Mexico City, Mexico, December 20, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela successfully negotiated the release of Alex Saab, a government envoy who spent more than three years detained.
Saab landed in Caracas on Wednesday afternoon and was greeted by his family and Venezuelan government officials. His release comes as a result of a negotiation between the Nicolás Maduro government and the Joe Biden administration that will see the release of up to 36 people, 10 of them US citizens, currently detained in Venezuela.
The Maduro government envoy was arrested during a refueling stopover in Cape Verde in June 2020 on his way to Iran to negotiate food and fuel import deals amidst US sanctions. In October 2021, he was forcefully flown to Florida to face a charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The Venezuelan government and Saab’s defense lawyers have maintained that he was acting as a special envoy and therefore was subject to diplomatic immunity. Caracas viewed the detention of Saab as a violation of international law, tantamount to a “kidnapping” and his persecution as a politically motivated trial. Saab maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering.
Caracas placed immense diplomatic pressure on Washington to secure his release, with the Venezuelan government delegation walking away from talks with the US-backed opposition in October 2021 when the envoy was taken to Florida and charged.
An international campaign led by Camila Fabri, the Colombian businessman’s wife, also worked to secure his release.
The Venezuelan government issued a statement hailing the “victory of truth and dignity” and “the breaking of an injustice” in Saab’s return.
“[Saab’s] freedom is a triumph for the Bolivarian peace diplomacy and the solidarity expressed from around the world,” the document read.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro received the envoy at Miraflores Palace, claiming that “justice has prevailed after 1,280 days of this kidnapping.”
“His only crime was beating the US’ criminal sanctions to procure medicines during the pandemic,” he said. Saab likewise made a short address, thanking Maduro, other officials and his family for their “perseverance” in securing his release.
News of the deal was met with jubilant comments on social media from Venezuelans. The US-based activist group Code Pink, which has worked to highlight the wrongful detention of Saab, called his release “a huge step towards peace and cooperation between the two countries!”
The US nationals released included former Green Berets Airan Berry and Luke Denman, who took part in “Operation Gideon,” a coup attempt against the Maduro government in May 2020. They were handed 20-year sentences.
Venezuelan authorities additionally transferred Leonard Francis aka “Fat Leonard” to US custody. Francis, a defense contractor, had pleaded guilty to a massive bribery scheme involving the US Navy.
At the time of writing there was still no final confirmation on the details of the exchange. Among the Venezuelan nationals was Roberto Abdul, an ally of far-right politician María Corina Machado, accused of money laundering concerning the recent opposition primaries, as well as several other anti-government activists.
The prisoner swap comes in the wake of a diplomatic detente between Caracas and Washington following the signing of the Barbados Accords in October between the government and the opposition establishing a series of conditions for the upcoming 2024 election. In response, the US Treasury Department subsequently relaxed a series of sanctions on Venezuela that prompted increased activity in the country’s oil and gas sectors.
Over recent weeks US spokespeople have publicly voiced the potential of a snapback of sanctions if Venezuela did not lift the political disqualification of opposition leaders. The Venezuelan government and the US-backed hardline opposition later agreed to allow the country’s Supreme Court to review the cases of banned candidates.
The US State Department issued a communique confirming the return of 10 US citizens, claiming that six of them were “wrongfully detained.” It added that the US “supports the implementation of the electoral roadmap agreement” for the 2024 presidential contest.
Washington’s ongoing diplomatic engagement and recent political climbdown suggest the White House is reluctant to re-implement the full spectrum of sanctions on Venezuela. On Wednesday afternoon, Biden said the US was “ensuring” that Caracas “meets its commitments” and will “take appropriate action if needed.”
The two countries engaged in a previous prisoner swap in October 2022, when the Venezuelan government released seven US citizens in exchange for 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.
Edited and with additional reporting by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.