Venezuela freezes jailed Americans, including Citgo executives, in exchange for Maduro family drug smugglers

Caracas, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government has released seven Americans detained in the country, including five oil executives, in exchange for President Nicolas Maduro, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 2015 on drug charges of two family members.

The exchange, the largest ever arranged by President Biden’s administration, comes after months of secret talks. The president approved the swap weeks ago, but it will take time to work out the mechanism, which unfolded Saturday when planes departed from the U.S. and Venezuela to transport prisoners to an unnamed third country, according to senior administration officials. . occur.

The exchange highlights the Biden administration’s efforts to improve a fractured relationship with Venezuela as an alternative source of oil since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. In March, U.S. and Venezuelan officials discussed the possibility of easing sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports.

Those Friday and Saturday are Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Wadder, Arario Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan. All are U.S. citizens, but Pereira is a legal U.S. permanent resident.

Vadell, the Zambrano brothers and Pereira, employees of the Houston-based Citgo, were caught in 2017 by masked agents who burst into the conference room while attending a meeting in Venezuela. Heath, a former U.S. Marine Corps corporal, was arrested in 2020 on what the U.S. called “paradoxical” weapons charges. Florida man Khan was arrested in January.

U.S.-Venezuela ties strengthen Maduro, Guaido not present

“One is never prepared for these things. We are in shock,” Veronica Vadell Weggeman, Tomeu Vadell’s daughter, told The Washington Post in a message, confirming that the news came as a surprise to the family. “We are very grateful that President Biden was able to bring it home.”

Efraín Campo and Francisco Flores, two Venezuelans known as “nephews of drug lords,” are the nephews of Venezuela’s first lady Celia Flores, and tried to smuggle cocaine at the Haitian Drug Enforcement Agency in 2015 After entering the United States, he was arrested in a drug operation. In 2017, they were sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted.

A senior administration official said Biden made the “difficult decision” to be lenient with the two men.

“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole again,” Biden said in a statement. “To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their wrongfully detained loved ones, please know that we remain committed to ensuring their release.” Among these heroes are WNBA star Britney Greenner and security consultant Paul Whelan , they remain detained in Russia despite ongoing negotiations to release them.

Also on Saturday, Iran released Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his elderly father Baquer Namazi, who were jailed seven years ago during a visit to Tehran, according to a UN statement.

Senior administration officials told reporters that those released “seem stable, but obviously they are happy and they are happy to go home to see their loved ones,” they said.

Venezuela issued its own statement shortly after confirming the news, saying it was acting for “humanitarian reasons”. The statement also confirmed the release of “two young Venezuelans who were unfairly imprisoned” during talks between the two governments that began in March.

“It became clear during the negotiations that the release of the two Venezuelans was critical to securing the release of these Americans,” the U.S. official said.

It appears to be another step in normalizing years of turbulent diplomatic relations between the socialist country and the United States. Two Americans were released in March after a high-level U.S. delegation visited Caracas, the 2019 U.S. cut off from diplomacy after President Donald Trump’s administration recognized then-National Assembly speaker Juan Guaido as interim president The first American after the relationship. president.

However, Guaido has little practical authority at home and little influence abroad. He admitted to The Washington Post in November that if the U.S. withdraws its support, “it will be very difficult for us to face a dictatorship with these characteristics.”

The now divided opposition has tried several times to restart the negotiating process with Maduro’s government, the last time in 2021, before it was interrupted by the arrest and later extradition of businessman Alex Saab.

Saab, a Colombian businessman considered a diplomat by the Venezuelan government, has been extradited to the United States to face money laundering charges. Since then, Venezuela has invested heavily in his release.

Viser reported from Washington.

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