Thursday, February 9, 2023

Venezuela swaps 7 prisoners with US for Maduro’s nephews

In a rare de-escalation of hostilities, Venezuela on Saturday released seven American prisoners and in return the United States released two nephews of the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who are facing drug-trafficking charges. Was closed for years.

The US swap, involving five oil officials, held for nearly five years, is the result of months of proxy diplomacy by top US officials – secret talks with one of the major oil producers, which has sought to avoid sanctions imposed on Russia. The latter gained more urgency, putting pressure on the world. energy prices.

The deal is a rare gesture of goodwill by socialist ruler Maduro, who is seeking to rebuild ties with the United States after overwhelming most of his domestic opponents. Although the White House denies it has changed its policy toward Venezuela, the release of the Americans could create political space for the Biden administration to relax Washington’s tough sanctions against Venezuela’s oil sector , if Maduro shows progress in his intermittent talks with the opposition.

“I can’t believe it,” Kristina Waddell, the daughter of Tomo Waddell, one of the freed Americans, told The Associated Press.

Crying in tears on her 31st birthday, Christina Badel said: “It’s the best birthday present I’ve ever had. I feel wonderful”.

The exchange took place on Saturday on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is governed by a Maduro ally, three people with knowledge of the operation in Venezuela and who requested anonymity told the Associated Press. According to the Biden administration, the prisoners arrived from where they were on separate planes.

“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones,” Biden said in a statement.

Among those released are five employees of the Houston-based Citgo company — Tomu Waddell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who were arrested for attending a meeting at their parent’s headquarters in Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017. Was tempted to take. company, the state oil company PDVSA. Once there, he was detained with his face covered by security agents who broke into a conference room in Caracas.

The employees were found guilty of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities, in which they were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for proposing to refinance billions of dollars in oil company bonds.

Also released was Matthew Heath, a former US Marine Corporal from Tennessee who was arrested on a street in Venezuela in 2020, as well as Usman Khan, a Florida man arrested in January.

The State Department noted that all of them were wrongfully detained.

To facilitate the deal, Biden granted clemency to Frankie Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephew of the “first fighter” Cilia Flores, as Maduro used to call his wife.

The two were arrested in Haiti in 2015 during a covert operation by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and indicted in New York the following year in a highly sensitive case that put the spotlight on US drug trafficking charges. Had brought Maduro Govt.

After referring to the two nephews as “two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned” in the United States, the Maduro government said it “welcomes the outcome of these talks and with all countries in our region and the world”. Wishes for the preservation of peace and harmony.” ,

The Biden administration has come under pressure to do more to bring back to the country about 60,000 Americans it believes have been held hostage abroad or wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments. While most attention has focused on Russia, where the United States has tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of WNBA star Brittany Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, the largest number of Americans suspected of being used as Venezuelan currency is catching up.

At least four other Americans are in custody in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets—Luke Denman and Airan Berry—involved in an impromptu attempt to overthrow Maduro in 2019, and two other men—Ivin Hernandez and Jerrell Kenmore. —who, like Khan, were arrested from neighboring Colombia for allegedly entering the country without legal permission.

Saturday’s swap happened quietly after several months of back-and-forth negotiations. Roger Carstens, the US president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, has visited Venezuela several times over the past year to discuss a possible deal and to meet with the detained Americans.

In July, Maduro officials put forward their demands during meetings in Caracas with Carstens and Ambassador James Storey, who heads the US Foreign Office for Venezuela in neighboring Colombia. The unit replaces the US embassy that was closed by the Trump administration in 2019 to protest Maduro’s re-election in what was widely seen as an election gimmick.

In exchange for the release of the nephews of Alex Saab, a businessman close to the government, and the nephews of Maduro’s wife, the Venezuelan president was prepared to release all the Americans, a US official familiar with the communications told the Associated Press. ,

Ultimately, Saab, whom Venezuela views as a diplomat and US prosecutors as a supporter of a corrupt regime, was not seriously involved in the talks, according to the US official, who declined anonymity when discussing the talks. insisted on.

Unlike the nephews, who were arrested in a sting operation and are about halfway through their 18-year sentence, Saab strongly opposes their extradition from Cape Verde to the United States, where they are expected to travel to Iran in 2020. But was detained during the stay. Saab awaits trial in federal court in Miami on charges of misappropriating millions of dollars in state contracts.

However, it is unknown whether the prisoner exchange will lead to further cooling of relations.

The Biden administration has avoided further engagement with Maduro, particularly in the state of Florida, where Latino voters from families fleeing authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela weigh heavily in the election.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a Twitter post about the trade on Saturday: “Another Biden deal, resulting in an anti-American dictator holding more innocent Americans hostage in the future.”

Although the United States has made similar deals with Russia over the past six months, and more recently with the Taliban, senior Biden administration officials dismissed any suggestion that it was pandering to the hijackers, it noting that such swaps are “extraordinarily rare”. The official, who asked the reporters to remain anonymous in line with government guidelines, also cited an executive order out this summer to punish countries that imprison Americans without justification.

For their part, many Maduro supporters maintain mistrust of what they describe as the American “empire” and recall the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to sanction a Venezuelan governor who in 2018 The freedom of the other American, Joshua Holt, was negotiated.

However, some Venezuelan analysts say they are confident it will be different this time.

Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s top adviser on Latin America, traveled to Caracas in March, in itself a remarkable gesture toward a ruler the United States considers illegitimate and against whom it has leveled charges of narco-terrorism. The Biden administration has also promised to review sanctions if Maduro advances talks with the opposition in Mexico to create better conditions for the 2024 presidential election.

“President Biden did the right thing,” said Caleb McCarey, a former Republican aide who recently met with Maduro in an effort to free the Americans and improve bilateral ties. “This is serious diplomacy and can contribute to the resumption of dialogue in Mexico. It is a victory for the families, the American people and the Venezuelan people.”


Goodman reported from Miami.

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