In the first days of October, the Biden Administration completed the exchange of prisoners between the Venezuelan government and the United States consisting of seven US Citizens detained under Venezuelan federal laws and two Venezuelan citizens, nephews of the Venezuelan leader.
The US citizens were divided between three groups of convictions: (1) in 2017, five of them–Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Aliri Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira–were all instructed to attend a meeting for the state-run-oil giant of Petroleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA). However, with the new sanctions on Venezuela from the Trump administration, they were kidnapped and convicted of terrorist acts under Venezuelan federal law. (2) A retired US Marine corporal named Matthew Heath, who–according to the state department–was charged under possession of “specious weapons.” (3) Oshman Khan, a citizen from Florida, who was accused of entering Venezuela illegally from Colombia. These seven men held by the Venezulean government were considered “wrongfully detained” by the Biden administration.
The two Venezuelan prisoners –Franqui Flores and Efrain Antonia Campo Flores– were convicted of trading illegal drugs and were nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife. The two men were arrested in Haiti and were later charged under US federal law in New York City. Their 11-year sentence began in 2015 under US supervision.
These inmates were transferred to a third party country airport where they were successfully exchanged under careful watch from both countries.
The exchange of prisoners between both countries enables diplomatic discussions that contribute to the revision of economic sanctions placed on Venezuela. These sanctions were in response to Maduro’s election that prevented a true democratic process of being voted in. Trump reinforced the democracy interests when he verbally stated, “We call for the Maduro regime to restore democracy, hold free and fair elections, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, and end the repression and economic deprivation of the Venezuelan people.” These sanctions prevent Venezuela from accessing the US debt and equity markets that allow companies like PDVSA–from securing financing from the United States.
According to the BBC, the Biden administration is working hard to re-establish diplomatic relations with Venezuela; the presidency is working hard to make sure that trading of such prisoners exposes a chance of working together and rebuilding a trust for the South American country. The socialist leader, Maduro, is trying hard to lift the oil sanctions against his country to strengthen both regional economies.
While the prisoner exchange has generated popular public attention, domestic political challenges from both countries have ignited some concern with this interaction. One of them being Senator Marco Rubio, who believes executing such a barter will showcase a sign of weakness to the United States leverage. The Senator of Florida suspects that many other countries will use their US prisoners as a bargain tool to receive what they want out of either Biden’s administration or the United States as a whole. “I wanted those people released as much as anybody,” Senator Rubio brings up to CNN politics, “but every time you do this, now, others know, I can take Americans, I can hold them until I need something as a bargaining chip.” With his remarks, this brings up the concern for future falsely accused US prisoners in other countries–such as Russia and the Taliban who are currently the government head of Afghanistan–and an increase of them as well. Senator Rubio states: “this is a win for Venezuela, and a huge loss for America.”
In Venezuela, many Maduro advocates have expressed some distrust towards the United States. This suspicion originated under the sanctions from the Trump Administration back in 2018. The people of Venezuela are skeptical of the United States and their interest towards their own sovereign, due to the past relationship of former President Trump and Maduro.
There are still US prisoners under Venezuela's laws — Luke Denman and Airan Berry, both “involved in a slapdash attempt to oust Maduro”; and Eyvin Hernandez and Jerrel Kenemore, who were convicted of illegal transportation into the country from Colombia. However, their releases will require more financial and political solutions that are beneficial towards both parties. The exchange that occurred in the early days of October held specific motives that reopened the relationship between both states; as more interactions occur, the interests of the two countries will demand higher and more intensive considerations.
As demanding as these exchanges sound, these types of negotiations do happen; but diplomatic channels are not as obvious as Venezuela and the United States–which held direct incentives for both countries to get along better. For example, in September of 2022, Russia and United successfully negotiated the release of two former US veterans–Alex Drueke and Andy Huynh–who were fighting in the Ukraine and Russian war. This negotiation had to be “mediated” by Saudi Arabia, in order for it to be successful.
Throughout President Biden’s term, US public opinion has pushed hard to secure the release of other prisoners held by sovereign governments. Brittney Griner, a professional Women’s Basketball player has been convicted of illegal drug possession and Paul Whelan, a U.S Marine is accused of spying are both being held by Russia. However, the Biden Administration is required to rebuild this trust–which was dissolved due to the Ukrainian and Russian War–with Russia through multiple third party countries.
The release of the US prisoners in Venezuela is a foreshadow of what may need to happen with many prisoners around the globe, who are not as lucky as those in South America. The Biden Administration is working hard to rebuild this trust and relationship with Venezuela for potential alliances.