Biden announces return of seven American detainees from Venezuela

On Saturday, President Joe Biden announced the release of seven Americans who had been unjustly held captive in Venezuela for “years.”

This undated file photo posted on Twitter on June 18, 2020, by Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, shows CITGO oil executives Jose Angel Pereira, from left to right, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano, standing outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service in Caracas, Venezuela

We are returning Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan today after years of unjustly being jailed in Venezuela. These people will soon be reunited with their families and placed right where they belong—in the arms of their loved ones—the president said in a statement.

The two Venezuelans, both nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, who were jailed in the US for plotting to bring cocaine into the nation, were exchanged for the release of the seven American captives.

The “CITGO 6,” a group of six American oil executives detained in Venezuela more than four years ago, includes Vadell, Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, and Pereira. Following the visit of two senior US government officials to Caracas in March, two Americans who had been arrested there, including one of the CITGO 6, were freed. Veteran Marine Heath was taken into custody in September 2020. In custody since January 2022 is Khan. The US authorities deemed all seven people to have been unlawfully held.

A senior administration source informed reporters on Saturday that Vadell, Toledo, Jose Luis, Alirio, Pereira, Heath, and Khan are all in “stable condition” and have been provided with medical attention as well as a “variety of support alternatives.”

According to the first senior official, Biden called each family to “give the joyful news of their release.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida slammed the move to sell the two Venezuelans for the seven Americans who had been unlawfully held, stating that the trade “puts Americans all around the world in peril.”

Rubio, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on Sunday’s “State of the Union” that “it has now put a price tag on Americans.” As much as anyone, I wanted those folks to be freed, but every time you do this, others know that I can take Americans and hold them until I need anything as a negotiating chip.

“I think the swap of seven innocent American hostages for two convicted drug criminals, who just so happened to be (Venezuela President Nicolas) Maduro’s nephews, is a major victory for Maduro and, regrettably, puts Americans now in danger all over the world,” Rubio continued.

The senior administration official called the choice made by Biden and the US government to exchange prisoners with Venezuela “difficult” and “painful” on Saturday.

“As those conversations progressed, it became evident that one specific action was needed to secure the only feasible result: free Americans. The President made a difficult, hard choice and provided what the Venezuelan people had actively sought. In particular, it became evident during the negotiations that securing the release of these Americans depended on the release of two Venezuelans, Efran Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, who are sometimes referred to as the “Narco nephews” because of their connection to Nicolas Maduro’s wife.

For the exchange, the freed Americans and Venezuelans were both flown to “a country between Venezuela and the United States.” The first official stated that when both aircraft touched down, there was virtual and physical proof “that the appropriate passengers were ready to leave” and “passengers departed on different planes than the ones they came in on.”

The insider stated that Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage problems, was among the released Americans. The official declined to go into any detail regarding Carstens’ early observations, saying only that the liberated Americans were “overjoyed” to be going home to their family.

After a clandestine US government delegation visited Venezuela in June “to discuss the welfare and safety of US citizens there,” a State Department official told CNN at the time, their release has came months later.

The Zambrano family released a statement saying they are “thrilled” to be free and can now “receive the much-needed medical care they need” in the US.

The captive family said, “We could not have made it to this joyful day without the activists and other hostage families who have so graciously been a light in darkness to get us here.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised State Department employees for “their diligent work to accomplish this conclusion” and hailed the most recent development.

“Although we are happy that these Americans have been freed from Venezuela, we still have work to do. As Secretary of State, the safety and security of Americans around the world are my top priorities, and we will keep pushing for the release of all Americans who have been unjustly detained abroad, he said in a statement.

After “a long and difficult captivity,” a spokesperson for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign rejoiced in the detainees’ release.

The former Marine who was imprisoned in Russia in 2019 and released in a prisoner swap earlier this year was mentioned. “We applaud President Biden for having the courage to make this deal and encourage him and the Administration to continue building upon the momentum that began with (Trevor Reed’s) release,” spokesperson Jonathan Franks said.

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