Venezuela releases 10 Americans in exchange for Maduro ally Alex Saab

Colombian businessman released in exchange for US citizens and others held in the country

People hold posters with the image of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman with Venezuelan ties who was extradited to the US on charges of money laundering. Reuters
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Venezuela has released 10 Americans from detention in exchange for an ally of President Nicolas Maduro jailed in the US.

Citing American and Venezuelan sources, Reuters and CBS News reported Colombian businessman Alex Saab would be released in exchange for US citizens being held in the country.

Mr Saab was detained in 2020 and charged with eight counts of money laundering. Prosecutors say he laundered about $350 million, moving the funds from Venezuela to the US, then funnelled it into private accounts to enrich himself and his allies.

He has denied the charges and Venezuela continuously demanded his release, saying he had been working as a special envoy at the time of his arrest and therefore has diplomatic immunity.

The identities of the Americans have not yet been revealed, though six have been described as “wrongfully detained by the State Department.

Leonard Francis, the man at the centre of a major bribery scheme who fled to Venezuela in 2022, will be extradited to the US as part of the deal.

“Today, 10 Americans who have been detained in Venezuela have been released and are coming home, including all six wrongfully detained Americans,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.

“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence. I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”

Mr Biden added that Venezuela was releasing 20 political prisoners in addition to five released previously.

The US began easing sanctions on Venezuelan petrol, gas and gold two months ago.

The sanctions relief was in response to an agreement between Mr Maduro and the opposition to hold free and fair elections in the country next year.

The political opposition in Venezuela, while permitted to exist, is severely repressed, with its leaders often jailed on trumped-up charges and elections tending to go overwhelmingly in favour of the ruling party, with reports of violence, intimidation and bribery of candidates and voters.

“The ultimate objective of our sanctions is to provoke a positive change in behaviour,” a US government source told El Pais in October.

“With respect to Venezuela, the United States has used the sanctions as an incentive to the parties to adopt concrete measures to restore democratic order in the country.”

However, the White House had threatened in recent weeks to pause sanctions relief unless there was progress on the release of prisoners.

“We will continue to monitor this closely and take appropriate action if needed,” Mr Biden said. “We stand in support of democracy in Venezuela and the aspirations of the Venezuelan people.”

Caracas celebrated the release of Mr Saab, whom it described in a statement as having been “unjustly kidnapped [and held] in an American prison”.

“The people proudly receive him after he suffered three and a half year of illegal detention under cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment, violating his human rights and the Vienna Convention which gives him diplomatic immunity,” the statement said.

Some have criticised Mr Biden's decision to release Mr Saab, with Republican Senator Marco Rubio saying the President was rewarding Venezuela for taking American hostages.

“Saab is the architect of Maduro’s corruption and money laundering operation that deprived resources from the people of Venezuela,” Mr Rubio wrote on his website. “Unfortunately, this exchange will only embolden dictators to kidnap more Americans.”

This is not the first time the US and Venezuelan governments have exchanged prisoners. In October last year, seven Americans were released from Venezuela in a prisoner swap for two of Mr Maduro's nephews.

Updated: December 21, 2023, 4:52 PM