Venezuela released at least two jailed US citizens on Tuesday, March 8, people familiar with the matter said, in an apparent goodwill gesture toward the Biden administration following a visit to Caracas by a high-level US delegation.
One of the freed prisoners was Gustavo Cardenas, among six Citgo oil executives arrested in 2017 and convicted on charges the US government says were fabricated, the sources said. The other was a Cuban American, identified as Jorge Alberto Fernández, detained on unrelated charges, according to two of the sources.
The weekend meetings focused not only on the fate of Americans held in Venezuela, but on the possibility of easing US oil sanctions on the OPEC member, which is a close Russian ally, to fill the supply gap if President Joe Biden banned Russian oil imports in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – something that he did on Tuesday.
There was no immediate word on the whereabouts of the released detainees, though they were expected to be flown out of Venezuela to the United States without delay.
Washington has sought the release of at least nine men, including those known as the “Citgo 6,” two former Green Berets and a former US Marine.
The freeing of just two detainees could set a more positive tone for future talks between the United States and Venezuela, which have had hostile relations through successive American administrations.
The US delegation, the highest-ranking to travel to Venezuela in recent years, met with the detainees on Sunday in a Venezuelan prison. US hostage envoy Roger Carstens was part of the group, and he was believed to have stayed behind to finalize the release.
Tuesday’s release followed talks with socialist President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday as the Biden administration sought ways to stave off the impact of soaring US gas prices spurred by efforts by the West to punish Russia for its war in Ukraine.
Biden ramped up the pressure campaign on Moscow on Tuesday with his announcement of a US ban on Russian oil and other energy imports. The ban could further increase prices at the pump for American consumers, adding new inflationary pressures.
Engagement with Maduro, a longtime US foe, was also aimed at gauging whether Venezuela is prepared to distance itself from Russia.
But the Biden administration faced strong criticism on Capitol Hill for its outreach to Maduro, who is under US sanctions for human rights abuses and political repression.
Senator Robert Menendez, a fellow Democrat of Biden and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the White House not to pursue a deal with Venezuela.
Maduro, he said in a statement, “is a cancer to our hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder.”
The United States in 2019 recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president following Maduro’s 2018 re-election, which Western governments dismissed as a sham.
Cardenas was one of six executives of US-based Citgo Petroleum, owned by Venezuela’s state-own oil company PDVSA, arrested during a business trip to Caracas in 2017. A Venezuelan court in November 2020 sentenced the men, who were accused of crimes including embezzlement, money laundering, and conspiracy, to prison terms ranging from eight to 13 years.
The executives – five naturalized US citizens and one permanent US resident – have been in and out of prison and house arrest in recent years, their circumstances often appearing to depend on the state of US-Venezuela relations.
Their detention has been a major sticking point between Caracas and Washington, which has repeatedly demanded their release and called their detention unlawful.
Among the Americans still held in Venezuela is Matthew Heath, a Marine veteran charged with terrorism and arms trafficking. Heath denied the charges. US officials said Heath was not sent by Washington and accused Venezuelan authorities of holding him illegally.
Two other Americans still detained are former US special forces members, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro. – Rappler.com