In early March, after senior U.S. officials made a rare visit to Caracas, the Biden administration announced a breakthrough:. Two Americans detained in Venezuela were free and flying home. Direct talks with the government of Nicolás Maduro seemed to be paying off.
But U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials were alarmed when, days later, two more Americans were quietly apprehended by Venezuelan authorities, seemingly replenishing Maduro’s stock of political prisoners. The detentions raised fears within the Biden administration that the Maduro regime “is working more aggressively to increase its leverage of detained Americans,” one senior U.S. official told McClatchy and the Miami Herald.
At the time, White House officials said they had simply rewarded Maduro with an in-person meeting in exchange for the freedom of the two Americans. But modest sanctions relief on Venezuela’s state-run oil company followed months later, as senior Biden officials encouraged Maduro and Venezuela’s democratic opposition to resume negotiations in Mexico City over the country’s political future.
Now, U.S. officials are torn over how to negotiate over the freedom of the Americans who remain in detention without encouraging Maduro to increase the practice.
In total, at least three Americans have been detained by Venezuela this year, joining at least eight more Americans — including five oil executives and three veterans — that the U.S. government believes are being wrongfully detained.
On Tuesday, the State Department introduced a new feature on travel warnings indicating whether a country has made a practice of wrongfully detaining Americans. Venezuela is one of only six countries on the list, joining Russia, Iran, North Korea, China and Burma (Myanmar).
A Maduro strategy
Senior officials in the Venezuelan opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, fear that Maduro has adopted a strategy of arresting Americans and charging them with espionage in an attempt to coerce President Joe Biden to release Alex Saab, a close Maduro associate imprisoned in Miami facing federal criminal charges.
The general impression is that “a new modus operandi has emerged, where Americans are being captured in events that are not taking place in the manner that regime says,” a high-ranking opposition official said under the condition of anonymity. “We have reports of some of these detentions taking place inside Colombia, near the border, or in nearby Caribbean islands.”
U.S. officials have been meeting with regime leaders in Caracas since March, hoping among other things to free the Americans and persuade Maduro to participate in a dialogue process with the opposition in Mexico. Sanctions relief on Venezuela’s oil sector would follow meaningful progress at the negotiating table, U.S. officials say.
But the focus has shifted towards freeing the Americans while Maduro stonewalls efforts to participate in the Mexico talks, opposition leaders told the Miami Herald.
Two senior U.S. officials traveled to Caracas in late June hoping to secure the freedom of Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine who had recently attempted suicide in a Venezuelan prison. The Venezuelans denied the requests to release him to U.S. custody for emergency treatment.
Antonio De La Cruz, an analyst close to the Venezuelan opposition, said that Maduro is taking advantage of the U.S. government’s concerns over the safety of detained Americans.
“The Maduro regime, understanding that the U.S. will try to protect its citizens anywhere in the world, appears to have decided to use this to increase its leverage in its pursuit to get back Alex Saab. So it seems to have established an action plan to capture Americans and hold them hostage accusing them of espionage,” said De La Cruz, senior associate of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.
The espionage charges are key in order to bring about the exchange, De La Cruz said. Getting Saab returned, he added, is a top priority for Maduro in his talks with the Biden administration, given the Colombian businessman’s extensive knowledge of the regime’s secret illicit dealings.
Last week, rumors that U.S. officials were exploring the possibility of yielding to this demand exploded on social media after former Treasury Assistant Secretary Marshall Billingslea warned against it on Twitter.
“Credible rumors swirling that the White House wants to trade Alex Saab to Venezuela. By recognizing his sham claim to be a diplomat, they would sabotage the court case against him,” said Billingslea, who while in office was one of the chief architects of the U.S. sanctions against the Caracas regime.
“It took years to build the sanctions package & indictment, & to secure arrest & extradition,” he added. “Saab was one of Maduro’s top bagmen. What’s worse, he made his money by profiting from starvation of the Venezuelan people, looting from the CLAP [subsidized food] program.”
‘Difficulties obtaining access’
A State Department spokesperson told McClatchy that the U.S. government often has “difficulties obtaining access to” and “confirming reports about” detained U.S. citizens in Venezuela.
“We make every effort to provide the appropriate assistance,” the official said. “We will continue to work with the international community to press for concrete progress in fundamental areas, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, increased humanitarian aid access, freedom of the press and peaceful assembly, rehabilitation of political parties and politicians so that Venezuelans can choose their leaders for themselves, and a cessation of attacks against civil society.”
The Associated Press reported last week that three Americans were jailed in Venezuela earlier this year for allegedly trying to enter the country illegally and now face long prison sentences.
Two of the men — a lawyer from California and a computer programmer from Texas — were arrested in late March.
Venezuelan security forces arrested lawyer Eyvin Hernandez, 44, and computer programmer Jerrel Kenemore, 52, in separate incidents in the western state of Tachira, according to a person familiar with investigations of the arrests. The person spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the cases publicly.
Hernandez is from Los Angeles. Kenemore is from the Dallas area, but had lived in Colombia since 2019.
A third American was arrested in January, also for allegedly entering the country illegally along its lengthy border with Colombia. The AP reported it is withholding his name at the request of his family, which fears retaliation.
This story was complemented by McClatchy’s wire services.
This story was originally published July 20, 2022 1:04 PM.