US, Venezuela make unusual prisoner swap

Washington, Oct 1 (EFE).- President Joe Biden on Saturday announced the release of seven Americans who had been imprisoned in Venezuela, including five top executives with the US energy company Citgo, an affiliate of Venezuela’s state-run oil firm PDVSA.

The released execs “will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong,” said Biden in a statement released by the White House.

“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,” Biden said.

The president did not specify in his statement whether the US had given anything to the Nicolas Maduro government in exchange for the release of the seven Americans.

It appears, however, that two Venezuelans were also released by the US in what amounts to the largest swap of detained prisoners ever carried out by the Biden administration, which has been criticized for not doing more to secure the release of Americans allegedly being held as political pawns by foreign nations.

Among those freed are five Citgo executives: the former president of the firm, Jose Angel Pereira, and former vice presidents Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Luis Zambrano, the latter four of whom hold both US and Venezuelan citizenship.

The former officials of Citgo, which is based in Houston, Texas, were arrested by Venezuelan authorities in November 2017 during meetings in Caracas held by Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

The families of the arrested men claim that PDVSA deceived them to get them to travel to Caracas where Venezuelan authorities arrested on allegedly trumped-up charges.

Once they were in custody in Venezuela, the men were accused of assorted crimes of corruption, including misappropriation of public funds, money-laundering and illicit association, among other charges.

All of them had pleaded not guilty and the US has said that the charges filed against them were unfounded.

Another top Citgo official, Gustavo Adolfo Cardenas, had been released by Venezuelan authorities in March after a US high-level US delegation visited Caracas.

Also released by Venezuela was US citizen Osman Khan, who was arrested in January 2022, and retired Marine Matthew Heath, arrested in 2020 and accused of terrorism for his alleged participation in an undercover operation to sabotage oil installations, a charge that the US has declared to be unfounded.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government announced Saturday that the Washington had released two Venezuelans who has been imprisoned in the US, saying that “different conversations” – conducted in secret – had been undertaken by officials in both countries starting on March 5.

A statement issued by the Caracas government said that the talks “enabled the release of two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned” in the US, although Venezuelan authorities did not specify who the released pair are.

However, reports are that these two Venezuelans are, in fact, relatives of Maduro, namely Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, who are nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores.

The pair were arrested by the US Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Haiti on Nov. 10, 2015, and convicted on drug trafficking charges in December 2017 in a New York court and sentenced to 18 years behind bars, but both men were granted clemency by Biden before their release.

In addition, the Venezuelan government confirmed the release for “humanitarian reasons” of the seven Americans.

There are at least four other US citizens who are still being held in Venezuela, including two ex-Green Berets who were allegedly involved in a hastily-arranged 2019 coup attempt against Maduro along with two other men who, like Khan, were arrested on charges of illegally entering the country from neighboring Colombia.

Venezuela and the US have not had diplomatic relations since 2019.

EFE bpm-csm/eat-sb/ag/bp

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