The United States announced on Wednesday 20 December the release of ten Americans detained in Venezuela, in exchange for which Joe Biden granted clemency to Alex Saab, a close associate of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, accused of serious malfeasance by the American justice system. He was greeted with great pomp in Caracas, at the airport and then at the presidential palace.

"We did it. I want to welcome this brave man. After 1,280 days of kidnapping, the truth has triumphed," Maduro said, adding that his government had earlier called it a "victory." "Today, the miracle of freedom, of justice, has come true," Saab said in a brief address.

The U.S. president did not mention Alex Saab in his statement. His release was an "extremely difficult" decision to make, according to a senior White House official. Biden said that of the 10 Americans released, six were being held by Venezuela "without merit," and said he was "grateful that their ordeal is over."

The U.S. president also announced that Venezuelan authorities had handed over to the United States a fugitive, Leonard Francis, implicated in a huge corruption scandal involving the U.S. Navy.

20 political prisoners released

The agreement between the United States and Venezuela, in which Qatar played a mediating role, also sees Caracas release at least 2022 political prisoners. Among the freed Venezuelans is a group of trade unionists arrested in July 16 during protests for wage increases. They had been sentenced to <> years in prison in a trial on charges of "conspiracy" and "conspiracy to commit a crime".

A Venezuelan opposition figure, Roberto Abdul, accused of "treason" and "conspiracy with a foreign power", was also freed under the deal.

"In addition, they maintain their commitment to democratic elections. (...) They have made detailed commitments. We'll see if they keep them. And we will hold them accountable," Biden said, adding that he had not spoken with Maduro. "We have set out specific conditions for the holding of democratic elections. He accepted them all."


Any talk with the regime in Caracas is politically undermined for Joe Biden, whom the Republican opposition often accuses of being too soft on Venezuela.

Alex Saab, believed to be close to President Nicolas Maduro, had been detained in the United States since October 2021. The man, whom many experts consider the linchpin of Nicolas Maduro's regime's financial affairs abroad, had been extradited in October 2021 from Cape Verde to the United States. Of Colombian origin, he is accused by the American justice system of having set up a system of diversion of food aid destined for Venezuela, for the benefit of the socialist leader and his government.

A senior White House official defended the decision to release him: "Basically, it's ten Americans and one fugitive exchanged for one person who is returning to Venezuela." The fugitive in question is Malaysian businessman Francis Leonard, nicknamed "Fat Leonard", who was handed over to US authorities by Caracas.

Under house arrest in California, he cut off his electronic bracelet and fled before being arrested in Venezuela in September 2022. The military contractor pleaded guilty in 2015 to bribing U.S. Navy officers to win contracts for its shipyards. The man, according to a senior White House official, offered his contacts in the U.S. Navy cash, travel, the services of prostitutes, and various gifts such as "Cuban cigars, Kobe beef, or suckling pigs."

Recent Warming

One of the senior U.S. officials said there was "never any question" of easing sanctions against Venezuela during the prisoner exchange talks. He said any decision on U.S. sanctions depended on progress on political pluralism in Venezuela.

There has been a warming between Washington and Caracas in recent months. In October, the Venezuelan government and opposition reached an agreement allowing the presence of international observers during the 2024 presidential election.

Washington had eased its economic sanctions, imposed in 2019 in an attempt to oust Nicolas Maduro from power, for six months. In the aftermath, Caracas released five political prisoners.

With AFP

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