The release follows months of covert negotiations between Washington and Venezuelan officials. It amounts to a rare act of goodwill on Maduro’s part as he seeks to mend fences with the United States. The Biden administration has come under pressure to repatriate Americans held abroad. Venezuela has been holding the majority of Americans who are allegedly being held as pawns in negotiations. Two oil executives, two former Green Berets and two men jailed for illegal entry were released on Saturday.
It amounts to a rare act of goodwill on Maduro’s part as the socialist president seeks to mend fences with the United States after routing most of his domestic foes. The agreement results from months of covert negotiations between Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other American officials with a major oil producer. These negotiations gained urgency after sanctions against Russia increased pressure on the price of energy worldwide.
Five employees of Houston-based Citgo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Pereira, were set free. They had been persuaded to travel to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving of 2017 to attend a meeting at the parent company’s PDVSA headquarters. When they arrived, masked security personnel broke into a conference room in Caracas and took them away.
Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee who was detained in 2020 at a checkpoint in Venezuela on suspicion of possessing a “specious” weapon, as described by the State Department, and Osman Khan, a Florida resident who was detained in January, were both freed.
The nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has referred to his wife, Franqui Flores, and his cousin Efrain Campo, were set free by the United States. In 2015, the men were detained in Haiti as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation. They were then flown to New York City to stand trial. The following year, they were found guilty in a contentious case that looked closely at U.S. allegations of narcotics trafficking at the top echelons of Maduro’s government.
Before their release, President Joe Biden showed both men mercy.
The Biden administration has come under pressure to do more to repatriate the 60 or so Americans who, in its estimation, are being held captive abroad or are being unjustly detained by hostile foreign governments. While much of the attention is on Russia, where the United States has attempted in vain to negotiate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela has been holding the majority of Americans who are allegedly being held as pawns in negotiations.
At least two former Green Berets who participated in a hasty effort to topple Maduro in 2019 and two other men who, like Khan, were jailed for allegedly entering the nation illegally from neighboring Colombia are among at least four other Americans being held captive in Venezuela.
The insider businessman, whom Venezuela views as a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors view as a supporter of a corrupt system, was not freed by the Biden administration despite being another prisoner long sought after by Maduro. Saab is currently facing trial in Miami federal court on allegations of syphoning off millions in state contracts after fighting extradition from Cape Verde, where he was detained last year during a layover en route to Iran.
Delays and inconsistencies plagued the oil executives’ trial; they were found guilty of theft last year. They received sentences ranging from eight to thirteen years in prison for a plan to refinance billions of dollars’ worth of the oil company’s debts that was never carried out. At the time, Maduro accused them of “treason.” Earlier this year, Venezuela’s Supreme Court upheld their lengthy terms. The guys all have not guilty pleas, and according to the State Department and the two other Americans released on Saturday, they were all illegally held.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network