Venezuela frees jailed Americans including Citgo execs in exchange for Maduro family drug smugglers

CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government freed seven Americans detained in the country, including five oil executives, in exchange for two family members of President Nicolás Maduro jailed in the United States on drug convictions since 2015.

The swap, the largest arranged by President Biden’s administration, came after months of secret talks. The president approved the exchange a few weeks ago, according to senior administration officials, but it took time to work through the mechanics, which unfolded Saturday when planes left from the United States and from Venezuela carrying the prisoners to an unnamed third country where the swap took place.

The exchange underscored efforts by the Biden administration since the February invasion of Ukraine by Russia to improve the tattered relationship with Venezuela as an alternative source of oil. In March, US and Venezuelan officials discussed the possibility of easing sanctions on oil exports from Venezuela.

Those freed Saturday were Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan. All are US citizens except Pereira, a lawful permanent US resident.

Vadell, the Zambrano brothers and Pereira were employees of Houston-based Citgo who were attending a meeting in 2017 in Venezuela when they were seized by masked agents who burst into their conference room. Heath, a former US Marine corporal, was arrested on what the United States called “specious” weapons charges in 2020. Khan, a Florida man was arrested in January.

US outreach to Venezuela strengthens Maduro, sidelines Guaidó

“One never prepares for these things. we are shocked,” Veronica Vadell Weggeman, daughter of Tomeu Vadell, told The Washington Post in message, confirming the news came as a surprise for the family. “We are super grateful that President Biden was able to bring it home.”

The two Venezuelans known as the “narco nephews,” Efraín Campo and Francisco Flores, nephews of Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores, were arrested in Haiti in 2015 in a Drug Enforcement Administration drug operation after attempting to smuggle cocaine into the United States. In 2017, they were sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted.

A senior administration official said Biden made “the difficult decision” to grant clemency to the two men.

“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more,” Biden said in a statement. “To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained — know that we remain dedicated to securing their release.” Among those held are WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan, both of whom remain detained in Russia despite ongoing negotiations for their release.

Also on Saturday, Iran released an Iranian-American businessman, Siamak Namazi, jailed seven years ago during a visit to Tehran, and his aging father, Baquer Namazi, according to a statement from the United Nations.

Senior administration officials told reporters those released “seemed stable but obviously they’re happy, they’re overjoyed to be heading home to their loved ones,” they said.

Venezuela released its own statement soon after confirming the news, saying it acted for “humanitarian reasons.” The statement also confirmed that “two young Venezuelans unfairly imprisoned” in the United States were freed as part of talks that started in March of this year between both governments.

“It became clear in the course of negotiations, that the release of two Venezuelans was essential to securing the release of these Americans,” the US officials said.

This appears to be another step toward normalizing years of turbulent diplomatic relations between the socialist country and the United States. In March, two Americans were freed following a visit to Caracas by a high-level US delegation, the first one after the United States cut off diplomatic relations in 2019 after President Donald Trump’s administration recognized Juan Guaidó, then the National Assembly president, as interim President.

Yet, Guaidó has little practical authority in the country and little influence outside. He acknowledged to The Post in November that if the United States were to withdraw its support, “it would be difficult for us to face a dictatorship of these characteristics.”

The opposition, now heavily divided, has tried to restart a negotiation process with the Maduro government on several occasions, the last one in 2021, then interrupted by the arrest and later extradition of businessman Alex Saab.

Saab, a Colombian businessman considered a diplomat by Venezuela’s government, was extradited to the United States facing money laundering charges. Since then, Venezuela has been heavily invested in its release.

Viser reported from Washington.

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