In a rare softening of hostile relations, the White House said Saturday that Venezuela freed seven Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the United States released two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years on drug smuggling convictions.
The swap of the Americans, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, is the largest trade of detained citizens ever carried out by the Biden administration.
“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home” the seven men, whom the president cited by name. “We celebrate that seven families will be whole once more.”
The White House said Biden had spoken with the families and that the men were in stable health and have been offered a range of support services, including medical care.
Maduro’s government said in a statement that it was releasing the American citizens as a humanitarian gesture. It praised the diplomacy that resulted in the freeing of the two “unjustly imprisoned” Venezuelans imprisoned in the United States and said it “hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world.”
The exchange amounts to an unusual gesture of goodwill by Maduro as the socialist leader looks to rebuild relations with the U.S. after vanquishing most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months of back channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other U.S. officials — secretive talks with a major oil producer that took on greater urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.
The transfer took place in a country between the U.S. and Venezuela after the men in the deal arrived in separate planes, the Biden administration said.
Those freed include five employees of Houston-based Citgo — Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who were lured to Venezuela right before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent, state-run-oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were hauled away by masked security agents who busted into a Caracas conference room.
“I can’t believe it,” said Vadell’s daughter, Cristina, when contacted in Houston by The Associated Press. Holding back tears of joy on her 31st birthday, she said: “This is the best birthday present ever. I’m just so happy.”