By Joshua Goodman And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press on December 20, 2023.
MIAMI (AP) – The Biden administration has released a close ally of Venezuelan President NicolÃ¡s Maduro in a swap for jailed Americans, The Associated Press has learned.
Alex Saab, who was arrested on a U.S. warrant for money laundering in 2020, was released from custody Wednesday. In exchange, Maduro will free some, if not all, of the at least 10 U.S. citizens who remain imprisoned in Venezuela, according to a person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House declined to comment.
On Friday and again on Monday, two docket entries were filed under seal in the long-dormant criminal case out of federal court in Miami, an indication that a behind-the-scenes deal was in the works.
The U.S. has long accused Saab of being a bag man for Maduro. Saab’s release would be seen as a major concession to Maduro, an authoritarian leader who is himself the target of a $15 million U.S. reward for anyone bringing him to New York to face drug trafficking charges.
The deal is also likely to anger the Venezuelan opposition, who have of late criticized the White House for standing by as the leader of the OPEC nation has repeatedly outmaneuvered the U.S. government after the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign failed to topple him.
In October, the White House eased sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, promising to reimpose the restrictions if Maduro by Nov. 30 didn’t live up to his promise to pave the way for free and fair elections next year. That deadline passed and so far Maduro has failed to reverse a ban blocking his chief opponent, MarÃa Corina Machado, from running for office.
Among the Americans behind bars in Venezuela are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were involved in an attempt to oust Maduro in 2019. Also detained are Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Joseph Cristella, who are accused of entering the country illegally from Colombia. More recently, Venezuela arrested Savoi Wright, a 38-year-old California businessman.
Saab, 51, was pulled off a private jet during a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was sent to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government. The charges: conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.
Maduro’s government has insisted Saab was traveling to Iran to buy food and medical supplies when he was detained in Cape Verde. Saab was previously sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for allegedly running a scheme that included Maduro’s inner circle and stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food-import contracts at a time of widespread hunger mainly due to shortages in the South American country.
A decade into the crisis, grocery stores are now fully stocked, but few can afford food. The monthly minimum wage is about $3.60, just enough to buy a gallon of water.
The Trump administration held out Saab as a trophy, spending millions of dollars pursuing the Colombian-born businessman. At one point, it even deployed a Navy warship to the coast of West Africa to warn the Venezuelans.
Maduro’s government has argued that Saab is a Venezuelan diplomat, entitled to immunity from criminal prosecution under international law.
But his defense lawyers said last year in a closed-door hearing that before his arrest, Saab had been secretly talking to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, helping authorities untangle corruption in Maduro’s inner circle and agreeing to forfeit millions of dollars in illegal proceeds from corrupt state contracts.
The deal is the latest concession by the Biden administration in the name of bringing home Americans jailed overseas. The most notable prisoner exchange came last December when the U.S. government, over the objections of some Republicans in Congress and criticism from some law enforcement officials, traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
The succession of swaps has raised concerns that the U.S. is incentivizing hostage-taking abroad and producing a false equivalence between Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad and foreigners who have been properly prosecuted and convicted in U.S courts. Biden administration officials say securing the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans and hostages abroad is a core government priority that requires difficult dealmaking.
Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas, Venezuela, Jim Mustian in New York and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.