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U.S. wins release of Venezuela-held Americans in swap with Maduro

Oct. 1, 2022 Updated Sat., Oct. 1, 2022 at 8:58 p.m.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attends a news conference after his meeting with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on June 8, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)  (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attends a news conference after his meeting with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on June 8, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Akayla Gardner and Ezra Fieser Bloomberg News

President Joe Biden’s administration said Venezuela freed seven detained Americans, including several U.S. oil executives, in a prisoner swap involving two members of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro’s family.

Biden personally made the decision to grant clemency to two Venezuelans sentenced in the U.S. 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 U.S.

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.

Among those returning to the U.S. 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. Also released by Venezuela were former Citgo personnel Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, whose lengthy prison sentences were upheld by a Venezuelan court in February.

In exchange, the U.S. released two Venezuelans who had been “unjustly” imprisoned, President Maduro’s government said in a statement. It did not identify them.

Maduro released the group of Americans for humanitarian reasons, adding that the prisoner swap was the result of negotiations that began in March when Biden officials visited Caracas.

The Americans were let go in return for the release of two nephews of Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years by the United States on drug smuggling convictions, the Associated Press reported, citing a senior U.S. official.

Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made no mention of a swap in separate statements.

Biden thanked U.S. officials who worked toward securing the release of those held in Venezuela, whom Blinken identified as six U.S. citizens and one U.S. legal permanent resident.

“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more,” Biden said.

The administration also has been under pressure to win the release two Americans detained in Russia: WNBA player Brittney Griner and former U.S. marine Paul Whelan. The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 in the statement.

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