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Venezuela releases 2 imprisoned Americans after rare trip by U.S. officials

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a ceremony Jan. 27, 2022, marking the start of the judicial year at the Supreme Court in Caracas. (Matias Delacroix/AP)
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CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government has released two Americans detained in the country, according to five people with knowledge of the situation, days after a U.S. delegation made a rare trip to the socialist state.

Among those released on Tuesday was Gustavo Cárdenas, one of the six executives of Citgo Petroleum who were arrested during a business trip to Caracas in November 2017 and later charged with corruption. The other was Jorge Alberto Fernández, a Cuban American tourist who was detained and accused of terrorism for flying a drone early last year, according to a human rights defender in Venezuela with knowledge of the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing developments.

There was no immediate word on the fate of the other five Citgo executives detained in Venezuela — four of them naturalized U.S. citizens with dual nationality and the other a U.S. legal permanent resident.

President Biden confirmed the release of the two Americans in a statement late Tuesday.

“Tonight, two Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela will be able to hug their families once more,” Biden said. “We are bringing Gustavo Cárdenas and Jorge Fernández home.”

The conditions of the release of the two U.S. citizens were not immediately clear. The release was first reported by the New York Times.

Biden made no mention of the conditions in his statement. He said he was grateful to Roger Carstens, a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and other diplomats “for their tireless efforts to secure their release and reunite these families.”

“Unjustly holding Americans captive is always unacceptable,” Biden said. “And even as we celebrate the return of Cárdenas and Fernández, we also remember the names and the stories of every American who is being unjustly held against their will — in Venezuela, in Russia, in Afghanistan, Syria, China, Iran, and elsewhere around the world.”

The two men had returned to the United States by Wednesday morning, accompanied by Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“We express our deepest appreciation to our many partners around the world who joined us in calling for their release,” Blinken said in a statement. “While we welcome this important positive step we continue to press for the release of all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals in Venezuela and around the world.”

A group of senior U.S. officials traveled to Caracas on Saturday for a meeting with President Nicolás Maduro to discuss the possibility of easing sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports as the Biden administration weighed banning imports of Russian oil. The delegation also called for the release of imprisoned Americans, including members of the “Citgo 6” as well as two former Green Berets who were accused in a plot to remove Maduro and a former Marine who was arrested while traveling along the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

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The long-sought release of the Americans signals a potential thaw in the relationship between the Biden administration and the Maduro government, Russia’s most important ally in South America, and comes as the U.S. government tries to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin after the invasion of Ukraine.

The six executives of Houston-based Citgo Petroleum, an oil refiner formerly controlled by the Maduro government, were invited to Venezuela for a meeting in November 2017. Once they arrived in Caracas, masked security agents detained all six men, and they were imprisoned on what the State Department has called “specious charges without due process or access to a fair trial.”

They were later charged with money laundering, embezzlement, racketeering and participating in organized crime. They denied the allegations, and their lawyers have maintained their innocence.

For four years, family members of the Citgo 6 have urged the U.S. government to help protect their imprisoned relatives and secure their release. Last month, a Venezuelan court upheld long prison sentences for the six oil executives.

The Citgo 6 were interviewed by the U.S. delegation over the weekend, according to a person with direct knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. The visit was coordinated by the Maduro government, according to the person. A U.S. diplomat met with some of the prisoners in December.

Speaking on Venezuela’s state-run television Monday night, Maduro described the meeting with the U.S. delegation as “respectful” and “very diplomatic,” adding that the two countries “agreed to work on an agenda moving forward.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday declined to comment on whether the need for oil would be worth reinstating a relationship with Maduro.

“I think that’s leaping several stages ahead,” Psaki said. She said the talks about the imprisoned Americans were not intertwined with discussions about easing sanctions.

The United States and Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations in 2019 after the U.S. government recognized Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president, accusing Maduro of winning reelection through fraud.

The Citgo 6 were granted house arrest in December 2019 but were sent back to jail two months later, on the day that President Donald Trump welcomed Guaidó to the White House. They were granted house arrest again in April 2021, but were re-jailed in October after the extradition of a close Maduro ally to the United States, where he was wanted on charges of money laundering.

Over the years, relatives of the imprisoned Citgo executives have expressed concern about the fragile health of at least two of the men. In 2020, the wife of one of the executives, Tomeu Vadell, told The Washington Post she was shocked by his appearance during a visit in 2018.

“He used to weigh 220, and he was down to 160 pounds. … He looked [like] a prisoner of war,” said Dennysse Vadell, Tomeu’s wife. “We just want him back home.”

Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.