US releases ally of Venezuela’s President Maduro in a swap for 10 jailed Americans

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(WASHINGTON) — The Biden administration completed a prisoner swap with Venezuela Wednesday, granting clemency to one of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s close allies in exchange for the freedom of 10 Americans who had been jailed in the country and are now currently en route back to the U.S, the White House said.

“Today, ten Americans who have been detained in Venezuela have been released and are coming home, including all six wrongfully detained Americans,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday. “These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence. I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.

As part of the deal, the White House said that Venezuela has also allowed notorious fugitive Leonard Glenn Francis or “Fat Leonard,” the mastermind behind the worst corruption scheme in the history of the U.S. Navy, to be taken into U.S. custody, and that it will release a high-profile member of the country’s opposition party charged with treason, free another 20 political prisoners as well as suspend arrest warrants for other opponents to Maduro.

The U.S. has not revealed the identities of all of the released prisoners, but a senior administration official said that Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Cristella and Savoi Wright were among them.

Hernandez, Kenemore and Cristella were charged with illegally crossing the border into Venezuela from Columbia in 2022. The details surrounding their arrests remain murky. Even less is known about the circumstances surrounding Wright’s arrest, which occurred in late October. Venezuelan officials have not publicly spoken to the allegations against him.

Wright’s family said in a statement that they are “relieved that this ordeal has ended” and “forever grateful” for the efforts to secure his release.

Other notable Americans detained in Venezuela thought to be included in the deal include Luke Denman and Airan Berry, two former Green Berets accused by Venezuela’s government of participating in a botched mission to overthrow Maduro in May 2020 and subsequently sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

Francis is coming back to the U.S. under a very different set of circumstances. In 2015, the Malaysian defense contractor pleaded guilty to offering lavish parties that included prostitutes, luxury hotels, cigars, gourmet meals and more than $500,000 in cash bribes to Navy officers so they could steer business to his company. Federal prosecutors say the scheme bilked at least $35 million from the U.S. Navy over the course of a decade.

After he was arrested in 2013, Leonard gave information to prosecutors — helping bring cases against 34 defendants, including many Naval officers. Francis was placed on house arrest during the trials, but in September 2022 he escaped to Venezuela and was arrested by the country’s authorities while trying to board a plane for Russia.

Maduro’s ally, Alex Saab, is the only Venezuelan released by the U.S. in the exchange. Saab was arrested for money laundering in 2020 and awaiting trial.

Saab’s freedom is seen as a major concession to Maduro. The Biden administration’s top diplomat for Latin America previous said that releasing him would “never [be] one the table.”

The prisoner exchange is the product of years of sustained hostage diplomacy and U.S.-facilitated process to broker talks between Maduro — who the U.S. and many other nations view as an illegitimate leader who usurped power after the death of former President Hugo Chavez — and the opposition.

Through the negotiations, the Biden administration hopes to move both factions toward holding democratic elections in 2024 and eventually normalize diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela.

On Wednesday, Biden expressed optimism that the plan was on track.

“It looks good. It looks like Maduro so far is keeping his commitment on a free election. It ain’t done yet, we got a long way to go, but, but it’s good so far,” Biden said.

To encourage Maduro, the Biden administration has rolled back sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, although White House officials say that no financial restrictions were eased as part of the deal.

Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens has also been directly engaged in efforts to free many of the returned American detainees for years, making multiple quiet visits to Venezuela to advocate for their release.

On multiple occasions in recent years, U.S. negotiators have appeared to be on the precipice of an agreement with Venezuela only to have the deal fall through at the last minute. In the hours before the 10 Americans were allowed to board a plane headed for the U.S., officials were highly cautious — wary that plans might still go awry.

The Biden administration has successfully secured the release of multiple Americans jailed by Venezuela in the past.

In October 2022, the U.S. exchanged two of Maduro’s nephews for seven wrongfully detained Americans, including five oil executives — part of a group known as the Citgo 6 — that were jailed in Venezuela for nearly half a decade.

ABC’s Mary Bruce, Luis Martinez, and Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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