By Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Genevieve Glatsky and Lara Jakes
The United States released a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela earlier this week in exchange for 10 jailed Americans and a defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard,” who is at the center of one of the U.S. Navy’s largest corruption cases.
The Maduro government will also release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners and Roberto Abdul, an opposition leader in Venezuela, U.S. officials said.
The Americans who were released Wednesday include six people deemed to be “wrongfully detained” by the Biden administration, a designation that indicates that the U.S. government sees them as the equivalent of political hostages. They had landed in Texas by Wednesday night, an administration official said.
“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence,” President Joe Biden said in a statement as the exchange was announced.
The swap comes as the Biden administration tries to improve relations with the authoritarian government in Caracas. The United States is increasingly interested in improving the economic situation in Venezuela to try to address the arrival of large numbers of Venezuelan migrants at the southern U.S. border.
The United States also recently restarted deportation flights to Venezuela and lifted some sanctions after the Maduro administration agreed to take tentative steps toward free and fair elections.
“It looks like Maduro, so far, is keeping his commitment on a free election,” Biden told reporters Wednesday. “But it ain’t done yet. We’ve got a long way to go.”
U.S. officials cast the swap as necessary to reunite the Americans with their families in the United States. It came after months of negotiations between top U.S. and Venezuelan officials, which were brokered by Qatar, U.S. officials said.
But for some in Venezuela, the deal was a win for Maduro because it resulted in the release of Alex Saab, who has been accused by the United States of “profiting from starvation” of Venezuelans. Many Venezuelans say Saab has become synonymous with the worst abuses of the Maduro government.
A Colombian businessperson and financial fixer for Maduro, Saab was indicted in 2019 in connection with a bribery scheme that siphoned an estimated $350 million from a Venezuelan government housing project.
Saab, who landed in Venezuela on Wednesday afternoon, is one of several Maduro-linked officials and businesspeople indicted by the U.S. government in recent years, including Maduro himself.
He was extradited from the West African island nation of Cape Verde to the United States in 2021 to face money laundering charges, one of the highest-ranking supporters of Maduro to be taken into U.S. custody. He pleaded not guilty.
The United States has accused Saab of involvement in a scheme in which he and others made off with large sums of government funds meant to feed Venezuela’s hungry.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who has criticized the White House’s approach to Venezuela, called the exchange “unconscionable.”
But some foreign policy experts said securing the release of 10 Americans was a diplomatic win for the Biden administration. Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, a research group in London, said it is never ideal to negotiate with “criminal regimes.”
“Understandably, there are those that will call this a sellout,” he said, “but that’s diplomacy.”
Maduro’s government maintained that Saab’s detention was illegal, saying he was a diplomatic envoy and could not be prosecuted.
Under the terms of the deal, Venezuela also agreed to return to the United States former defense contractor Leonard Glenn Francis, known as Fat Leonard. Francis, a Malaysian businessperson, is at the center of a fraud and bribery case that has resulted in federal criminal charges against more than 30 U.S. Navy officials and defense contractors, according to the Justice Department.
He was set to be sentenced last year but escaped house arrest in September 2022 by cutting off his ankle monitor and fleeing to Venezuela. Two weeks later, he was stopped by Interpol agents at the airport in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, trying to board a flight to Russia. He faces up to 25 years in prison and has agreed to forfeit $35 million in gains.
More than two dozen people have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme. They have admitted that they accepted millions of dollars in luxury travel, accommodations, meals or the services of prostitutes from Francis in exchange for lucrative military contracts for his Singapore-based business, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.
Prosecutors have said that Francis’ gifts to Navy officials also included more than $500,000 in cash, Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and Spanish suckling pigs. He also threw lavish parties for senior officers at luxury hotels in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
In escaping to Venezuela, Francis may have believed that years of hostile diplomacy between Maduro and the United States would have shielded him from extradition. Maduro has an affable working relationship with Russia, and for months has been considering a visit to meet President Vladimir Putin.
But the U.S. and Venezuelan governments raised cautious hope of easing tensions when they agreed to a deal in October that lifted some economic penalties against Venezuela.
In October 2022, Biden agreed to grant clemency to two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady to secure the release of seven Americans.
Among the Americans released Wednesday were Jerrel Kenemore and Eyvin Hernandez, who had been arrested in March 2022; Joseph Cristella, who had been arrested in Venezuela in September that year; and Savoi Wright, a businessperson from California whose family said he had been wrongfully detained after the FBI learned in October that he had been arrested. The United States had designated them all as wrongfully detained.
Senior U.S. officials declined to reveal details about the other Americans who were released, but they said the exchange meant that all the Americans believed to be wrongfully detained in Venezuela had been freed.
Wright’s family released a statement Wednesday saying they were grateful to the Biden administration.
“These past few months have been some of the most difficult of our lives, and we are relieved that this ordeal has ended,” the statement said. “We are forever grateful.”