The US released a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of ten Americans imprisoned in Venezuela and the return of a fugitive defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.
The American captives returned to the United States late Wednesday, according to White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Six of them arrived at San Antonio’s Kelly Airfield Annex.
After disembarking the jet, Savoi Wright, a Californian who was imprisoned in Venezuela in October, cried, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.”
The agreement represents the Biden administration’s most daring move yet in attempting to repair relations with the large oil-producing country while extracting concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader. The greatest release of American detainees in Venezuelan history comes just weeks after the White House decided to lift certain sanctions in response to Maduro’s pledge to strive toward free and fair elections in 2024.
Maduro hailed Alex Saab’s release as a “triumph for truth” against what he called a US-led campaign of lies, intimidation, and torture against someone he deems an unjustly detained Venezuelan diplomat on a US warrant.
“President Biden, we will not be anyone’s colony,” a defiant Maduro stated as he arrived at the presidential palace for a hero’s welcome.
The release of Saab, whom Washington has long considered a go-between for Maduro, is a huge concession to the Venezuelan government. Former President Donald Trump’s government treated Saab as a trophy, spending millions of dollars pursuing the Colombian-born industrialist, even deploying a Navy destroyer to the West African coast following his detention in Cape Verde to thwart a possible escape.
Officials in the United States said Biden’s decision to grant him clemency was painful but necessary in order to bring home imprisoned Americans, a core administrative goal that has resulted in the release of many previously untradeable offenders in recent years.
“These people have missed out on far too much precious time with their families, and their families have suffered every day in their absence.” “I am relieved that their ordeal has come to an end,” President Joe Biden stated in a statement.
The arrangement also resulted in the return of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company who is the pivotal figure in one of the Pentagon’s worst bribery scandals.
However, the exchange enraged many in Venezuela’s opposition, who have lambasted the White House for standing by while Maduro repeatedly outmaneuvered Washington following the failure of the Trump administration’s campaign to depose him.
One of the US captives was Eyvin Hernandez, a Los Angeles County public defender seized nearly two years ago along the Colombia-Venezuela border. He congratulated Biden upon his arrival in Texas on Wednesday night, saying, “I know he made a difficult decision that will put a lot of pressure on him on Capitol Hill.” But he got us home and we’re all safe. And for that, we are all quite appreciative.”
She said, “Honestly, all you think about when you’re in prison is how you didn’t appreciate being free while you were free.”
“I didn’t know if I’d ever make it out,” Wright told reporters. And it’s terrifying to be locked up in a cell in a location where you’re used to having freedom. It’s a pretty difficult scenario.”
Following Maduro’s promises to level the playing field for the 2024 election, when he hopes to extend his decade-long, crisis-ridden rule for another six years, the White House relaxed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in October. A deadline of Nov. 30 has passed, and Maduro has yet to lift a prohibition that prevents his main opponent, Mara Corina Machado, from standing for office.
Earlier in the day, Biden told reporters that Maduro appeared to be “keeping his commitment to a free election.” Republicans, echoing many in the US-backed opposition, warned Saab’s release would empower Maduro to continue on his authoritarian course.
“Disgraceful decision,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The White House went to great pains to promise that it will not hesitate to reimpose sanctions if Venezuela’s government fails to meet election commitments reached during negotiations with the opposition. It further stated that a $15 million reward for Maduro’s arrest on cocaine trafficking charges in New York is still in force.
The accord also calls for Maduro’s government to free 21 Venezuelans, including Machado’s close ally, who has yet to react to the release.
Among those released are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were part in the 2019 coup attempt against Maduro.
Over the past few years, the US has performed multiple swaps with Venezuela, including one in October 2022 for seven Americans, including five oil executives from Houston-based Citgo, in exchange for the release of two nephews of Maduro’s wife who are imprisoned in the US on narcotics charges. Wednesday’s exchange, like the previous one, took place on an airstrip on the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Saab, who turns 52 on Thursday, hugged his wife and two young children as he down a private jet’s staircase at Simon Bolivar International Airport.
It was a dramatic contrast to the sight on another tarmac, in Cape Verde, when he was apprehended in 2020 while en route to Iran to arrange oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government. The allegations in the United States were conspiracy to commit money laundering and bribery in connection with a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to develop affordable housing.
Saab was also sanctioned for allegedly orchestrating a scheme that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from food-import contracts during a time of extreme hunger in the South American country, primarily owing to shortages.
Following his arrest, Maduro’s regime claimed Saab was a special envoy on a humanitarian mission with diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution under international law.
“Life is a miracle,” Saab remarked as he stood behind Maduro at Caracas’ neoclassical presidential palace. “I’m honored to serve the Venezuelan people and this government, which, like me, never gives up.” We will always win.”
There was no mention of Saab’s covert talks with the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Maduro’s chest-thumping. Saab’s lawyers argued in a closed-door court hearing last year that he had spent years assisting that agency in untangling corruption in Maduro’s inner circle and had agreed to forfeit millions of dollars in illicit earnings from corrupt state contracts.
However, the significance of the material he gave to the Americans is uncertain; some have speculated that it was all a Maduro-approved hoax to gather intelligence on US law enforcement efforts in Venezuela. Whatever the case, Saab skipped a May 2019 surrender date and was charged shortly after by federal authorities in Miami.
The agreement is the latest concession made by the Biden administration in the name of bringing home Americans imprisoned abroad, following a high-profile prisoner exchange last December in which the US government traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner, over the objections of some Republicans in Congress and criticism from some law enforcement officials.
Concerns have been made that the swaps are incentivizing hostage-taking abroad and creating a false equivalence between Americans unlawfully detained abroad and foreigners duly prosecuted and sentenced in US courts.
“What happened to the separation of powers?” Juan Cruz, who supervised the White House’s Latin American connections while serving at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, asked.
“Normally, you would have to wait for a defendant to be found guilty before you could pardon him for a swap.” With a Trump 2.0 likely on the horizon, this is a particularly disastrous precedent. It invites the CEO to wink and nod.”
Officials in the Biden administration, however, agree that freeing wrongfully incarcerated Americans and hostages abroad will necessitate painful bargaining.
Venezuela’s willingness to return Francis made this proposal more appealing to the White House.
Francis, nicknamed “Fat Leonard” for his 6-foot-3 bulk, was caught nearly a decade ago in a San Diego hotel as part of an FBI sting operation. Investigators believe he defrauded the United States military of more than $35 million by bribing dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with drink, sex, expensive parties, and other presents.
Francis ripped off his ankle monitor and vanished three weeks before his sentence in September 2022, making an escape as startling and audacious as the case itself. He was detained by Venezuelan authorities while attempting to catch an aircraft from Caracas.