Mexico City, Mexico, October 3, 2022 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan government released seven US citizens who were imprisoned in the country for “humanitarian” reasons, in exchange for two Venezuelan citizens detained in the United States.
“We would like to publicly state that the Venezuelan justice system has decided to free, for humanitarian reasons, a group of United States citizens who were subject to judicial processes in our country,” read an official communiqué from the Venezuelan government published Saturday.
News of the release of the seven US nationals first came via a statement from the White House, which described them as being “wrongfully detained in Venezuela.”
Among those released by Venezuela were five of the Citgo six, a group of executives jailed for corruption in 2017 and who were sentenced in November of 2020 over their involvement in embezzlement, money laundering and conspiracy at state oil company PDVSA’s US subsidiary, Citgo. The sixth member of the group was previously released in March for health reasons.
Also released was Matthew Heath, former marine who was arrested after being caught on what the government described as a “stakeout” near the country’s largest oil refinery complex. Venezuela’s oil infrastructure has been frequently targeted by radical elements of the far-right opposition as part of efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro. The last person to be released from Venezuelan custody was Osman Khan, who was arrested in January but whose case had not drawn similar attention.
In exchange, the US released Franqui Flores and Efrain Campo, two nephews of Cilia Flores, a leading figure in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and President Maduro’s wife.
Venezuela similarly claimed that Flores and Campo were “unjustly detained” by the United States. They were arrested in Haiti in 2015 during an undercover Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sting and handed 18-year drug trafficking sentences in 2017. The trial featured allegations of irregularities from the defense.
AP reported that the exchange took place on Saturday in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and Grenadines.
The swap reveals that the Venezuelan and US governments have kept back-channel lines of communication open, despite the policy of the Biden administration to continue recognizing self-proclaimed “interim president” Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of the country.
The Venezuelan government said the swap was the product of direct negotiations with Washington. A high-level US government delegation traveled to Caracas in March where reportedly brought up the cases of US citizens jailed in Venezuela.
That meeting was followed by a subsequent one in June that US officials characterized as being driven by the Biden administration’s interest in seeing a handful of US citizens released from Venezuelan custody. US envoy for “hostage affairs” Roger Carstens was part of the June delegation.
Both meetings occurred in the context of US and European efforts to tackle a brewing energy crisis driven by the imposition of sanctions on Russia.
The Venezuelan oil industry in particular has been crippled by US coercive measures, including financial sanctions, an oil embargo and secondary sanctions. Caracas is presently producing less than a million barrels per day despite counting on the world’s largest reserves, leading some leaders to call for Venezuela and Iran to return to “Western” oil markets as a means of alleviating the supply squeeze and bringing down energy prices globally.
The Venezuelan government has insisted that it is willing to resume oil shipments provided unilateral sanctions are lifted.
With the US-led sanctions regime also severely limiting the Venezuelan government’s ability to engage in international commerce, the Maduro government has frequently offered an olive branch to US officials with the aim of having sanctions lifted.
Nonetheless, the prisoner swap was described by AP as an “unusual gesture of goodwill” by Caracas. Previous goodwill gestures have not produced any breakthroughs in the Venezuela-US relationship, strained by years of efforts by the US to oust Maduro.
Airan Berry and Luke Denman, US mercenaries who participated in the failed invasion known as “Operation Gideon”, were not included in the swap. Likewise left out was Venezuelan government special envoy Alex Saab, who was arrested during a refueling stopover in Cape Verde before being eventually extradited to the US. Caracas has repeatedly accused Washington of “kidnapping” the Venezuelan envoy in a politically motivated case. US officials reportedly never seriously considered releasing Saab.
The US has tied sanctions relief to progress at stalled negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the hardline opposition. The Maduro government walked away from the table after the extradition of Saab. The prisoner swap is believed to be a step to have talks resume.
Edited by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.