WASHINGTON — The government of Venezuela has freed two jailed Americans, including an oil executive imprisoned alongside colleagues for more than four years, as it seeks to improve relations with the Biden administration amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, the White House announced Tuesday night.
Gustavo Cardenas was released following a secret weekend visit to Venezuela by senior Biden administration officials, the first White House trip to the country in more than two decades. Also freed was Jorge Fernandez, who was arrested last year on what the White House described as “spurious charges.”
“These men are fathers who lost precious time with their children and everyone they love, and their families have suffered every day of their absence,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
The release came hours after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signaled an interest in improving relations at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns in the United States over rising gas prices. In a televised address, he appeared to indicate he was willing to accede to U.S. demands that he resume negotiations with his opponents as a first building block for any relief from U.S. sanctions that have been punishing the OPEC nation for years.
Cardenas and five other executives of Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, had been in detention in Venezuela since 2017 when they were led away by masked security agents while at a meeting in Caracas, the capital. They had been lured to Venezuela in order to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA.
They were sentenced on charges stemming from a never-executed plan to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50 percent stake in the company as collateral. Prosecutors accused the men of maneuvering to benefit from the proposed deal.
The U.S. government pressed for their release, calling them wrongful detainees held without a fair trial.
Besides the other members of the Citgo 6, several other Americans remain held in Venezuela. Two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, were arrested for their involvement in a confusing plot to overthrow Maduro, and former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath was detained on weapons charges.
Fernandez was detained in February 2021 near the border with Colombia after he was found in possession of a drone, whose use is restricted in Venezuela. He was accused of terrorism.
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Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer and vice president director of Venezuelan human rights group Foro Penal, said in a statement that the end of an arbitrary detention should be celebrated but warned of the consequences that can come from an agreement like the one that led to Cardenas’ release.
“The release of any political prisoner, when it arises from an agreement between political actors, and not from respect for the law, confirms that from the beginning the reasons for the detention were neither legal nor valid, but political and, consequently, arbitrary and contrary to human rights,” Himiob said.
The weekend discussions came a little more than three years after the U.S. broke off relations with Maduro and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
The talks came together after months of backchannel efforts by intermediaries — American lobbyists, Norwegian diplomats and international oil executives — who have been pushing for Biden to revisit the so far unsuccessful “maximum pressure” campaign to unseat Maduro that he inherited from the Trump administration.
But the impetus for the outreach to Maduro, who has been sanctioned and is indicted in New York on drug trafficking charges, took on added urgency following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing U.S. sanctions. The Ukraine crisis promises to reshuffle global alliances and add to rising gas prices driving inflation already at a four-decade high.
Venezuela is Putin’s top ally in Latin America and a top oil exporter. Its reentry into U.S. energy markets could mitigate the fallout at the pump from the Russian oil embargo. But the discussions in Caracas were quickly condemned by top Democratic and Republican senators.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden’s efforts to unite the world against Putin “should not be undercut by propping up” Maduro, whose government is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity committed against protesters in 2017.