The US has released an ally of Venezuela’s president in a swap for jailed Americans, including Bay Area businessman, the AP learns

By JOSHUA GOODMAN and ERIC TUCKER | Associated Press

MIAMI — The Biden administration has released a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in a swap for jailed Americans, The Associated Press has learned.

Alex Saab, who was arrested on a U.S. warrant for money laundering in 2020, was released from custody Wednesday. In exchange, Maduro will free some, if not all, of the roughly dozen U.S. citizens who remain imprisoned in Venezuela, according to a person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The White House declined to comment.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during the notification ceremony for the referendum about the future of a disputed territory with Guyana, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) 

On Friday and again on Monday, two docket entries were filed under seal in the long-dormant criminal case out of federal court in Miami, an indication that a behind-the-scenes deal was in the works.

The deal between Washington and Caracas represents the U.S. government’s latest bid to improve relations and bring back imprisoned Americans. The move, likely to be the largest release of American prisoners since an October 2022 deal that freed seven, comes just weeks after the U.S. agreed to temporarily suspend some sanctions after Maduro’s socialist government and a faction of its opposition formally resolved to work together on a series of basic conditions for the next presidential election

The U.S. has long accused Saab of being a bag man for Maduro. Saab’s release would be seen as a major concession to Maduro, the South American country’s authoritarian leader who is himself the target of a $15 million U.S. reward for anyone bringing him to New York to face drug trafficking charges.

The deal is also likely to anger the Venezuelan opposition, who have of late criticized the White House for standing by as the leader of the OPEC nation has repeatedly outmaneuvered the U.S. government after the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign failed to topple him.

In October, the White House eased sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, promising to reimpose the restrictions if Maduro by Nov. 30 didn’t live up to his promise to pave the way for free and fair elections next year. That deadline passed and so far Maduro has failed to reverse a ban blocking his chief opponent, María Corina Machado, from running for office.

Among the Americans behind bars in Venezuela are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were involved in an attempt to oust Maduro in 2019. Also detained are Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Joseph Cristella, who are accused of entering the country illegally from Colombia. More recently, Venezuela arrested Savoi Wright, a 38-year-old California businessman.

The U.S. has conducted several swaps with Venezuela over the past few years. The most notable was a deal 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.

Saab, 51, was pulled off a private jet during a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was sent to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government. The charges: conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.

Maduro’s government has insisted Saab was traveling to Iran to buy food and medical supplies when he was detained in Cape Verde. Saab was previously sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for allegedly running a scheme that included Maduro’s inner circle and 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.

A decade into the crisis, grocery stores are now fully stocked, but few can afford food. The monthly minimum wage is about $3.60, just enough to buy a gallon of water.

The Trump administration held out Saab as a trophy, spending millions of dollars pursuing the Colombian-born businessman. At one point, it even deployed a Navy warship to the coast of West Africa to warn the Venezuelans.