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Venezuela frees 7 Americans in prisoner swap with US

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Seven Americans, including an energy executive, have been released by the Venezuelan government in a prisoner swap for two of President Nicolás Maduro’s family members convicted in the US on drugs charges.

US president Joe Biden said the six American citizens and one permanent resident would “soon be reunited with their families”.

“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more,” Biden said in his statement. “To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained — know that we remain dedicated to securing their release.”

Among the Americans released was Jose Pereira, a former chief executive of Citgo Petroleum, Venezuelan state oil company’s Houston-based subsidiary.

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The two Venezuelans released — Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores — are the nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife, and had been convicted in the US for conspiring to import cocaine into the US.

A US official said the swap had not altered US policy toward Venezuela.

Since early 2019, the US and a coalition of its allies including the UK has recognised opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Maduro immediately broke off diplomatic relations with the US, and has since consolidated power.

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The Maduro government, in a statement published on Saturday afternoon, said that the Americans were released for “humanitarian reasons” following conversations between the two governments that began on March 5. It said the two Venezuelan nationals had been “unjustly imprisoned” in the US.

“The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela greets the results of those conversations and bids for the preservation of peace,” the statement went on.

Alfredo Romero, the director of Foro Penal, a pressure group based in Caracas that advocates for political prisoners, said that the Americans were arrested as part of the “revolving door effect of repression, where people are imprisoned for political purposes” so that the regime can later use them as leverage.

Romero added that the exchange makes the US appear to have detained Flores de Freitas and Campo Flores for political reasons too, rather than because of their involvement in the drug trade.

“The most serious thing is that the message is clear: the Venezuelan government has no incentive to stop its repressive strategy. The effect of this measure is direct and clear: having political prisoners does work for power in Venezuela. The cycle continues.”

Marco Rubio, the Republican vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, tweeted that the deal was: “Another Biden appeasement that will result in more anti-U.S. dictators taking more innocent Americans hostage in the future.”

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In his statement, Biden said it was a priority of his administration “to prevent Americans from having to endure the unimaginable pain of being held hostage or wrongfully detained”.

Biden noted that he had a signed an executive order imposing new costs, “including sanctions and visa bans”, against individuals and countries involved in such wrongful detentions.

The news of the prisoner swap came on the day the UN said Tehran was releasing an Iranian-American national, Siamak Namazi, for a week-long furlough after seven years in detention, in preparation for a broader prisoner swap between Iran and the US.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for so far failing to release two Americans in Moscow. Brittney Griner, a WNBA player, was detained by Russia in February, days after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Paul Whelan, a former US marine, was arrested by Russia in 2018.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington had more work to do to free nationals wrongly detained overseas.

“The safety and security of Americans worldwide is my highest priority as secretary of state, and we will continue to press for the release of all US nationals wrongfully detained abroad,” Blinken said.

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