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Monday, November 28, 2022

Venezuela Frees Seven US Citizens in Swap for Maduro Relatives

Biden gave his approval to the trade weeks ago

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Sadaf Hasan
Sadaf Hasan
Aspiring reporter covering trending topics

UNITED STATES. Washington: On Saturday, Venezuela released seven Americans, including five oil executives, in return for the release of two of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife’s nephews who had been imprisoned in the US for drug-related offences.

Along with Matthew Heath, a former Marine, and another American called Osman Khan, the transfer also included Citgo Petroleum officials who had been in custody for many years.

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In exchange, two of Maduro’s wife’s nephews were detained in 2015.

Wrongfully detained prisoners

President Joe Biden said in a statement that the Americans who were “wrongfully detained” would soon be reunited with their loved ones.

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“We are glad that seven families will be reunited today. To all the families who are currently suffering and separated from their loved ones who are unjustly incarcerated, please know that we are still committed to ensuring their release,” added Biden.

The prisoner transfer, which a US official claimed occurred at a third-country airport, was the result of months of covert negotiations with Maduro’s socialist administration, which is subject to severe US sanctions, including ones targeting the OPEC country’s energy sector.

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It happened at a time when Washington is facing increasing pressure to take additional steps to ensure the liberation of numerous Americans detained abroad.

The Biden administration has focused a lot of attention on the incarceration of Russia of Paul Whelan, an American, and WNBA star Brittney Griner.

In a statement, Maduro’s government claimed that as a result of negotiations that began in March, two young Venezuelans who had been “unjustly” detained in the United States had been released along with a number of American citizens who had been the subject of court proceedings in Venezuela and had been freed for “humanitarian reasons.”

In a telephone briefing, a senior Biden administration official said that the two Venezuelans were returning to the South American nation while the freed Americans were all in good health and “overjoyed to be travelling home.”

Tough decision

Biden gave his approval to the trade weeks ago after coming to the “tough choice, a terrible conclusion” that the release of the two Venezuelans was required to secure the freedom of the Americans.

American officials have already disclosed informally that Maduro intended to use the hostages as negotiating chips.

A senior administration official claimed that the exchange, which saw Biden pardon the two Venezuelans who had been referred to as the “narco nephews” by American officials, did not alter Washington’s position in the country.

The Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela have only been marginally relaxed by the Biden administration, which has stated that it will only take more drastic action if Maduro resumes talks with the Venezuelan opposition and progress is made toward holding free elections.

Increased exports of Venezuelan oil to foreign markets could replace some of the Russian supplies that have been cut off as a result of international sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine, according to experts.

Five employees of Houston-based Citgo, Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Pereira, were among those set free.

They had been persuaded to travel to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving of 2017 in order to attend a meeting at the parent company’s PDVSA headquarters. They were taken away by camouflaged security personnel who barged into a conference room in Caracas as they arrived.

In 2021, after a trial marked by delays and irregularities, the defendants were found guilty of embezzlement and given sentences ranging from eight to thirteen years in jail for a plan to refinance billions of dollars worth of bonds issued by the oil business that was never carried through.

Matthew Heath, a former US Marine Corporal from Tennessee who was detained in Venezuela in 2020 at a checkpoint, and Osman Khan, a Florida man who was detained in January, were both freed.

In exchange, the United States released Franqui Flores and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores. The two were apprehended in Haiti in 2015 as part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation.

They were found guilty in 2016 of trying to execute a multimillion-dollar cocaine deal. Each of them received an 18-year prison term in 2017.

A victory for the US and Venezuela

The guys came in different flights, and then the men were transferred—the largest prisoner exchange since Biden took office in January 2020—to “a country between Venezuela and the United States,” a senior U.S. official said.

The CEOs were given prison terms ranging from eight to thirteen years by a Venezuelan court in 2020 after being found guilty of embezzlement, money laundering, and conspiracy. Both they and the business insisted on their innocence, and the U.S. State Department described the accusations as “specious.”

At least four more Americans are still being held captive in Venezuela, including Luke Denman and Airan Berry, two ex-members of the U.S. Army Special Forces who were detained in 2020 in connection with an unsuccessful raid intended to topple Maduro.

Following a visit to Caracas by the highest-level U.S. team in years, Venezuela released two American citizens who had been imprisoned in March.

Also Read: Trump’s Special Master Case: The U.S. Justice Dept. Requests a Swift Decision

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