President Joe Biden freed two nephews of the wife of the Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro convicted of drug trafficking in exchange for the release of seven Americans detained in Venezuelaa country with which it has resumed contact despite keeping it under sanctions.
Biden decided to release Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and his cousin Efrain Antonio Campos Floresnephews of Cilia Flowersthe wife of maturea US official who requested anonymity told reporters.
Biden made “a difficult decision, a painful decision to offer something that Venezuelans have actively sought,” he said.
The release of the so-called “narco-nephews”, sentenced in New York to 18 years in prison in 2017 for trying to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine to the United Stateshas been “instrumental in securing the release” of seven Americans, the official added.
Shortly before, the two governments officially announced the exchange almost simultaneously, although Caracas refrained from giving names.
“Today, after years of being unfairly detained in Venezuela, we bring home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, José Luis Zambrano, José Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan,” Biden said in a statement.
All seven are “currently on their way home and to their families in the United States,” a senior White House official told a news conference.
In Caracas, the government of Maduro, whom Washington does not recognize as president, affirmed that “the release of two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned” in the United States has been achieved as “the product of various conversations held since March 5.”
And he confirmed the release of a “group of Americans” detained in Venezuela “for humanitarian reasons.”
The first five detainees cited by the US president – four Americans born in Venezuela and a Venezuelan permanent resident in the United States – are former directors of the Citgo refinery accused of corruption in the Caribbean country and sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison.
A sixth Citgo chief, Gustavo Cárdenas, who was vice president in charge of strategic relations of this US subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSAHe was released in March. That month, another American, Jorge Alberto Fernández, was released after an unexpected visit by high-level US envoys to Caracas.
Matthew Heath is a former marine arrested two years ago and prosecuted for “terrorism”. Osman Khan is one of three Americans detained this year on the border with Colombia whose identities had not been revealed by government sources.
The health status of the seven released is “stable” and Biden has spoken with each of them, the US official said.
The exchange took place this Saturday “in a country between Venezuela and the United States” where a plane landed with the two Venezuelan prisoners and another from Venezuela with the seven Americans, he added.
Later “the passengers departed on planes different from those in which they arrived,” he said.
In the statement, Biden insisted on his “unwavering commitment” to Americans “held hostage and unjustly detained around the world.”
Venezuela has released a total of nine Americans. At least four others remain in detention, former soldiers Luke Denman and Airan Berry, sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly participating in a plan to overthrow Maduro in 2020, and two other citizens who entered through the border with Colombia.
The Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó considered the exchange as one more “proof” that “a criminal regime operates in Venezuela, linked to drug trafficking” which he points out as a “risk” for the region.
“The government of the United States decided to proceed with the exchange, a sovereign decision and in the power of our allies,” added Guaidó in a statement, who is recognized as interim president by the United States after considering the exchange fraudulent. Maduro’s re-election in 2018.
a stormy relationship
Since his arrest in 2017, the situation of US prisoners has suffered from the ups and downs of relations between Caracas and Washington.
Caracas accuses the United States of wanting to attack basic facilities and overthrow Maduro.
The United States has imposed a series of sanctions to Venezuela, including a embargo on US imports of Venezuelan oil.
Before this decision made in 2019, during the term of the former Republican president Donald Trump, The United States was the main buyer of Venezuelan crude. Venezuela’s oil exports account for 90% of its income.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Moscow have heightened tensions over oil prices and the United States has reached out to oil producing countries in a bid to reduce global dependence on Russian crude.
And Venezuela is a great producer, but also an ally of Moscow.
According to several analysts, the prices of black gold may make Washington feel tempted to ease the sanctions on Caracas.
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