WASHINGTON – The Venezuelan government has released two American prisoners, including the head of the oil industry, who has been in prison with colleagues for more than four years as he seeks to improve relations with the Biden administration amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, the White House said Tuesday night. .

Gustavo Cardenas was released after a secret visit to Venezuela by high-ranking Biden administration officials over the weekend, the White House’s first trip to the district in more than two decades. Also released was Jorge Fernandez, who was arrested last year on what the White House called a “fake charge.”

“These men are parents who have 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 announcement came hours after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said he was interested in improving relations at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns in the United States about rising gas prices. In a televised address, he apparently indicated that he was ready to agree to US demands to resume talks with his opponents as the first building block for any lifting of US sanctions that have ruled the OPEC country for years.

U.S. officials have not released any other specific results of the talks, but said the publication reflects months of building relations, particularly with Roger Carstens, the administration’s special envoy for hostages.

Carstens made a trip to Venezuela in December, which did not immediately lead to the release of the detainees, but high-ranking officials of the administration were credited with establishing trust and creating a basis for results on Tuesday. He returned to Venezuela last weekend along with other administration officials, including Juan Gonzalez, director of the National Security Council in the Western Hemisphere, and Ambassador James Story, who heads Venezuela’s U.S. government department from neighboring Colombia.

The Biden administration described it as the first White House official’s visit to Venezuela since Hugo Chavez headed the country in the late 1990s, and a rare opportunity to discuss policy issues with Maduro’s government. One official described it as a “constructive, diplomatic, but very sincere dialogue” and it did not entail any order, but allowed the Biden administration to share its “worldview” with Maduro.

Senior administration officials, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity under basic rules set by the government, declined to say how Cardenas and Fernandez were selected for release among nearly 10 U.S. detainees in Venezuela. But they said Carsten was working hard to free them all, and that the possibility of additional releases remains.

Cardenas and five other executives of the Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil giant, have been in custody in Venezuela since 2017 when they were taken away by masked security agents during a meeting in Caracas. They were lured to Venezuela to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the parent company Citgo, the state oil giant PDVSA.

They were convicted on charges of failing to meet a refinancing plan of about $ 4 billion in Citgo bonds, offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. Prosecutors have accused the men of maneuvering to benefit from the proposed deal.

The U.S. government has insisted on their release, calling them illegally detained without a fair trial.

In addition to other members of Citgo 6, several other Americans remain in Venezuela. Two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Iron Berry, have been arrested for plotting to overthrow Maduro, and former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath has been arrested on weapons charges.

Fernandez was detained in February 2021 near the border with Colombia after he was found in a drone, the use of which is limited in Venezuela. He was accused of terrorism.

Gonzalo Himiob, lawyer and vice president of Foro Penal, said in a statement that the cessation of arbitrary detention should be noted, but warned of the implications of an agreement similar to the one that led to Cardenas’ release.

“The release of any political prisoner, if it follows from an agreement between political actors and not out of respect for the law, confirms that from the outset the reasons for detention were not legitimate and respectable but political and therefore arbitrary and contrary to human rights.” Said Himiab.

Discussions over the weekend came just over three years after the United States severed ties with Maduro and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaid as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

The talks came after months of efforts by mediators – US lobbyists, Norwegian diplomats and international oil executives – to urge Biden to reconsider his failed campaign of “maximum pressure” to overthrow Maduro, which he inherited from the Trump administration.

But the impetus for Maduro’s reach, which has come under sanctions and has been indicted in New York on charges of drug trafficking, has become even more relevant following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent US sanctions. The crisis in Ukraine promises to change global alliances and add rising gas prices, which has boosted inflation to a four-decade high.

Powerful Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill last week began expressing support for a U.S. ban on imports of Russian oil and natural gas as a next step toward 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 U.S. energy markets could mitigate the effects of a possible oil embargo against Russia. But discussions in Caracas were quickly condemned by top Democratic senators and Republicans.

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


Garcia Kano reported from Caracas and Goodman from Miami.

Copyright © 2022, Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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