The Venezuelan government has released two imprisoned Americans and an oil executive who was imprisoned along with colleagues for over four years in an effort to improve relationships with the Biden administration in the midst of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine the White House announced Tuesday night.
Gustavo Cardenas was released following an unannounced weekend trip to the country of Venezuela with high-ranking Biden administration officials. It was the very initial White House trip to the county in more than two decades. In addition, Jorge Fernandez, who was taken into custody last year in connection with charges that were, according to the White House described as “spurious charges”, was also released.
“These fathers have had to miss the valuable time spent with their families as well as all the people they love and their families have suffered each day that they are absent,” President Joe Biden declared in an official statement.
The news came just moments following Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro signaled an interest in reestablishing relations during a time when Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has created a stir among the United States over rising gas prices. In a broadcast address in which he seemed to signal that he would be willing to agree to U.S. demands to resume talks with his rivals as the first step to ease the burden of U.S. sanctions, which have been slapping the OPEC country for several years.
U.S. officials have not detailed any other specific outcomes of the talks but said the release reflected months of relationship-building, particularly involving Roger Carstens, the administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
Carstens visited Venezuela in December. The trip did not immediately lead to the release of the detainees. However, senior administration officials were credited with creating trust and setting the foundations for Tuesday’s outcomes. Carstens returned to Venezuela over the weekend, along with other administration officials such as Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere, and Ambassador James Story, who heads the U.S. government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit in neighboring Colombia.
The Biden administration declared it to be one of the very first Venezuela visits of an official of the White House since Hugo Chavez took over Venezuela in the late 1990s and an opportunity to discuss issues of policy in a constructive manner with the Maduro government. A senior official said it was “a productive, diplomatic, but very honest conversation” and did not require any exchange of money, but it permitted for the Biden administration to discuss their “view about the globe” and with Maduro.
Senior administration officials, who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in accordance with the ground guidelines established by the government, did not reveal how Cardenas and Fernandez were chosen to be released out of the more than 10 American detainees being held in Venezuela. They did, however, say Carstens was adamant about releasing all and the possibility of more releases remains, but they must be careful not to hit over 21 on blackjack.
Cardenas, as well as five other executives of the Houston-based Citgo, which is an affiliate of Venezuela’s national oil firm, was detained in Venezuela since the year 2017 when they were taken away by security guards disguised in masks during a meeting in Caracas. They were lured to Venezuela to attend an event in Citgo’s headquarters, which is owned by its parent state-owned oil giant PDVSA.
They were convicted of charges arising from a never-realized plan to refinance $4 billion of Citgo bonds, by offering an equity stake of 50% of the business as collateral. The prosecutor accused the defendants of manipulating to gain from the deal.
The U.S. government pressed for their release, citing them as inhumane detainees who were not given an impartial trial.
In addition to those who are part of Citgo 6, several other Americans are still in Venezuela. Two ex-Green Berets, Luke Denman, and Airan Berry were detained as part of an unsettling plot to topple Maduro, and ex U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who was detained for weapons-related charges.
Fernandez was arrested in February 2021 at the frontier with Colombia following the discovery of possessing drones, the use of which is not permitted in Venezuela. The government accused him of terrorism.
Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer and vice president Foro Penal, a lawyer and vice president director Foro Penal, said in an official statement that the end of an arbitrarily detained person should be celebrated, but be aware of the repercussions that may result from an agreement similar to that which resulted in Cardenas release.
“The freedom of any prisoner who is a political activist in the event that it is based on an agreement between actors in the political arena, and not out of respect of the law, proves that the initial motives for detention were not legally legitimate, but rather politically motivated and, as a result, arbitrarily imposed and in violation of the rights of the human being,” Himiob said.
The discussions on the weekend came just three years following that the U.S. broke off relations with Maduro and acknowledged rebel head Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.
The talks were held after months of backchannel efforts from intermediaries including American lobbyists Norwegian diplomatic officials and oil executives from around the world who have been advocating on behalf of Biden to revisit his but so far ineffective “maximum pressure” campaign to remove Maduro who he took over by his predecessor in the Trump administration.
The motivation behind the effort to reach out to Maduro who was detained and being indicted by New York on drug trafficking charges was given a new urgency due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing U.S. sanctions. The Ukraine crisis could shake up international alliances, and contribute to the rising cost of gas, which is which are to a record high of four decades.
A powerful Democrats along with Republicans as well at Capitol Hill last week began speaking out in support of the U.S. ban on Russian natural gas and oil imports as the next move to be punished Russian Vladimir Putin for his actions. Vladimir Putin for the invasion.
Venezuela is one of Putin’s most important allies in Latin America and a top oil exporter. Its return to U.S. energy markets could help to alleviate the repercussions on the pump of an embargo of oil on Russia. However, the discussions in Caracas were swiftly condemned by the most powerful Democrat as well as Republic senators.
U.S. Senator. Bob Menendez, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated that Biden’s efforts to unite all of the nations with Putin “should be not undermined by supporting” Maduro, whose government is currently under investigation through the International Criminal Court for possible violations against humanity that were committed against protesters in 2017.
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