Venezuela freed seven Americans in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife jailed for years by the United States on drug smuggling convictions.
The swap of the Americans on Saturday, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, is the largest trade of detained citizens ever carried out by the Biden administration.
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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.”
The prisoner swap amounts to a rare gesture of goodwill by Maduro as the socialist leader looks to rebuild relations with the US after vanquishing most of his domestic opponents.
The deal follows months of back-channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other US officials – secretive talks with a major oil producer that took on greater urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.
Those freed include five employees of Houston-based Citgo – Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira – who were lured to Venezuela 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 burst into a Caracas conference room.
Also released was Matthew Heath, a former US Marine corporal who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the Department of State has called “specious” weapons charges, and Osman Khan who was arrested in January.
The US 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 in a highly charged case that cast a hard look at US accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of Maduro’s administration.
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 US 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 an attempt to oust Maduro in 2019.
“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.