The United States frees an ally of the Venezuelan president in exchange for 10 Americans


The United States on Wednesday freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for 10 imprisoned Americans and a defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard,” who is at the center of one of the Navy's largest corruption cases. US.

Maduro's government will also release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners and Roberto Abdul, an opposition leader in Venezuela, U.S. officials said.

The Americans who were freed Wednesday included six people considered “unjustly detained” by the Biden administration, a designation that indicates the U.S. government views them as the equivalent of political hostages. They had landed in Texas on Wednesday night, an administration official said.

“These people have lost too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence,” President Biden said in a statement when the exchange was announced.

The exchange comes as the Biden administration attempts to improve relations with the authoritarian government in Caracas. The United States is increasingly interested in improving the economic situation in Venezuela to try to address the arrival of large numbers of Venezuelan migrants at the southern border of the United States.

The United States also recently restarted deportation flights to Venezuela and lifted some sanctions after the Maduro administration agreed to take tentative steps toward free and fair elections.

“It appears that Maduro, so far, is keeping his commitment to holding free elections,” Biden told reporters Wednesday. “But it's not done yet. “We have a long way to go.”

U.S. officials considered the exchange necessary to reunite Americans with their families in the United States. It came after months of negotiations between senior U.S. and Venezuelan officials, which were mediated by Qatar, U.S. officials said.

But for some in Venezuela, the deal was a victory for Maduro because it resulted in the release of Alex Saab, who has been accused by the United States of “profiting from the hunger” of Venezuelans. Many Venezuelans say Saab has become synonymous with the worst abuses of the Maduro government.

Saab, a Colombian businessman and Maduro's financial fixer, was indicted in 2019 in connection with a bribery scheme that diverted approximately $350 million from a Venezuelan government housing project.

Saab, who landed in Venezuela on Wednesday afternoon, is one of several officials and businessmen linked to Maduro charged by the US government in recent years, including Maduro himself.

He was extradited from the West African island nation of Cape Verde to the United States in 2021 to face money laundering charges, one of Maduro's highest-ranking supporters to be taken into US custody. He pleaded not guilty.

Washington has accused Saab of being involved in a scheme in which he and others took large sums of government funds intended to feed Venezuela's hungry.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who has criticized the White House's approach to Venezuela, called the exchange “unconscionable.”

But some foreign policy experts said securing the release of 10 Americans was a diplomatic victory for the Biden administration. Christopher Sabatini, senior researcher for Latin America at Chatham House, a research group in London, said it is never ideal to negotiate with “criminal regimes.”

“Understandably, there are those who call this a betrayal,” he said, “but that is diplomacy.”

Maduro's government maintained that Saab's detention was illegal and said he was a diplomatic envoy and could not be prosecuted.

Under the terms of the deal, Venezuela also agreed to return former defense contractor Leonard Glenn Francis, known as Fat Leonard, to the United States. Francis, a Malaysian businessman, is at the center of a fraud and bribery case that has resulted in federal criminal charges against more than 30 U.S. Navy officials and defense contractors, according to the Justice Department.

He was scheduled to be sentenced last year, but escaped house arrest in September 2022 by cutting off his ankle monitor and fleeing to Venezuela. Two weeks later, Interpol agents detained him at the Caracas airport when he was trying to board a flight to Russia. He faces up to 25 years in prison and has agreed to forfeit $35 million in profits.

More than two dozen people have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme. They have admitted that they accepted millions of dollars in luxury travel, accommodation, meals or prostitute services from Mr. Francis in exchange for lucrative military contracts for his Singapore-based business, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.

Prosecutors have said Francis' gifts to Navy officials also included more than $500,000 in cash, Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and Spanish pigs. He also hosted lavish parties for top officials at luxury hotels in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In escaping to Venezuela, Francisco may have believed that years of hostile diplomacy between Maduro and the United States would have protected him from extradition. Maduro has a friendly working relationship with Russia and for months has been considering a visit to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin.

But the U.S. and Venezuelan governments raised cautious hopes of easing tensions when they agreed to a deal in October that lifted some economic sanctions against Venezuela.

In October last year, Biden agreed to grant clemency to two nephews of Venezuela's first lady to secure the release of seven Americans.

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

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

Wright's family released a statement Wednesday saying they were grateful to the Biden administration.

“These past few months have been some of the most difficult of our lives and we are relieved that this ordeal is over,” the statement said. “We will be forever grateful.”

Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.

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