for US and Venezuela
Biden gave clemency to Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, which is what Maduro calls his wife. This helped make a deal possible. The men were caught in a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting in Haiti in 2015. The next year, they were found guilty in New York in a high-stakes case that showed how serious the US claims were that drug trafficking goes on at the highest levels of Maduro’s government.
In a statement, the Maduro government only said that the men were Venezuelans who were “unfairly imprisoned” in the US. It also 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.”
Pressure has been put on the Biden administration to do more to bring home the 60 or so Americans it thinks are being held as hostages or wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments.
While most of the attention is on Russia, where the US has so far been unable to get Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, out of jail, Venezuela is holding the most Americans who are thought to be used as bargaining chips.
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