Venezuela frees two jailed Americans as it seeks to improve relations with the United States

The Venezuelan government has freed two jailed Americans, including an oil executive jailed alongside his colleagues for more than four years, as it seeks to improve relations with the Biden administration amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, the White House announced Tuesday evening.

Gustavo Cardenas was released following a secret weekend visit to Venezuela by top Biden administration officials, the White House’s first trip to the county in more than two decades. Jorge Fernandez has also been freed, arrested last year on what the White House called “false charges”.

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

The release came hours after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro expressed interest in improving relations with the United States amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerns in the United States over rising gas price. In a televised address, he appeared to indicate he was willing to accede to US demands to resume negotiations with opponents as the first building block for any relief from US sanctions that have punished the oil-producing nation for years.

U.S. officials did not detail other specific outcomes of the talks, but said the statement reflected months of relationship-building, particularly involving Roger Carstens, the administration’s presidential special envoy for security affairs. hostages.

Carstens made a trip to Venezuela in December that did not immediately result in the release of detainees, but which senior administration officials have credited with building trust and laying the groundwork for Tuesday’s outcome. He returned to Venezuela last weekend with other administration officials, including Juan Gonzalez, director of the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere, and Ambassador James Story, who heads the affairs unit. Venezuelans of the United States government out of neighboring Colombia.

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

Senior administration officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules set by the government, declined to say how Cardenas and Fernandez were selected for release from nearly 10 detainees. Americans detained in Venezuela. But they said Carstens pushed hard for each of them to be released and the possibility of additional releases remained.

Cardenas and five other executives of Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil giant, had been detained in Venezuela since 2017, when they were taken by masked security officers to 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 on charges stemming from a never-executed plan to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. Prosecutors accused the men of maneuvering to benefit from the proposed deal.

The US government lobbied for their release, calling them wrongful detainees being held without a fair trial.

Along with the other Citgo 6 members, several other Americans are still 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 detained on arms charges.

Fernandez was arrested in February 2021 near the border with Colombia after being found in possession of a drone, the use of which is restricted in Venezuela. He was charged with terrorism.

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

“The release of any political prisoner, when it results from an agreement between political actors, and not from respect for the law, confirms that from the beginning the reasons for detention were neither legal nor valid, but political and, therefore, arbitrary and arbitrary. contrary to human rights,” Himiob said.

The weekend talks took place just over three years after the United States severed ties with Maduro and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader. The talks came after months of behind-the-scenes efforts by intermediaries – US lobbyists, Norwegian diplomats and international oil executives – who lobbied for Biden to reverse the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to oust Maduro he inherited. of the Trump administration.

But the push to raise awareness of Maduro, who has been sanctioned and indicted in New York for drug trafficking, took on added urgency after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent US sanctions. The Ukrainian crisis promises to reshuffle global alliances and add to rising gas prices.

Last week, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill began voicing support for a U.S. ban on Russian oil and natural gas imports as the next step in punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.

Venezuela is Putin’s biggest ally in Latin America and one of the main oil exporters. Its return to US energy markets could mitigate the fallout at the pumps from a possible oil embargo on Russia. But the Caracas discussions were quickly condemned by leading Democratic and Republican senators.

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden’s efforts to unite the world against Putin “should not be undermined by backing” Maduro, whose government is under fire. an investigation by the International Criminal Court into possible crimes against humanity committed against protesters in 2017.