President Joe Biden made the “painful decision” on Saturday to green-light a prisoner swap with Caracas that freed seven Americans for two Venezuelans who are nephews of that country’s first lady, a US official said.
The two governments, which have had strained relations for years, announced the exchange in almost simultaneous double statements.
“Today, after years of being unjustly imprisoned in Venezuela, we are bringing home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan,” Biden said in a White House statement.
Caracas cited the lengthy diplomatic negotiations between the two rival nations in confirming the swap.
“As a result of various talks held since March 5 with representatives of the United States government, the release of two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned in this country has been achieved,” the Venezuelan government said in a communiqué.
Caracas did not name the Venezuelans, but a senior US government official identified them as Francisco Flores de Freitas and his cousin Efrain Antonio Campos Flores, both nephews of President Nicolas Maduro’s wife.
The cousins ??were arrested in Haiti and then taken to New York, where they were convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017.
During the negotiations, it became clear that the release of the two Venezuelans, “sometimes referred to as ‘narco-nephews’ because of their relationship with Nicolas Maduro’s wife, was critical to securing the release of these Americans,” a senior US official said. government to reporters.
“The President has made a tough decision over the months of barter negotiations, a painful decision to offer something that Venezuelans have been actively seeking,” the official added.
– Oil manager freed –
Five of the seven freed Americans were executives of the oil company Citgo who were arrested and accused of corruption during a business trip to the South American country in 2017.
Citgo is the US subsidiary of the state-owned Venezuelan oil company PDVSA.
The Citgo employees – former company president Pereira, along with Vadell, Toledo and the Zambranos – had each been sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.
The other two freed Americans – Heath and Khan – were arrested separately.
“All seven of these Americans are in stable health,” and Biden has spoken to each of them, the administration official said.
For his part, Biden vowed his “unwavering commitment to upholding the faith of Americans who are being held hostage and wrongly imprisoned around the world.”
The United States had long claimed that its seven nationals were being held on false charges. State Department spokesman Ned Price described them as “political pawns” a year ago.
Relations between the two countries have been strained for years. The United States is one of around 60 countries that refused to recognize Maduro as the legitimately elected president after a much-controversial election in 2018.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and the pressure it was putting on global energy supplies — prompted behind-the-scenes efforts to achieve at least minimal warming with Venezuela, a major oil producer.
A senior US delegation traveled to Caracas in March to meet with Maduro on what some analysts saw as a potential game-changer, which Maduro described as “respectful, cordial and diplomatic.”
After this encounter, Caracas freed two other Citgo employees.
On Saturday, the senior government official said: “The safe return of the seven Americans is the result of tough negotiations.