Venezuela has freed two detained Americans, White House says

WASHINGTON — The Venezuelan government has released two jailed Americans, including an oil executive who has been jailed along with colleagues for more than four years, in a bid to mend ties with the Biden administration amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, the White House said Tuesday night famous.

Gustavo Cardenas was released after a secret weekend visit by senior Biden administration officials to Venezuela, the first White House trip to the county in more than two decades. Also released was Jorge Fernandez, who was arrested last year on what the White House called “false allegations.”

“These men are fathers who have lost quality time with their children and everyone they love, and their families have suffered every day in their absence,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

The release came hours after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signaled his interest in improving ties at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked concerns in the United States about rising gas prices. In a televised address, he appeared ready to heed US calls to resume negotiations with his opponents as a first building block in lifting US sanctions that have chastised the OPEC nation for years.

US officials have not provided any other specific outcomes of the talks, but said the release reflects months of relationship-building, particularly with the participation of Roger Carstens, the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs.

Carstens made a trip to Venezuela in December that didn’t immediately result in the release of detainees, but which senior administration officials credit with building confidence and laying the groundwork for Tuesday’s outcome. He returned to Venezuela last weekend with other government officials, including Juan Gonzalez, the director of the National Security Council for the western hemisphere, and Ambassador James Story, who heads the US government’s Venezuelan affairs branch from neighboring Colombia.

The Biden administration described it as the first visit by a White House official to Venezuela since Hugo Chavez led the country in the late 1990s, and a rare opportunity to discuss policy issues with the Maduro administration. One official described it as “a constructive, diplomatic, but very frank dialogue” that involved no quid pro quo but instead allowed the Biden administration to share its “worldview” with Maduro.

Senior administration officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the government, declined to say how Cardenas and Fernandez were chosen for release from among nearly 10 American detainees being held in Venezuela. But they said Carstens has been pushing hard for all of them to be released and that the possibility of further releases remains.

Cardenas and five other executives at Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil giant, had been in detention in Venezuela since 2017 when they were taken away by masked security agents during a meeting in Caracas. They had been lured to Venezuela to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent company, state oil giant PDVSA.

They were convicted of charges over a never-executed plan to refinance around $4 billion of Citgo bonds by offering a 50 percent stake in the company as collateral. Prosecutors charged the men with maneuvering to profit from the proposed deal.

The US government pushed for their release, calling them wrongfully detained and being held without a fair trial.

In addition to the other members of the Citgo 6, several other Americans are being held in Venezuela. Two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, have been arrested for their involvement in a baffling plot to overthrow Maduro, and former US Marine Matthew Heath has been arrested on suspicion of weapons.

Fernandez was arrested near the border with Colombia in February 2021 after he was found in possession of a drone whose use is restricted in Venezuela. He was accused of terrorism.

Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer and vice president and director of Foro Penal, said in a statement that the end of arbitrary detention should be celebrated, but warned of the consequences that could result from an agreement like the one that led to Cardenas’ release.

“The release of a political prisoner, when it results from an agreement between political actors and not from respect for the law, confirms that the reasons for the detention from the outset were neither legal nor valid, but political and consequently arbitrary against human rights violated,” said Himiob.

The weekend talks came just over three years after the US severed ties with Maduro and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

The talks come after months of backchannel efforts by intermediaries — American lobbyists, Norwegian diplomats and international oil executives — who have been urging Biden to end the previously unsuccessful “maximum pressure” campaign to oust Maduro, which he inherited from the Trump administration , picked up again.

But the impetus to reach out to Maduro, who has been sanctioned and faces drug trafficking charges in New York, gained additional urgency after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent US sanctions. The Ukraine crisis promises to reshuffle global alliances and contribute to rising gas prices that are already pushing inflation to four-decade highs.

Powerful Democrats and Republicans alike began expressing their support for a US ban on Russian oil and natural gas imports on Capitol Hill last week as the next step in punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.

Venezuela is Putin’s most important ally in Latin America and a leading oil exporter. Its re-entry into US energy markets could mitigate the impact of a potential oil embargo on Russia at the pump. But the discussions in Caracas were quickly condemned by senior Democratic and Republican senators.

US Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden’s efforts to unite the world against Putin “should not be undermined by supporting” Maduro, whose government has been charged by the International Criminal Court with possible crimes against He is being investigated by Humanity Against protesters in 2017.


Garcia Cano reported from Caracas and Goodman from Miami.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Venezuela has freed two detained Americans, White House says

Dais Johnston

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