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Venezuelan head of state Nicolás Maduro: confidant Alex Saab has left the United States


Zurimar Campos / AFP

The United States has released a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In return, several imprisoned Americans will be released in Venezuela, according to the White House. Maduro's confidant is Colombian businessman Alex Saab.

The U.S. government hopes that the exchange will keep the doors open to continue dialogue with Venezuela and that the country will follow a more democratic path in the future, a U.S. official said.

Saab had been arrested in the Cape Verde Islands in 2020 when his private jet needed to refuel on its way to Iran. A year later, he was extradited to the United States, where he was investigated for money laundering, among other charges. According to U.S. investigators, Saab is also likely to have extensive information about illegal business dealings by the family of authoritarian President Maduro and high-ranking officials in Venezuela. U.S. President Biden did not take the decision on Saab's extradition lightly, according to the U.S. government.

In exchange, according to information from the White House, ten Americans will be extradited to the United States – including six unjustly detained. Venezuela is also handing over businessman Leonard Francis to the U.S., according to the U.S. official. Francis, known by the nickname "Fat Leonard," had pleaded guilty in the wake of a corruption scandal involving luxury travel and prostitutes in the U.S. Navy, but had escaped from house arrest in the U.S. in 2022. He was arrested by the authorities in Venezuela while fleeing. As part of the deal, Venezuela also releases 20 compatriots who are being held as political prisoners.

Once wealthy, Venezuela suffers from mismanagement, corruption and sanctions. The South American country has been mired in a deep political, economic and humanitarian crisis for years. Maduro is cracking down on government opponents. The U.S. government is calling for free elections and dialogue between the government and the opposition. Both parties agreed in October to hold a presidential election in the second half of 2024. Washington has recently eased sanctions against the country – especially with regard to the oil sector.