(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden’s administration said Venezuela freed seven Americans, including oil executives and a former Marine, in a swap involving two members of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro’s family imprisoned in the US.
Biden personally decided to grant clemency to two Venezuelans sentenced in the US on drug charges -- Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, both nephews of Maduro’s wife, according to a senior administration official. Each was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017 for conspiring to import cocaine into the US.
The Biden administration has prioritized efforts to bring home Americans who have been wrongly detained, the official said Saturday, adding that Biden spoke to the families of the Americans released.
The prisoner swap follows months of diplomatic engagement between two countries with a history of fraught relations. Venezuela has been under economic and oil sanctions since 2019, after the US and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
The US remains committed to supporting dialogue between Maduro and the opposition and a return to negotiations between the two sides, another official said.
Among those returning to the US are Jose Pereira, a former CEO of Citgo Petroleum Corp, a Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, according to a White House statement. Others include former Citgo personnel Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, whose prison sentences were upheld by a Venezuelan court in February.
The men, along with another Citgo employee who was previously released, were arrested in 2017 after being called to a meeting at the headquarters of state energy company Petroleos de Venezuela SA. They were later convicted on corruption charges.
Also released was Matthew Heath, a former US Marine held since September 2020 who had been in poor health for months, according to his family. US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and US Ambassador to Venezuela James Story visited Caracas in June to negotiate his release.
Another “wrongfully detained” U.S. citizen now free is Osman Khan, who was working in Colombia and was taken into custody after crossing into Venezuela on a personal visit.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the chamber’s Intelligence Committee, criticized the releases as an unequal swap of convicted drug dealers for American “hostages” whom he wanted freed “as much as anybody.”
“But every time you do this, now others know, I can take Americans, I can hold them until I need something as a bargaining chip,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
The US released two Venezuelans who had been “unjustly” imprisoned, President Nicolas Maduro’s government said in a statement that didn’t identify them. Maduro released the group of Americans for humanitarian reasons, adding that the swap was the result of negotiations that began in March when Biden officials visited Caracas.
“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more,” Biden said in a statement.
The administration also has been under pressure to win the release two Americans detained in Russia: WNBA player Brittney Griner and former US marine Paul Whelan.
The US made an offer to swap the Americans for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” who in 2012 was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and a second Russian also held in a US jail, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
“To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained -- know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” Biden said.
(Updates with Republican senator’s criticism in 10th paragraph.)
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