WASHINGTON – The United States released an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in exchange for 10 American detainees and a fugitive dubbed "Fat Leonard" in a sweeping prisoner swap deal between the rival governments on Wednesday.
US President Joe Biden made the “extremely difficult decision” to free Alex Saab, the onetime confidant of socialist leader Maduro, who is accused by the United States of money laundering for Caracas, US officials said.
Venezuela in return handed over a fugitive named Leonard Francis at the center of the US Navy’s worst ever corruption scandal, released 20 Venezuelan political prisoners and released the 10 US citizens.
Washington has been easing the pressure on the leftist Caracas government while it pushes for progress on democracy, agreeing in October to scale back oil and gas sanctions.
“Today, 10 Americans who have been detained in Venezuela have been released and are coming home,” Biden said in a statement, adding that he was “glad their ordeal is finally over.”
Biden told reporters separately that “it looks like Maduro, so far, is keeping his commitment on a free election” as agreed in the deal to lighten sanctions.
The deal was brokered by the Gulf state of Qatar, US officials added.
Maduro on his end hailed Saab’s release as “a triumph of truth,” and the ex-prisoner’s arrival home was broadcast live on local television.
Saab, who spoke at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas with Maduro at his side, thanked the Venezuelan leader and said that “today the miracle of freedom, the miracle of justice, has become a reality.”
– ‘Extremely difficult’ –
Saab, a Colombian national whom Maduro gave Venezuelan nationality and an ambassadorial title, was arrested in June 2020 on a stopover in Cape Verde and then extradited to the United States.
Saab and his business partner Alvaro Pulido are charged in the United States with running a network that exploited food aid destined for Venezuela, where millions have fled an economy that has been devastated, despite the nation’s oil wealth.
The pair are alleged to have moved $350 million out of Venezuela into accounts they controlled in the United States and elsewhere.
Maduro reacted furiously to Saab’s extradition, suspending talks with the US-backed opposition on ending the country’s political and economic crisis.
Biden “had to make the extremely difficult decision to offer something that the Venezuelan counterparts actively sought, and he made the decision to grant clemency to Alex Saab,” a senior US official said.
The official added that it was “essentially an exchange of 10 Americans and a fugitive from justice for one person returned to Venezuela.”
The White House named four of the freed Americans as Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Savoi Wright.
Former US soldiers Luke Alexander Denman and Airan Berry, who were serving 20-year sentences for a botched armed invasion into Venezuela in 2020, were also among those freed, a Venezuelan rights group said.
– ‘Suckling pig’ –
Francis, the fugitive arrested and returned by Venezuela, was a military contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who escaped house arrest in California in September 2022 by cutting off his GPS tag.
Francis, a Malaysian national, pleaded guilty in 2015 to offering some $500,000 in bribes to Navy officers to steer official work to his shipyards, carrying out work on US vessels that prosecutors say he overcharged the Navy for to the tune of $35 million.
Francis bribed “scores” of US navy officials with gifts including “cash, prostitutes and luxury travel, and things like Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and Spanish suckling pig,” a senior US official said.
A prisoner exchange has long been in discussions as the United States switches strategy to engaging Maduro.
The United States, under Donald Trump, in 2019 declared Maduro to be illegitimate following allegations of election irregularities and launched a campaign through sanctions and pressure to remove him.
But Maduro withstood the pressure, holding on through support from a loyal political support base and the military as well as from Cuba, Russia and China.
The US dealings with Venezuela come despite separate concern over Maduro’s escalation of a long-simmering territorial dispute with Guyana over the oil-rich Essequibo region, although tensions eased last week.
The United States has been willing to trade high-profile prisoners for detained Americans, whose cases generate public sympathy.