AP sources: Venezuela frees at least one imprisoned American


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Venezuelan government released at least one jailed American Tuesday night as it seeks to improve relations with the Biden administration, which seeks to undermine support for Russia in Latin America.

A nongovernmental group that tracks arbitrary detentions and another person familiar with the matter confirmed to The Associated Press the release of Gustavo Cardenas, one of six oil executives jailed for more than four years.

The move follows a secret weekend visit to Venezuela by top Biden administration officials, including the top White House official on Latin America and the Department of Defense’s top hostage negotiator. ‘State. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that “there were a range of topics discussed during this trip, including the health and well-being of detained American citizens.”

The release came hours after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro expressed interest in improving relations with the United States amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerns in the United States over rising gas price.

The State Department declined to comment Tuesday evening. But Cardenas’ release was confirmed by Foro Penal, a non-governmental group, and by a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Roger Carstens, the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, returned empty-handed from a previous trip to Caracas in December. But he returned to Venezuela over the weekend with other administration officials, including Juan Gonzalez, director of the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere, and Ambassador James Story, who heads the affairs unit. United States government out of neighboring Colombia.

Cardenas and five other executives of Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil giant, based in Houston, had been detained in Venezuela since 2017 and sentenced to prison for a never-executed scheme to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. The US government lobbied for their release.

Three other Americans are also being held in Venezuela – two former Green Berets, Mark Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested for their involvement in a baffling plot to overthrow Maduro, and former US Marine Matthew Heath, being held on weapons charges.

Gonzalo Himiob, lawyer and senior vice-president of Foro Penal, said in a statement that the end of arbitrary detention should be celebrated but warned of the consequences that could come from an agreement like the one that led to the release of Cardenas. .

“The release of any political prisoner, when it results from an agreement between political actors, and not from respect for the law, confirms that from the beginning the reasons for detention were neither legal nor valid, but political and, therefore, arbitrary and arbitrary”. contrary to human rights,” Himiob said.

The weekend talks took place just over three years after the United States severed ties with Maduro and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader. The talks came after months of behind-the-scenes efforts by intermediaries – US lobbyists, Norwegian diplomats and international oil executives – who have been pushing for US President Joe Biden to reverse the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign so far. unsuccessful to overthrow Maduro which he inherited. of the Trump administration.

But the push to raise awareness of Maduro, who has been sanctioned and indicted in New York for drug trafficking, took on added urgency after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent US sanctions. The Ukraine crisis promises to reshuffle global alliances and add to rising gasoline prices, driving inflation already to its highest level in four decades.

Last week, powerful Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill began voicing support for a U.S. ban on Russian oil and natural gas imports as the next step in punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.

Venezuela is Putin’s main ally in Latin America and a major oil exporter. Its return to US energy markets could mitigate the fallout at the pumps from a possible oil embargo on Russia. But the Caracas discussions were quickly condemned by leading Democratic and Republican senators.

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden’s efforts to unite the world against Putin “should not be undermined by backing” Maduro, whose government is under scrutiny. investigation by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity committed against protesters in 2017.


Goodman reported from Miami and Tucker from Washington.