Two Americans who were arrested in Venezuela for corruption and spying have been released by the government of Nicolás Maduro following the country’s first talks with US officials since 2019.
Washington cut diplomatic ties with Maduro’s regime three years ago but sent a high-level delegation to Caracas on Saturday, as the Biden administration looks for alternative energy supplies after imposing sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
The meeting appeared to mark a major policy shift for the US, which was the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil until the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Caracas in 2019, closed its embassy and accused Maduro of stealing a presidential election the previous year.
Washington confirmed the two sides discussed energy security as well as the release of US prisoners. Maduro, who habitually rails against Washington, described the talks as “respectful, cordial, very diplomatic”.
Gustavo Cárdenas, an oil manager who worked for Citgo Petroleum Corp, a US-based, Venezuelan-owned oil company, and Jorge Alberto Fernández, a Cuban-American arrested just over a year ago and accused of spying, were released on Tuesday.
“Tonight — two Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela will be able to hug their families once more,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement confirming that the pair had been released.
“Unjustly holding Americans captive is always unacceptable,” he added.
Cárdenas was detained with five of his colleagues during a meeting at the headquarters of Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Citgo’s parent company, in Caracas in late 2017. They have become known as the Citgo 6.
Venezuelan prosecutors accused them of hatching a corrupt plan to refinance up to $ 4bn of Citgo bonds using a stake in the company as collateral. Prosecutors said the plan would have been highly detrimental to Citgo, PDVSA’s most valuable foreign asset.
The men were found guilty in 2020 and sentenced to between eight and 14 years. They denied all allegations and the US government has long campaigned for their release.
Venezuelan government officials declined to comment. Citgo did not comment.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting US and EU sanctions on Moscow have prompted western countries to look around the world for alternative sources of energy. The US banned imports of Russian oil and gas on Tuesday.
Washington may also see the Ukrainian conflict as an opportunity to coax Maduro away from Moscow’s embrace in exchange for easing sanctions on Venezuelan oil.
Republican hawks, particularly those close to the Venezuelan exile community in the US, have criticized Biden for reaching out to Maduro.
“Joe Biden using #Russia as an excuse to do the deal they always wanted to do anyway with the #MaduroRegime,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted at the weekend. “Rather than produce more American oil he wants to replace the oil we buy from one murderous dictator with oil from another murderous dictator.”