Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Knoxville, Tennessee, who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the State Department has called “specious” weapons charges, was released today along with six other Americans imprisoned in the South American country.
In a rare softening of hostile relations, the White House said Saturday Venezuela freed the seven Americans and the United States released two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years on drug smuggling convictions.
The swap of the Americans, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, follows months of back channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other U.S. officials — secretive talks with a major oil producer that took on greater urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.
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Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn said in a tweet, “Praising God that after two long years, Matthew Heath has been released from prison in Venezuela. Please join me in continued prayer for Matthew and his family as he returns home to Tennessee and recovers.”
President Biden also commented on the release of the American prisoners saying in a statement, “Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home” the seven men, whom the president cited by name. “We celebrate that seven families will be whole once more.”
The White House said Biden had spoken with the families and that the men were in stable health and have been offered a range of support services, including medical care.
A senior Biden administration official said the U.S. and Venezuela had explored a range of options, but that it became clear that “one particular step” — the release of the two Maduro family members — was essential in getting a deal done. The official said the deal required a “painful decision” but the administration’s willingness to make it showed its commitment to bringing home American citizens held abroad.
The administration in the last six months has struck similar deals with Russia and more recently the Taliban. But the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration, said it “remains extraordinarily rare that a choice like this is made.”
Maduro’s government said in a statement that it was releasing the American citizens as a humanitarian gesture. It praised the diplomacy that resulted in the freeing of the two “unjustly imprisoned” Venezuelans imprisoned in the United States and said it “hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world.”
The exchange amounts to an unusual gesture of goodwill by Maduro as the socialist leader looks to rebuild relations with the U.S. after vanquishing most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months of back channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other U.S. officials — secretive talks with a major oil producer that took on greater urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.
Maduro’s government previously released two jailed Americans — oil executive Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Fernandez, who was accused of using a prohibited drone — in March 2022 after a secret trip to Venezuela by top Biden administration officials.
The transfer took place in a country between the U.S. and Venezuela after the men in the deal arrived in separate planes, the Biden administration said.
Those freed include five employees of Houston-based Citgo — Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who were lured to Venezuela right before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent, state-run-oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were hauled away by masked security agents who busted into a Caracas conference room.
In addition to Heath, the other prisoner freed was Floridian Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.
The United States freed Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting in 2015 and immediately taken to New York to face trial. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that cast a hard look at U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of Maduro’s administration.
Both men were granted clemency by Biden before the release.
The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the roughly 60 Americans it believes are held hostage abroad or wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the U.S. has so far tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela has been holding the largest contingent of Americans suspected of being used as bargaining chips.
At least four other Americans remain detained in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in a slapdash attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two other men who, like Khan, were detained for allegedly entering the country illegally from neighboring Colombia.
“To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained — know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” Biden said in his statement.
The administration also pointed to an executive order from this summer that sought to impose new costs on countries that jail Americans without proper cause, as well a new warning indicator designed to caution U.S. citizens against traveling to countries — like Venezuela — that have a pattern of wrongful detentions.
His administration did not release another prisoner long sought by Maduro: Alex Saab, an insider businessman who Venezuela considers a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors a corrupt regime enabler. Saab fought extradition from Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year during a stopover en route to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in Miami federal court on charges of siphoning off millions in state contracts.
The oil executives were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s supreme court upheld their long sentences earlier this year.
The men have all pleaded not guilty and the State Department has regarded them — and the two other Americans freed on Saturday — as wrongfully detained.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism