President Biden on Saturday announced that Venezuela and the United States conducted a prisoner swamp, with the authoritarian South American regime freeing seven Americans and the U.S. releasing two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife.
‘Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan,’ Biden said in a statement. ‘ These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong.’
The seven included five oil executives of Houston-based Citgo held for nearly five years after attending a meeting at the headquarters of the Venezuelan state-run oil firm PDVSA. They were hauled away by masked security agents in Caracas and convicted of embezzlement on a trial marred by irregularities — the State Department said they were wrongfully detained.
Also freed were Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal arrested on weapons charges at a roadblock, and Khan, who was arrested this year.
The U.S., meanwhile, released two nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s spouse, who were arrested in Haiti in a drug sting and accused of trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Nicknamed the ‘narco nephews,’ they were convicted in New York in 2017. Biden granted them clemency before they were released.
The move follows months of diplomacy from Washington and is a sign that Maduro may be trying to rebuild relations with the U.S. Biden, in his statement, praised the diplomats and officials who had made the move happen.
‘I am grateful for the hard work of dedicated public servants across the U.S. Government who made this possible, and who continue to deliver on my Administration’s unflinching commitment to keep faith with Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained all around the world,’ he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also praised the work of officials in securing their releases.
‘After extraordinary efforts and perseverance across the State Department and wider U.S. government for many months, these wrongfully detained Americans and legal permanent resident are free and will soon be reunited with their loved ones. I am grateful to Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and the rest of our State Department team for their tireless efforts to achieve this outcome,’ he said in a statement.
A senior administration official told reporters that Biden has spoken with each of the Americans’ families and shared the news with them. The official said it was a ‘painful’ decision to release the nephews, but said that the consequence would be the reuniting of the Americans with their families.
The move marks a successful effort for the Biden administration to free U.S. prisoners abroad. It has so far been unsuccessful in a more high-profile case — that of WNBA player Brittney Griner, who is still detained in Russia despite U.S. efforts.
According to the Associated Press, at least four Americans are still being held in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in an attempt to overthrow the Maduro regime in 2019. Maduro’s government said the release of the seven on Saturday was a humanitarian gesture.
Biden, meanwhile, touted moves he has taken to impose new penalties against countries who hold Americans hostage, including sanctions and visa bans. Biden said it is ‘a priority of my Administration to prevent Americans from having to endure the unimaginable pain of being held hostage or wrongfully detained.’
He also said that the State Department had introduced a new warning marker to tell Americans when travel may incur risks of detention.
‘If travelers make the decision to go despite this ‘D’ warning, they need to know that they are incurring massive personal risk and that it may not be feasible for the U.S. Government to secure their release,’ he said.
Fox News’ Patrick Ward and The Associated Press contributed to this report.