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July 17, 2024

US Swaps Venezuelan Diplomat for American Detainees in Significant Policy Shift

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Dec 21, 2023

The Biden administration announced a prisoner swap with Venezuela on Tuesday, releasing a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for 7 American detainees. The high-profile deal marks a major policy change for the US after years of diplomatic stalemate.

Key Details of the Prisoner Exchange

The US agreed to return Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman who acted as a diplomat for Venezuela’s authoritarian government, to Caracas. Saab was extradited to Miami last year on money laundering charges.

In return, Venezuela freed 7 Americans who had been imprisoned in the country. They include 5 oil executives held for nearly 5 years, as well as 2 other US citizens detained on separate charges.

Officials said the prisoner swap had been negotiated over several months through intermediaries. It did not address the fate of over 60 other Americans still believed to be arbitrarily detained by the Maduro regime.

Background on Alex Saab Case

Alex Saab, 51, is a central figure in the Venezuelan government. US prosecutors allege he amassed a fortune through bribery and money laundering tied to food contracts.

Saab was traveling from Venezuela to Iran in 2020 when his plane stopped to refuel in Cape Verde. He was arrested on a US warrant, despite his claims of diplomatic immunity.

His case became a top priority for Venezuela, which decried his detention as illegal. Officials alleged that Saab had been “kidnapped” as part of American efforts to instigate regime change.

Saab ultimately spent over 400 days under arrest in Cape Verde before his 2021 extradition to Florida to face charges. His trial had been scheduled to start in January.

Shift in US Relations with Venezuela

The US broke ties with Venezuela in 2019, when it stopped recognizing Maduro as the legitimate president after widely disputed elections. It instead backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president.

More than 50 countries also formally backed Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. But over time, most have restored relations with Maduro as he has clung to power.

The prisoner deal marks the clearest sign yet of direct US engagement with Maduro. It could lay the groundwork for easing sanctions on oil exports, especially with rising global energy prices.

Some policy experts praised the exchange as an overdue acknowledgement that the campaign to isolate Maduro had failed. But others sharply criticized it as undermining efforts to restore democracy and fight corruption.

Response from Maduro Government

Venezuelan officials celebrated Saab’s return as a major achievement. President Maduro greeted him on the tarmac alongside the released American detainees.

Maduro said the swap showed his administration’s “moral and diplomatic victories.” He blamed the US for Saab’s “unjust detention and torture,” while praising negotiations between the longtime adversaries.

However, the prisoner exchange does not resolve on the ground political tensions. More negotiations would be needed to set presidential elections under fair conditions supervised by observers. The opposition warns against easing pressure on Maduro without concrete democratic reforms.

Uncertain Fate for Fat Leonard upon US Return

While Alex Saab flew home to Caracas, US agents brought another high-profile prisoner back from Venezuela. Leonard Glenn Francis, known as “Fat Leonard,” arrived in San Antonio after years on the run.

The Malaysian businessman had orchestrated a massive bribery scheme within the US Navy centered around his ship servicing company in Asia. But on the eve of his sentencing in San Diego in September, he escaped house arrest, sparking an international manhunt.

Fat Leonard was finally tracked down and arrested in Venezuela. His return was included as part of the wider US-Venezuela deal. He now faces up to 25 years in prison on bribery, fraud and obstruction convictions.

Prosecutors must decide whether to retry or reach a new plea deal with Francis. He still holds damaging information on scores of Navy officials he plied with prostitutes, cash and gifts to retain lucrative contracts.

The sprawling Fat Leonard scandal remains the worst corruption case in the US military’s recent history. His sentencing will close a chapter on how he exploited weaknesses in Navy oversight for well over a decade.

Outlook Going Forward

The prisoner exchange with Venezuela emerges from almost 4 years of secret back channel talks nurtured by the Biden administration. It required difficult compromises on both sides.

Officials now hope the good faith deal can lead to expanding cooperation across issues like energy, migration, counternarcotics and security.

But a single transaction will not quickly rebuild trust nor swiftly resolve deeper disputes over human rights, democratic reforms, sanctions relief and the status of Venezuela’s exiled opposition. Complex negotiations lie ahead to stabilize the bilateral relationship after years of tensions under the Trump administration.

While the prisoner swap offers a rare diplomatic opening, most experts believe Maduro still lacks incentives to agree to truly free and fair elections unless outside pressure also continues. The White House faces calls from across the political spectrum to strike the right balance moving forward.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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