Venezuela frees at least one jailed American

Posted at 10:31 PM, Mar 08, 2022

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - The Venezuelan government freed at least one jailed American on Tuesday night as it seeks to improve relations with the Biden administration, which is looking to undercut support for Russia in Latin America.

A nongovernmental group that tracks arbitrary detentions and another person familiar with the matter confirmed to The Associated Press the release of Gustavo Cardenas, one of six oil executives jailed for more than four years.

The move follows a secret weekend visit to Venezuela by senior Biden administration officials, including the top White House official on Latin America and the State Department’s top hostage negotiator. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that “there were a range of topics discussed during that trip, including the health and welfare of detained U.S. citizens.”

The release came hours after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signaled an interest in improving relations with the U.S. amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerns in the United States over rising gas prices.

The State Department declined to comment Tuesday evening. But Cardenas's release was confirmed by Foro Penal, a nongovernmental group, and by a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, came home empty-handed from a previous trip to Caracas in December. But he returned to Venezuela this weekend with other administration officials including Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere, and Ambassador James Story, who heads the U.S. government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit out of neighboring Colombia.

Cardenas and five other executives of Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, had been in detention in Venezuela since 2017 and sentenced to prison over a never-executed plan to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. The U.S. government has pressed for their release.

Three other Americans are also being held in Venezuela - two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested for their involvement in a confusing plot to overthrow Maduro, and former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, detained on weapons charges.

Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer and vice president director of Foro Penal, said in a statement that the end of an arbitrary detention should be celebrated but warned of the consequences that can come from an agreement like the one that led to Cardenas’ release.

“The release of any political prisoner, when it arises from an agreement between political actors, and not from respect for the law, confirms that from the beginning the reasons for the detention were neither legal nor valid, but political and, consequently, arbitrary and contrary to human rights,” Himiob said.

The weekend discussions came a little more than three years after the U.S. broke off relations with Maduro and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. The talks came together after months of backchannel efforts by intermediaries - American lobbyists, Norwegian diplomats and international oil executives - who have been pushing for U.S. President Joe Biden to revisit the so-far-unsuccessful “maximum pressure” campaign to unseat Maduro that he inherited from the Trump administration.

But the impetus for the outreach to Maduro, who has been sanctioned and is indicted in New York on drug trafficking charges, took on added urgency following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing U.S. sanctions. The Ukraine crisis promises to reshuffle global alliances and add to rising gas prices driving inflation already at a four-decade high.

Powerful Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill last week began voicing support for a U.S. ban on Russian oil and natural gas imports as the next step to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.

Venezuela is Putin’s top ally in Latin America and a top oil exporter. Its reentry into U.S. energy markets could mitigate the fallout at the pump from a possible oil embargo on Russia. But the discussions in Caracas were quickly condemned by top Democrat and Republic senators.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden’s efforts to unite the world against Putin “should not be undercut by propping up” Maduro, whose government is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity committed against protesters in 2017.