Jailed Americans land in Texas after U.S. reaches deal with Venezuela to release an ally of President Nicolás Maduro

December 21, 2023
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Several Americans who had been jailed in Venezuela touched down on American soil following a deal between the Biden administration and the Venezuelan government to release an ally of President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the U.S. citizens.

A plane carrying six Americans who the U.S. government said were wrongfully detained landed in San Antonio on Wednesday night. The other four Americans released by the Maduro government not deemed wrongfully detained, including Luke Denman and Arian Berry who attempted to overthrow the Maduro government, as well as Leonard Francis, are arriving at an undisclosed location, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

The Maduro ally being released, Alex Saab, is a Colombian businessman who was arrested in 2020 for his alleged role in a money laundering scheme involving the bribery of Venezuelan government officials and $350 million in Venezuelan assets.

The six Americans who landed Wednesday included Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Cristella and Savoi Wright. The administration said it was not naming the others for privacy reasons.

As the group deplaned, they were greeted by applause and handshakes from a small group of people.

When asked by a reporter how he felt, Wright said, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, free at last,” echoing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Very emotional, exciting, grateful.”

“I didn’t know if I would ever make it out,” he added.

Wright’s family said in a statement earlier in the day that they were relieved the ordeal has ended. “We are grateful to the U.S. government for bringing Savoi home so quickly, to Mickey Bergman from the Richardson Center, to Jonathan Franks, who guided us the entire way, and to the many others who helped to bring Savoi home. We are forever grateful,” they said.

The Richardson Center has helped negotiate previous hostage releases.

“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. “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”

As part of the arrangement with the Maduro government, Francis, better known as “Fat Leonard,” was arrested and returned to the U.S. He was behind one of the worst bribery scandals in U.S. Navy history. Last year, weeks before his sentencing, Leonard fled to Venezuela after he escaped house arrest by cutting off his ankle monitoring bracelet.

Biden “had to make the extremely difficult decision to offer something that the Venezuelan counterparts have actively sought,” a separate senior administration official said. “And he made the decision to grant clemency to Alex Saab, who was pending trial for money laundering, and allow his return to Venezuela in what was essentially an exchange of 10 Americans and a fugitive from justice for one person returned to Venezuela.”

The agreement also requires the Maduro government to release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners, as well as opposition party member Roberto Abdul, and suspend the arrest warrants for three other Venezuelans.

U.S. sanctions on Venezuela were relaxed in October in exchange for progress toward free and fair elections. As a caveat to the agreement, the Biden administration threatened to pull back its sanctions relief if Venezuela did not release both American and Venezuelan political prisoners.

Asked by a reporter Wednesday about negotiating with the Maduro government, which is heavily sanctioned, Biden said, “It’s OK because they are freeing American people that were held illegally, and I’ve made a deal with Venezuela that they’ll hold the election.”

“So far they’ve maintained that requirement,” he added.

Qatar facilitated the conversations between Maduro authorities and the Biden administration, a senior administration official said on a call with reporters.

The talks included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer. Discussions had been going on since May and were aimed at “clearing a path toward a competitive election in 2024 and the return of wrongfully detained Americans,” the officials said.

Biden said in his statement Wednesday that even as the U.S. celebrates the return of the Americans, his administration is focused on securing the release of hostages from Gaza and detained Americans around the world, including Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan in Russia.

“We will not stop working until we bring them all home,” he said.



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