Venezuela on Saturday released six U.S. citizens and one U.S. legal resident, who Washington said had been wrongfully detained in the South American country, as part of a major prisoner exchange that also saw the U.S. free two Venezuelans.
President Biden celebrated the release of the U.S. citizens, some of whom had been jailed since 2017, saying it was his administration’s priority to prevent Americans from being held hostage abroad.
“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong,” he said in a statement. “I am grateful for the hard work of dedicated public servants across the U.S. Government who made this possible.”
The plane carrying the freed American men was on its way to a medical facility in San Antonio, where it was expected to land Saturday evening, according to a source familiar with their status.
The release of the Americans by Venezuela is the latest sign of the Biden administration’s willingness to consider prisoner swaps as it faces pressure to bring home U.S. citizens detained abroad, including U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, who has been held in Russia since February, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In April, Moscow released former U.S. marine Trevor Reed after the U.S. agreed to commute the sentence of Russian pilot
on a drug-smuggling conspiracy conviction.
Saturday’s prisoner exchange comes as the U.S. and Venezuela, two adversaries that once held close oil ties, have been quietly holding talks for months to try to bridge years of animosity. The U.S. imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela in 2017, followed by oil sanctions in 2019, in response to what it deemed was an undermining of democracy by President Nicolás Maduro’s government as it cracked down on opponents and held elections that were widely deemed fraudulent.
In early 2019, the U.S. and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president. However, Mr. Guaidó is today increasingly isolated at home and abroad as countries in Latin America rebuild ties with Mr. Maduro.
As part of Saturday’s prisoner swap, Venezuela’s government said the U.S. agreed to release two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores.
Those men, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, were sentenced to prison in the U.S. for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. after being arrested in Haiti in 2015 during an operation backed by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The case strengthened allegations against Venezuela that high-ranking officials and people closely linked to them were deeply involved in drug trafficking.
Venezuela said the prisoner exchange was the result of different conversations with U.S. government representatives since March 5. Venezuela said it released the Americans on Saturday “on humanitarian grounds.”
The freed U.S. citizens include executives from Citgo, the U.S. refining arm of Venezuelan national oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA, who were arrested in 2017 during a trip to Caracas on what the U.S. government had called trumped up corruption charges.
The men, including Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, José Luis Zambrano and
had spent part of their imprisonment in a notorious detention center in Caracas where rights advocates say political prisoners are held and tortured.
José Pereira, a U.S. legal permanent resident who also worked for Citgo and was jailed in 2017, was also freed by Venezuela, the State Department said.
Citgo, which is controlled by the Guaidó-led opposition, said it welcomed today’s prisoner release. One of the original six detained Citgo executives, Gustavo Cárdenas, had already been released by Venezuela in March.
The other U.S. citizens who were released include former Marine Matthew Heath, who was arrested in 2020, and Osman Khan, who was detained earlier this year.
Veronica Vadell said she first heard about the release of her dad, Tomeu Vadell, from the office of Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
“I’m out of words, we just know they’re coming home and that’s what matters,” she said. “We’re so grateful to President Biden for getting this done. We’ve been waiting for so long.”
Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based political analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the prisoner exchange “could help overcome the deep mutual distrust between Caracas and Washington. But it is too early to say.”
Write to Ryan Dube at [email protected]
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