U.S. President Joe Biden announced Saturday the release of seven U.S. citizens imprisoned in Venezuela. The Americans would have been released in exchange for two nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, accused of drug trafficking.
“Today, after years of wrongful imprisonment in Venezuela, we bring back Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, José Luis Zambrano, José Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan,” Biden said in an official White House statement.
Five of these Americans are former executives of the oil company Citgo Tomeu Vadell, José Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and José Pereira, who were arrested in November 2017. Citgo, a subsidiary of state-owned PDVSA, is controlled by Venezuela’s self-proclaimed president-in-charge, opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Matthew Heath, a former Tennessee Marine detained in 2020 in Venezuela for alleged weapons-related offenses, has also been released. Osman Khan, a Florida native, was arrested in January for illegally entering the country from Colombia.
In parallel to the White House announcement, the Venezuelan government has informed in an official note the release of “two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned in that country” following “conversations held since March 5 with representatives of the United States government”.
In addition Caracas has confirmed the “release for humanitarian reasons of a group of U.S. citizens subjected to judicial cases in our country.” “The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela welcomes the outcome of these talks and hopes for the preservation of Peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world,” the note concludes.
The Venezuelans released could be the two nephews of Maduro’s wife Cilia Flores, Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo. Both were arrested in 2015 in Haiti in an anti-drug operation and immediately transferred to New York to stand trial. The following year they were convicted of drug trafficking offenses. They have now been granted amnesty by Biden.
This release would be a gesture on the part of Maduro, who aspires to recompose relations with the United States after months of secret negotiations.
At least four more Americans remain imprisoned in Venezuela, including two former ‘Green Berets’ implicated in a dismantled coup attempt in 2019. The other two detainees reportedly entered Venezuelan territory illegally from Colombia.
As for the United States, it is keeping businessman Alex Saab prisoner, whose release Maduro demands because he is considered diplomatic personnel. The United States considers him to be a front man of the Maduro regime.