Thursday, May 23, 2024

The United States has released a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela in exchange for 10 jailed Americans, including six designated as wrongfully detained.

Alex Saab, who has been accused by the United States of “profiting from starvation” of Venezuelans, is a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for Mr. Maduro. He was indicted in 2019 in connection with a bribery scheme that siphoned an estimated $350 million from a Venezuelan government housing project.

Among the Americans released were Jerrel Kenemore and Eyvin Hernandez, who had been arrested in March 2022; Joseph Cristella who was arrested in Venezuela on in September of 2022; and Savoi Wright, a businessman from California whose family said he had been wrongfully detained after the F.B.I. learned in October he had been arrested. The United States had designated them all as wrongfully detained.

Senior U.S. officials declined to reveal details about the other Americans who were released, but they said the exchange meant that all the Americans believed to be wrongfully detained in Venezuela had been freed.

As a part of the agreement, Venezuela also agreed to return to the United States the former defense contractor Leonard Glenn Francis, known as Fat Leonard, who is at the center of one of the U.S. Navy’s largest corruption cases. Mr. Maduro will also release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners, as well as Roberto Abdul, an opposition leader in Venezuela, U.S. officials said. The arrest warrants of three other Venezuelans were also suspended.

The deal came after months of negotiations between Mr. Biden and Mr. Maduro’s top officials, which were brokered by Qatar, according to U.S. officials. It comes as the Biden administration tries to improve relations with the authoritarian government in Caracas. The United States recently restarted deportation flights to Venezuela and agreed to lift some sanctions after the Maduro administration agreed to take tentative steps toward free and fair elections.
“It looks like Maduro, so far, is keeping his commitment on a free election,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Wednesday. “But it ain’t done yet. We’ve got a long way to go. But it’s good so far.”
Mr. Biden later released a statement confirming that the Americans were on their way back to the United States.
“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence,” Mr. Biden said. “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”

U.S. officials cast the swap as necessary in order to reunite the Americans with their families in the United States. But for some in Venezuela, the deal was a win for Mr. Maduro; many Venezuelans say Mr. Saab has become synonymous with the worst abuses of the Maduro government.

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