After nearly five years in Venezuelan prisons, the five remaining members of the “Citgo 6” were released Saturday. A prisoner swap was negotiated between the Biden administration and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Two nephews of Venezuela’s First Lady Cilia Flores were granted clemency in exchange for the release of the Americans.
Maduro refers to his wife as the “First Combatant”. Apparently her voice holds a lot of sway with Maduro. Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, Flores’ nephews, were arressted in Haiti in a DEA sting in 2015. The were convicted in 2016 in New York. The case exposed drug trafficking at the highest levels of the Maduro government.
The case against the Citgo 6 was bogus from the get-go. The oil executives were lured to Venezuela on the pretense of a budget meeting for PDVSA, the state-owned Venezuelan oil company and the parent company of Citgo. They were arrested by masked men armed with rifles once they were in Venezuela. They were accused of conspiring to sell off $4B in Citgo bonds for their own personal enrichment.
When Joe Biden’s administration went hat in hand to Venezuela earlier this year to beg for oil and gas after Putin invaded Ukraine and global supplies tightened, sending energy prices soaring, negotiations began for the release of the Citgo 6. One American was released, Gustavo Cardenas, in March and the United States agreed to ease some sanctions against Venezuela in May. The other five Americans – Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira – were released Saturday.
It’s good news for the families of the Americans being held as prisoners. While recent stories have focused on Americans being held in Russian prisons, it should be remembered that about 60 Americans are being held hostage overseas or are being wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments. All along, Venezuela has been holding the largest contingent of Americans and using them as bargaining chips. The transfer of the remaining Citgo 6 took place on the island of St. Vincent and Granadines, ruled by an ally of Maduro. They arrived from their prison locations in separate planes. All of their families have spoken to Biden and he has assured them that the men are in stable health and will have support services made available to the, including medical care.
“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. “We celebrate that seven families will be whole once more.”
One of the prisoner’s daughters received an extra special birthday gift when she learned of her father’s release.
“I can’t believe it,” Vadell’s daughter Cristina told the Associated Press on Saturday.
Holding back tears of joy on her 31st birthday, she said: “This is the best birthday present ever. I’m just so happy.”
There has been several months of backchannel negotiations. The special presidential envoy for hostage affairs made several trips to Venezuela over the last year. He met with the detained Americans during those trips. Two other Americans were released Saturday, too. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) expressed relief that the Americans have been released but is concerned about the rise in hostage-taking around the world.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in a statement called this day “long overdue,” but he remains “deeply concerned by the alarming rise of hostage-taking by regimes and terrorist groups who are enemies of the United States and their blackmail of the Biden administration.”
Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on “specious” weapons charges, and Osman Khan, a Florida man arrested in January, were also released Saturday.
In exchange for freeing the nephews and insider businessman Alex Saab, Maduro was willing to release all Americans, a U.S. official briefed on the outreach told the AP.
In the end, Saab — Venezuela considers him a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors a corrupt regime enabler — was never seriously considered, according to the U.S. official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the talks.
At least four other Americans are still detained in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in an attempt to oust Maduro and two men who were caught allegedly entering the country illegally from Colombia, according to the Associated Press.
As I said above, it’s good news for the families involved. They will soon be reunited with their loved ones who have been at the mercy of a brutal dictator in Venezuela, held on bogus charges to be used as political pawns. Unfortunately, the Biden administration is easing sanctions on Venezuela in exchange for their release. If Joe Biden had not been so hell-bent to undo the previous administration’s all-of-the-above approach to energy exploration and production, the United States would be in a stronger position in the world. Instead, Team Biden is negotiating with the worst of the worst dictators in their search for additional energy sources. Energy independence is a national security issue. The previous administration understood that and for the first time, the United States was energy independent. That’s all changed now in Biden’s America. We are worse off for it.