Venezuela frees seven jailed Americans in swap for two Maduro relatives

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 (Reuters) – Venezuela on Saturday released seven Americans, including five oil executives, in exchange for two relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who had been jailed in the United States on drug charges, US officials said.

The swap included Citgo Petroleum executives who were held for years, alongside US Navy veteran Matthew Heath and another US citizen named Osman Khan. They were exchanged for two cousins ​​of Maduro’s wife, who were arrested in 2015.

President Joe Biden said in a statement that the “improperly detained” Americans would soon be reunited with their families.

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“Today we celebrate that seven families will be whole again. To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are being wrongfully held — know that we remain committed to ensuring their release,” Biden said.

The transfer of detainees, which a US official said took place at an airport in an undisclosed third country, followed months of secret talks with Maduro’s socialist government, which is under strict US sanctions, including over the energy sector. of the OPEC country.

It came at a time when Washington is under mounting pressure to do more to ensure the freedom of dozens of Americans detained abroad. Much of the Biden administration’s attention has been focused on the arrest by Russia of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan.

Maduro’s government said in a statement that as a result of talks that began in March, two young Venezuelans who had been “unjustly” held in the United States were released, as well as a group of American citizens subject to Venezuelan legal proceedings and detained. released for “humanitarian reasons.”

The released Americans were all in stable health and “happy to go home,” while the two Venezuelans were on their way to the South American country, a senior Biden administration official told reporters in a telephone briefing.

‘painful decision’

Biden approved the exchange weeks ago, taking a “difficult decision, a painful decision” that the release of the two Venezuelans was essential to securing Americans’ freedom. US officials have previously said privately that Maduro wanted to use the detainees as a bargaining chip.

The swap, in which Biden pardoned the two Venezuelans whom US authorities had called the “narco cousins,” did not change Washington’s policy on Venezuela, a senior administration official said.

The Biden administration has only slightly relaxed Trump-era sanctions against Venezuela and says it will consider more important steps if Maduro returns to negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition and progress is made towards free elections.

Increased flow of Venezuelan oil to global markets could help replace some of Russia’s stockpiles hit by international sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, experts say.

The five Houston-based Citgo employees who had been detained in Venezuela in 2017 were Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira.

Heath, a former Marine who was hospitalized after what his family said was a suicide attempt in June, was also released. He had been incarcerated on terrorism charges since 2020, which he denied.

Khan was identified as a Florida man arrested in January.

In return, the United States released two cousins ​​of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, Franqui Flores and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores.

The two, who were arrested in Haiti in 2015 during a covert operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, were convicted in 2016 on US charges of attempting to carry out a multimillion-dollar cocaine deal. They were each sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017.

The detainee transfer, the largest since Biden took office in January 2020, took place in “a country between Venezuela and the United States” after the men arrived in separate planes, a senior US official said.

Citgo welcomed the news that the executives were free and said in a statement it was “grateful to the leaders in Washington who helped secure their release.”

In 2020, a Venezuelan court sentenced the executives charged with embezzlement, money laundering and conspiracy to prison terms ranging from eight to 13 years. She and the company maintained their innocence, and the US State Department called the allegations “misleading.”

“We applaud President Biden for the courage in making this deal and encourage him and the administration to build on the momentum,” said Jonathan Franks, spokesman for the Bring our Families Home campaign, which advocates for Americans living at home. wrongfully detained abroad.

At least four other Americans are still being held in Venezuela, including two former US Army Special Forces members, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro.

Venezuela released two imprisoned US citizens in March after a visit to Caracas by the highest US delegation in years.

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Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Luc Cohen, Kanishka Singh and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Diane Craft, Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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