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Venezuela releases 7 jailed Americans; US frees 2 prisoners

CITGO oil executives Jose Angel Pereira, from left to right, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano, standing outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, in Caracas, Venezuela on June 18, 2020.Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a rare softening of hostile relations, Venezuela has freed seven imprisoned Americans in exchange for the United States releasing two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years on drug smuggling conspiracy convictions, the White House said Saturday.

The swap 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 U.S. officials — secretive talks with a major oil producer that took on greater urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.

The deal amounts to an unusual gesture of goodwill by Maduro as the socialist leader looks to rebuild relations with the U.S. after vanquishing most of his domestic opponents.

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“I can’t believe it,” Cristina Vadell, the daughter of Tomeu Vadell, one of the freed Americans, said when contacted by 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 had explored a range of options, but that it became clear that “one particular step” — the release of the two Maduro family members — was essential in getting a deal done. The official said the deal required a “painful decision” but the administration's willingness to make it showed its commitment to bringing home American citizens held abroad.

The administration in the last six months has struck similar deals with Russia and more recently 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 that a choice like this is made.”

The transfer took place Saturday in an unspecified country between the U.S. and Venezuela after the men in the deal arrived from their respective locations in separate planes, the Biden administration said.

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“These individuals 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 wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home” the seven men, whom the president cited by name. “We celebrate that seven families will be whole once more.”

Maduro’s government said in a statement that it was releasing the American citizens as a humanitarian gesture. It praised the diplomacy that resulted in the freeing of the two “unjustly imprisoned” Venezuelans imprisoned in the United States and said it “hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world.”

Those freed include five employees of Houston-based Citgo — Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who 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. Once there, they were hauled away by masked security agents who busted into a Caracas conference room.

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 “specious” weapons charges, and Florida man, Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.

The United States freed Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting in 2015 and immediately taken to New York to face trial. They were convicted the following year of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., a highly charged case that cast a hard look at U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of Maduro’s administration.

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Both men were granted clemency by Biden before the release.

The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the roughly 60 Americans it believes are held hostage abroad 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 been holding the largest 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 slapdash 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 — know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” Biden said in his statement.

The administration also pointed to an executive order from this summer that sought to impose new costs on countries that jail Americans without proper cause, as well a new warning indicator designed to caution U.S. citizens against traveling to countries — like Venezuela — that have a pattern of wrongful detentions.

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The administration did not release another prisoner long sought by Maduro: Alex Saab, an insider businessman who Venezuela considers a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors a corrupt regime enabler. 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 Miami federal court on charges of siphoning off 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 years and 13 years in prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s supreme court upheld their long sentences earlier this year.

The men have all pleaded not guilty and the State Department has regarded them — and the two other Americans freed on Saturday — as wrongfully detained.

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Goodman reported from Miami.