U.S., Venezuela Swap Prisoners: Maduro Ally for 10 Americans, Plus Fugitive Contractor ‘Fat Leonard’

Photo by: Stephen Spillman/AP Freed Americans Joseph Ryan Cristella, backwards cap sixth from left, Eyvin Hernandez, seventh from left, Edgar Jose Marval Moreno, eighth from left, Jason Saad, ninth from left in red, Savoi Wright, tenth from left in back, and Jerrel Kenemore, eight from right, who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S. and Venezuela, pose for a photo with government officials at Kelly Airfield Annex, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in San Antonio, Texas. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)

The United States freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the return of a fugitive defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.

The American detainees were back on U.S. soil late Wednesday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said. Six of them arrived at Kelly Airfield Annex in San Antonio.

Savoi Wright, a Californian who had been arrested in Venezuela in October, said, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last” after disembarking the plane.

The deal represents the Biden administration’s boldest move yet to improve relations with the major oil-producing nation and extract concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader. The largest release of American prisoners in Venezuela’s history comes weeks after the White House agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro to work toward free and fair conditions for the 2024 presidential election.

Maduro celebrated the return of Alex Saab as a “triumph for truth” over what he called a U.S.-led campaign of lies, threats and torture against someone he considers a Venezuelan diplomat illegally arrested on a U.S. warrant.

“President Biden, we won’t be anyone’s colony,” a defiant Maduro said with Saab at his side for a hero’s welcome at the presidential palace.

The release of Saab, long regarded by Washington as a bagman for Maduro, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. Former President Donald Trump’s administration held out Saab as a trophy, spending millions of dollars pursuing the Colombian-born businessman, at one point even deploying a Navy warship to the coast of West Africa following his arrest in Cape Verde to ward off a possible escape.

U.S. officials said Biden’s decision to grant him clemency was difficult but essential in order to bring home jailed Americans, a core administrative objective that in recent years has resulted in the release of criminals once seen as untradeable.

“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence. I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

The agreement also resulted in the return to U.S. custody of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company who is the central character in one of the largest bribery scandals in Pentagon history.

But the exchange angered many in the Venezuelan opposition who have criticized the White House for standing by as Maduro has repeatedly outmaneuvered Washington after the Trump administration’s campaign to topple him failed.

Eyvin Hernandez, a Los Angeles County public defender arrested almost two years ago along the Colombia-Venezuela border, was one of the U.S. detainees. After arriving in Texas Wednesday night, he thanked Biden “because I know he made a difficult decision that will have a lot of pressure on him on Capitol Hill. But he got us home and we’re with our families. And so we’re incredibly grateful, all of us.”

Hernandez added, “Honestly, all you think about when you’re in prison is how you didn’t appreciate being free while you were free.”

Wright told reporters: “I didn’t know if I would ever make it out. And it’s really scary to be in a place where you’re used to having freedoms and you’re locked into a cell. … It’s a very challenging situation.”

In October, the White House eased sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry following promises by Maduro that he would level the playing field for the 2024 election, when he’s looking to add six years to his decade-long, crisis-ridden rule. A Nov. 30 deadline has passed and so far Maduro has failed to reverse a ban blocking his chief opponent, María Corina Machado, from running for office.

Biden told reporters earlier in the day that, so far, Maduro appeared to be “keeping his commitment on a free election.” Republicans, echoing the sentiment of many in the U.S.-backed opposition, said Saab’s release would only embolden Maduro to continue down an authoritarian path.

“Disgraceful decision,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

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