Maria Elena Lugo
The United States freed two relatives of the Venezuelan President, Nicholas Maduro, in exchange for seven Americans last Saturday, October 1, in what has become the largest prisoner swap of President Joe Biden’s administration, says NPR. The swap included five American Citgo Petroleum executives who were held for almost five years, along with U.S. Marine veteran, Matthew Heath, and another U.S. citizen, Osman Khan. They were freed in exchange for the First Lady of Venezuala’s nephews who were imprisoned in 2017 for cocaine smuggling charges, reports United Press International.
In a statement on the day of the release, Biden commented that the detainees were wrongfully imprisoned and will soon reunite with their families, according to UPI. The Guardian reports that the physical transfer took place in St. Vincent and Grenadines following conversations that began in March with Caracas. The newly freed Americans were in good health according to Reuters.
The seeming shift in relations with Venezuela comes after a hostile Trump administration imposed strict sanctions on the South American nation. Washington makes the agreement under increasing pressure to focus on Americans held captive abroad like, WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who were subject to the Russian criminal court’s 99 percent conviction rate, NPR highlights. Since making the deal, however, the U.S. confirmed on Wednesday, October 5, that it does not plan on lifting sanctions unless Venezuela takes steps to restore free elections, notes Bloomberg.
Another reason for the Venezuela swap urgency is because the recent international sanctioning on Russia heavily influences global energy prices. Venezuela is one of Russia’s most important allies in Latin America and this agreement may impact how that relationship unfolds. Reuters states that an increase of Venezuelan oil to the global market has the potential to aid in replacing previously Russian-dominated supplies.
Maduro, who was narrowly elected in 2013 after the death of President Hugo Chávez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), took control of Venezuela fully in January 2021 amid alarming economic and humanitarian crises. Throughout the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Maduro has resisted U.S. and international pressure to step down. Juan Guaidó was the National Assembly president elected in 2015 who has led the opposition to Maduro. Guaidó was once regarded as interim president by almost 60 countries—including the U.S., which ceased recognition of Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president in January 2019, under the Trump administration.
Citgo, headquartered in Houston, is majority-owned by PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned petroleum company. Their employees, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and José Pereira, had been detained by Venezuela in 2017 and sentenced to prison ranging from eight to 13 years in 2020. The executives and Citgo maintained their innocence against accusations including embezzlement, money laundering, and conspiracy.
Time says that at least four other Americans are still detained in Venezuela, including two men who—like Khan—were arrested for allegedly illegally entering the country through Colombia. In his statement, President Biden encourages Americans to remain hopeful about those wrongfully detained abroad: “know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” TIME reports. The administration also pointed to an executive order from the summer that sought to press new costs on nations that jail Americans without proper cause. Additionally, the executive order notes a warning indicator that is designed to warn U.S. citizens about traveling to countries—like Venezuela—that have a pattern of unfair detentions, according to Politico.