US Wins Release of Venezuela-Held Americans in Swap With Maduro

  • In US
  • 2022-10-01 20:09:30Z
  • By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden's administration said Venezuela freed seven detained Americans, including several oil executives and a former US Marine, in a swap involving two imprisoned members of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro's family.

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Biden personally made the decision to grant clemency to two Venezuelans sentenced in the US on drug charges -- Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, both nephews of Maduro's wife, according to a senior administration official. Each was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017 for conspiring to import cocaine into the US.

The Biden administration has prioritized efforts to bring home Americans who have been wrongly detained, the official said Saturday, adding that Biden spoke to the families of the Americans released.

The prisoner swap follows months of diplomatic engagement between two countries with a history of fraught relations. Venezuela has been under economic and oil sanctions since 2019, after the US and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president.

The US remains committed to supporting dialogue between Maduro and the opposition and a return to negotiations between the two sides, another official said.

Among those returning to the US are Jose Pereira, a former CEO of Citgo Petroleum Corp, a Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company, according to a White House statement. Others include former Citgo personnel Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, whose lengthy prison sentences were upheld by a Venezuelan court in February.

The men, along with another Citgo employee who was previously released, were arrested in 2017 after being called to a meeting at the headquarters of state energy company Petroleos de Venezuela SA. They were later convicted on charges of corruption.

Also released was Matthew Heath, a former US Marine held since September 2020 who had been in poor health for months, according to his family. US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and US Ambassador to Venezuela James Story visited Caracas in June to negotiate his release.

Another "wrongfully detained" U.S. citizen now free is Osman Khan, who had been working in Colombia and was taken into custody after crossing into Venezuela on a personal visit.

In exchange, the US released two Venezuelans who had been "unjustly" imprisoned, President Nicolas Maduro's government said in a statement. It did not identify them.

Maduro released the group of Americans for humanitarian reasons, adding that the prisoner swap was the result of negotiations that began in March when Biden officials visited Caracas.

Biden thanked US officials who worked toward securing the release of those held in Venezuela, whom Blinken identified as six US citizens and one US legal permanent resident.

"Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more," Biden said in a statement.

The administration also has been under pressure to win the release two Americans detained in Russia: WNBA player Brittney Griner and former US marine Paul Whelan. The US made an offer to swap the Americans for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the "merchant of death" who in 2012 was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and a second Russian also held in a US jail, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

"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.

(Updates with US official's comment on Venezuelan politics in fifth paragraph, adds background on US detainees.)

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