US President Joe Biden on Saturday announced Venezuela’s release of seven American prisoners “after years of unjustified imprisonment”. Caracas also announced that two Venezuelans, identified as nephews of President Maduro’s wife, had also been released by Washington.
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“Today, after years of wrongful imprisonment in Venezuela, we bring home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan,” said Joe Biden.
The Venezuelan government said in a statement that “following the various talks held since March 5 with representatives of the American government, the release of two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned in this country has been achieved.”
The two released Venezuelans were identified by Washington as Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, nephews of First Lady Cilia Flores, and sentenced in New York in 2017 to 18 years in prison for drug trafficking.
“During the negotiations, it became particularly clear that (the release of) the two Venezuelans — sometimes referred to as the + nephews narcos + because of their affiliation with the wife of Nicolas Maduro — was essential to guarantee the release of these Americans,” has a senior US government official told reporters.
“The President (Joe Biden) made a difficult decision, a painful decision, to offer something that Venezuelans have been actively seeking,” he added.
Caracas also confirmed the release of a group of Americans “on humanitarian grounds.”
The seven Americans are “currently on their way home and to their families in the United States,” said the senior US government official.
The first five detainees cited by the US President are former Citgo oil company executives – four Venezuelan-born Americans and one Venezuelan permanent resident of the United States – who have been charged with corruption and sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison.
A sixth of Citgo, Gustavo Cardenas, who served as vice president of strategic relations for this American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, was released in March.
Since their arrest in 2017, they have lived with the swings in relations between Caracas and Washington.
This case has helped to further strain relations between Venezuela and the United States, which has repeatedly called for the accused to be released. The NGO Foro Penal, specialist in human rights and the prison world, classifies the “Citgo 6” among the 251 “political prisoners” in Venezuela.
The exchange, announced on Saturday, is part of a context of warming relations between Caracas and Washington.
The United States, which does not recognize President Maduro’s re-election in 2018, has sought to oust him from power by imposing a series of sanctions on Venezuela, including an embargo on American imports of Venezuelan oil. Before this pause in 2019, the United States was the main buyer of Venezuelan crude, providing Venezuela with more than 90% of its revenues.
In March, another American detained in Venezuela, alongside Gustavo Cardenas, was released following a surprise visit to Caracas by senior American envoys.
The invasion of Ukraine and sanctions on Russia have increased tensions over oil prices, while Venezuela remains a key producer but also an ally of Moscow.
According to several analysts, Washington may therefore be tempted to relax sanctions on Caracas in order to reduce the need for Russian oil.