US, Venezuela swap prisoners: Maduro ally for 10 Americans, plus fugitive contractor 'Fat Leonard'

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.

Associated Press

Dec 21, 2023, 8:09 PM

Updated 177 days ago

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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.
The White House went to lengths to assure it won't hesitate to snap back sanctions if Venezuela's government fails to fulfill electoral commitments hammered out during negotiations with the opposition. A $15 million reward seeking Maduro's arrest to face drug trafficking charges in New York also remains in effect, it said.
The agreement also requires Maduro's government to release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners, in addition to a close ally of Machado, and to suspend arrest warrants of three other Venezuelans.
The U.S. has conducted several swaps with Venezuela over the past few years, including one in October 2022 for seven Americans, including five oil executives at Houston-based Citgo, in exchange for the release of two nephews of Maduro's wife jailed in the U.S. on narcotics charges. Like that earlier exchange, Wednesday's swap took place on an airstrip in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Saab, who turns 52 on Thursday, hugged his wife and two young children as he descended the staircase of a private jet at the Simon Bolivar International Airport.
It was a stark reversal from the scene on another tarmac, in Cape Verde, where he was arrested in 2020 during a fuel stop en route to Iran to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro's government. The U.S. charges were conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing. Saab was also sanctioned for allegedly running a scheme that stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food-import contracts at a time of widespread hunger mainly due to shortages in the South American country.
After his arrest, Maduro's government said Saab was a special envoy on a humanitarian mission and was entitled to diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution under international law.
"Life is a miracle," Saab said, standing alongside Maduro at the neoclassical presidential palace in Caracas. "I'm proud to serve the Venezuelan people and this government, a loyal government, which, like me, never gives up. We will always triumph."
Absent from Maduro's chest-thumping was any mention of Saab's secret meetings with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In a closed-door court hearing last year, Saab's lawyers said that he was for years helping that agency untangle corruption in Maduro's inner circle and had agreed to forfeit millions of dollars in illegal proceeds from corrupt state contracts.
But the value of the information he shared with the Americans is unknown; some have suggested it may have all been a Maduro-authorized ruse to collect intelligence on the U.S. law enforcement activities in Venezuela. Whatever the case, Saab skipped out on a May 2019 surrender date and shortly afterward was charged by federal prosecutors in Miami.
The deal is the latest concession by the Biden administration in the name of bringing home Americans jailed overseas, including a high-profile prisoner exchange last December when the U.S. government — over the objections of some Republicans in Congress and criticism from some law enforcement officials — traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
The swaps have raised concerns that the U.S. is incentivizing hostage-taking abroad and producing a false equivalence between Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad and foreigners who have been properly prosecuted and convicted in U.S courts.
"What happened to the separation of powers?" said Juan Cruz, who oversaw the White House's relations with Latin America while working at the National Security Council from 2017-19. "Normally you would have to wait a defendant to be found guilty in order to be able to pardon him for a swap. This is an especially bad precedent with a Trump 2.0 potentially around the corner. It invites winking and nodding from the executive."
But Biden administration officials say securing the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans and hostages abroad requires difficult dealmaking.
Making this deal more palatable to the White House was Venezuela's willingness to return Francis.
Nicknamed "Fat Leonard" for his bulging 6-foot-3 frame, Francis was arrested in a San Diego hotel nearly a decade ago as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he bilked the U.S. military out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.
Three weeks before he faced sentencing in September 2022, Francis made an escape as stunning and brazen as the case itself as he snipped off his ankle monitor and disappeared. He was arrested by Venezuelan police attempting to board a flight from Caracas and has been in custody since.
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