U.S. Releases Ally of Venezuelan President in Exchange for 10 Americans

The United States has released a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela in exchange for 10 jailed Americans, including six designated as wrongfully detained.

Alex Saab, who has been accused by the United States of “profiting from starvation” of Venezuelans, is a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for Mr. Maduro. He was indicted in 2019 in connection with a bribery scheme that siphoned an estimated $350 million from a Venezuelan government housing project.

Among the Americans released were Jerrel Kenemore and Eyvin Hernandez, who had been arrested and accused of crossing illegally into Venezuela from Colombia in March 2022; Joseph Cristella who was arrested in Venezuela on in September of 2022; and Savoi Wright, a businessman from California whose family said he had been wrongfully detained after the F.B.I. learned in October he had been arrested. The United States had designated them all as wrongfully detained.

The U.S. officials declined to reveal details about the other Americans who were released, but they said the exchange meant that all the Americans believed to be wrongfully detained in Venezuela had been freed.

As a part of the agreement, Venezuela also agreed to return to the United States the former defense contractor Leonard Glenn Francis, known as Fat Leonard, who is at the center of one of the U.S. Navy’s largest corruption cases. Mr. Maduro will also release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners, as well as Roberto Abdul, an opposition leader in Venezuela, U.S. officials said. The arrest warrants of three other Venezuelans were also suspended.

The deal came after months of negotiations between Mr. Biden and Mr. Maduro’s top officials, which were brokered by Qatar, according to U.S. officials. It comes as the Biden administration tries to improve relations with the authoritarian government in Caracas. The United States recently restarted deportation flights to Venezuela and agreed to lift some sanctions after the Maduro administration agreed to take tentative steps toward free and fair elections.

“It looks like Maduro, so far, is keeping his commitment on a free election,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Wednesday. “But it ain’t done yet. We’ve got a long way to go. But it’s good so far.”

Mr. Biden later released a statement confirming that the Americans were on their way back to the United States.

“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence,” Mr. Biden said. “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”

U.S. officials cast the swap as necessary in order to reunite the Americans with their families in the United States. But for some in Venezuela, the deal was a win for Mr. Maduro; many Venezuelans say Mr. Saab has become synonymous with the worst abuses of the Maduro government.

“It is a very significant concession from the Biden administration, which until today insisted that Saab was subject to a judicial process in the United States and they would not interfere with that,” said Mariano de Alba, a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group.

Mr. Saab, who landed in Venezuela on Wednesday afternoon, is one of several Maduro-linked officials and businessmen indicted by the U.S. government in recent years, including Mr. Maduro himself.

Washington has accused Mr. Saab of being involved in a scheme in which he and others made off with large sums of government funds meant to feed Venezuela’s hungry. Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who has criticized the White House’s approach to Venezuela, called the exchange “unconscionable.”

“While it is imperative that we do everything we can to free Americans being unjustly held abroad, deals like this only incentivize Maduro and thugs like him to take American hostages as leverage for concessions from the American government,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement.

Mr. Saab was extradited from the West African island nation of Cape Verde to the United States in 2021 to face money-laundering charges, one of the highest-ranking supporters of Mr. Maduro to be taken into American custody. He pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Maduro’s government maintained that Mr. Saab’s detention was illegal, saying he was a diplomatic envoy and could not be prosecuted. His supporters undertook an elaborate global public relations campaign to rally support for his cause.

The swap on Wednesday was the latest prisoner exchange between the United States and Venezuela. In October of last year, Mr. Biden agreed to grant clemency to two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady to secure the release of seven Americans.

As a part of the deal detailed on Wednesday, Venezuela agreed to return Mr. Francis, the former defense contractor and Malaysian businessman at the center of a fraud and bribery case that has resulted in federal criminal charges against more than 30 U.S. Navy officials and defense contractors, according to the Justice Department.

He was set to be sentenced last year but escaped house arrest in September 2022 by cutting off his ankle monitor and fleeing to Venezuela. Two weeks later, he was stopped by Interpol agents at the airport in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, trying to board a flight to Russia. He faces up to 25 years in prison and has agreed to forfeit $35 million in gains.

More than two dozen people have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme. They have admitted that they accepted millions of dollars in luxury travel, accommodations, meals or the services of prostitutes from Mr. Francis in exchange for lucrative military contracts for his Singapore-based business, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.

Prosecutors have said that Mr. Francis’s gifts to Navy officials also included more than $500,000 in cash, Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and Spanish suckling pigs. He also threw lavish parties for senior officers at luxury hotels in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In escaping to Venezuela, Mr. Francis may have believed that years of hostile diplomacy between Mr. Maduro and the United States would have shielded him from extradition. Mr. Maduro has an affable working relationship with Russia, and for months has been considering a visit to meet President Vladimir V. Putin.

But the American and Venezuelan governments raised cautious hope of easing tension when they agreed to the deal in October that lifted some economic penalties against Venezuela. While foreign policy experts said releasing Mr. Saab amounted to a concession by the Biden administration, securing the release of 10 Americans was also described as a diplomatic win.

“It’s never agreeable, and even a bit scummy, to have to negotiate with criminal regimes, and understandably there are those that will call this a sellout, but that’s diplomacy,” said Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, a research group in London. “The stalemate before clearly was not serving U.S. or international interests.”

Mr. Wright’s family released a statement on Wednesday saying they were grateful to the Biden administration.

“These past few months have been some of the most difficult of our lives, and we are relieved that this ordeal has ended,” the statement said. “We are forever grateful.”

Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.