Ten American citizens and one wanted fugitive, who were being held in Venezuela, were released in exchange for the U.S. releasing a key ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, according to senior officials from the administration.
Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Cristella, and Savoi Wright, all American citizens, have been released and are returning to the United States. According to a senior administration official, they were previously considered “wrongfully detained” by the State Department, along with two other unnamed individuals who have also been freed.
“Our family has faced numerous challenges in recent months, making it a difficult time for all of us. We are grateful that this difficult situation has finally come to a close,” a spokesperson for Wright’s family stated.
In a report from earlier this month that was obtained exclusively by CBS News, Hernandez, an American who was wrongly held in custody, appealed to President Joe Biden to help secure his freedom.
“I have been in captivity for about 20 months, and my deepest desire is to have my freedom and for my fellow captives to also be set free,” expressed Hernandez.
In a separate recording obtained by CBS News, Kenemore pleaded from prison for “maximum positive pressure” on Joe Biden, stating that there is currently “a deal on the table” to trade prisoners, including one particularly significant individual. Sources familiar with the situation informed CBS News that the person of high interest was Saab. In the recording, Kenemore specifically mentioned Venezuela’s willingness to exchange 20 Venezuelans for 13 Americans. The White House declined to comment on the matter at the time.
There is no information on how the individual acquired knowledge of the potential agreement or who requested they disclose the specifics. It is uncertain if the recording was obtained through coercion.
According to federal prosecutors, Saab and a partner engaged in bribery of Venezuelan officials in order to gain unfair business advantages and engage in money laundering. In 2011, Saab allegedly made a deal with the Venezuelan government to build affordable housing and submitted fraudulent documents to receive $350 million in reimbursements. Investigators claim he used the government’s currency exchange system to move the money from Venezuela to the U.S. and then to offshore accounts.
In 2019, the United States imposed sanctions on Saab, alleging that he took advantage of the Venezuelan population for personal gain and worked with other officials connected to Maduro in a corrupt bribery plot. It is believed that they abused government-controlled industries for their own benefit.
According to senior officials in the administration, President Biden pardoned Saab in order for him to be sent back to Venezuela.
The arrest of Saab in the U.S. caused controversy among Venezuela’s government and American activists. His legal team made a concentrated effort to have the federal case against him dropped, stating in court papers that he was serving as a special envoy for Venezuela and working with Iranian officials at the time of his arrest. They argued that he should be protected from prosecution based on diplomatic immunity.
Neil Schuster, the defense attorney for Saab, has not replied to CBS News’ inquiries for a statement.
The Maduro government in Venezuela poses a challenging situation in America’s vicinity as it is responsible for the major migration crisis in the Western Hemisphere and has strengthened ties with Iran and Russia. In 2020, during the Trump administration, the U.S. charged Maduro and other prominent government officials with offenses related to narco-terrorism, money laundering, and drug trafficking.
In October, the Venezuelan government made a commitment to provide certain assurances that would allow opposition candidates to participate in the 2024 presidential election. This agreement, known as the “Barbados Agreement” and mediated by Norway, was seen as a move towards the Biden administration’s push for fair elections. The initial actions outlined in the agreement were expected to be fulfilled by November 30th.
In order to promote the advancement of fair elections, the United States has removed certain sanctions on Venezuela, which will now permit the trade of oil, gas, and gold. However, the State Department issued a warning that unless Venezuela allows opposition candidates to participate in elections and releases U.S. citizens and Venezuelan political prisoners who have been wrongfully detained by November 30th, the lifted sanctions will be put back into effect. After the deadline passed, the State Department expressed their “deep concern” over the lack of progress in releasing detained individuals, but did not reinstate sanctions.
According to senior administration officials, as part of the exchange of prisoners, Venezuela has committed to releasing 20 political prisoners to fulfill the terms of the Barbados Agreement.
In the past, the governments of the United States and Venezuela have traded prisoners. This occurred in October 2022 when seven Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela were set free in exchange for two nephews of Maduro’s wife. Five of these Americans were part of the “Citgo 6,” a group of oil executives from Houston’s Citgo refinery company. They had been held captive in Venezuela for five years.
2.5 billion deal
In December of last year, the United States made a deal to exchange a Russian weapons dealer, also known as the “Merchant of Death,” in order to secure a $2.5 billion agreement.
Britney Griner, a player in the WNBA, has been released.
Griner was held at a Russian airport in February and eventually admitted to wrongdoing after being found with cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage. She claims she did not intend to bring the cartridges with her when she traveled to Russia to compete in a basketball league during her WNBA off-season.