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Biden administration finalizes Venezuela deal that would trade Maduro ally for American detainees

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The Biden administration has finalized a deal with Venezuela, orchestrating the release of Colombian-born Alex Nain Saab Morán, a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, from U.S. custody.

The exchange involves at least eight Americans, including individuals designated as wrongfully detained, held in Venezuela. Sources indicate that the swap is expected to occur in a third country, following the precedent set by previous prisoner exchanges.

Saab Morán, charged with money laundering in Florida in 2019, was apprehended in 2020 in the Republic of Cabo Verde while en route to Iran. Extradited to the U.S. in the subsequent year, he pleaded not guilty, claiming diplomatic immunity in a bid to dismiss the charges.

Federal prosecutors alleged Saab and a co-conspirator engaged in bribery to secure illegal business advantages and laundered money. The U.S. sanctioned Saab in 2019, accusing him of exploiting Venezuela’s people in a corrupt bribery scheme.

Among the Americans to be released are Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Cristella, and Savoi Wright, with the first three designated as wrongfully detained by the State Department. Hernandez and Kenemore made direct appeals to President Joe Biden for their release, emphasizing their prolonged captivity.

The U.S. lifting some sanctions on Venezuela earlier, in response to guarantees for open elections in 2024, aimed to encourage progress on releasing detainees. Despite expressing deep concern over the lack of progress by the November 30 deadline, the State Department did not reinstate sanctions.

This development comes amidst the ongoing geopolitical crisis in Venezuela, with the country being a focal point due to its large migration crisis and close ties to Iran and Russia. The U.S. had indicted Maduro and other officials in 2020 for crimes related to narco-terrorism, money laundering, and drug trafficking.

The history of prisoner exchanges between the U.S. and Venezuela includes the release of wrongfully detained Americans in October 2022, traded for two nephews of Maduro’s wife. Notably, the “Citgo 6,” a group of oil executives, were part of this exchange. Additionally, in December, the U.S. secured the release of WNBA player Britney Griner in exchange for a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”

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