Venezuela sought to swap Americans for Maduro ally
MIAMI(AP) — According to sources with knowledge of the proposal, and messages exchanged by The Associated Press, Venezuela’s government made an offer last year to free imprisoned Americans.
The offer was discussed at a previously reported meeting in Mexico City in September 2020 between a top Maduro aide and Richard Grenell, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, one of the people involved in organizing the meeting said.
The offer was rejected by Trump’s administration. This was after Alex Saab was extradited to Miami. Prosecutors believe that he was the main conduit of corruption within Maduro’s inner circle. Venezuela took six Citgo executives, Houston-based, into custody. This was in retaliation for their house arrest.
Maduro’s government wanted to free the Citgo 6 and two other Green Berets who were involved in a failed cross border raid. This was about a year ago according to David Rivera, a former Miami Congressman, who claims he organized the meeting.
Grenell declined to say what the September 2020 meeting was about but adamantly denied it had anything to do with hostage negotiations.
” I have never discussed a swap. He made a short statement that it wasn’t something they were interested in or a point for negotiation. “The purpose of the meeting was clear to everyone who was actually negotiating.”
However, Venezuela’s interest in negotiating for Saab was corroborated by another individual with knowledge of the proposal on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private diplomatic effort. The Associated Press also received text messages right after the meeting between Grenell and some of the organizers, in which the AP discussed the next steps to reach an agreement with the American prisoner repatriation.
Rivera raises new questions about the nature of back-channel diplomacy. It is likely to put pressure on the Biden government, already under fire for failing to do enough to return Americans wrongfully held abroad, to make a prisoner deal with Maduro, something it has so far resisted.
Among the new details: Grenell was joined by Erik Prince in Mexico City, who is the founder of Blackwater, whose sister Betsy DeVos was Trump’s education secretary.
Rivera said that Raul Gorrin asked him to participate in the meeting. A Venezuelan businessman, Gorrin had tried to reconcile differences between the U.S.A and Maduro, before he was indicted on charges of bribing Maduro officials. Rivera, a Republican, was elected to Congress for a single term. He claimed that he was a translator on encrypted conference calls using Wickr, a messaging platform. Gorrin told Prince that Maduro would trade the Americans for Saab.
“Both Gorrin spoke Spanish and I explained in English to Prince that the meeting was intended to discuss the possibility of freeing the Americans to exchange for Saab.
Saab was arrested in Cape Verde just months before he was on his way to Iran. He was fighting hard against extradition to America. Maduro’s government joined him, as they consider the Colombian-born businessman, who was previously low-profile, a diplomatic envoy, and keeper state secrets that could compromise Venezuela’s national security. According to Rivera, Prince made arrangements for Grenell and him to travel to Mexico City to meet Jorge Rodriguez, who is a senior aide to Maduro, and president of the progovernment congress. In 2019, Prince traveled to Caracas to meet with Rodriguez’s sister, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, cementing his role as one of the few American interlocutors to the otherwise isolated Maduro government.
Rivera claimed he was supposed be there as well but was unable to make it due to a delay in Houston. Rivera stated that the meeting at The Westin had already been canceled when Rivera arrived in Mexico City. This was due to Grenell’s demand that any prisoner swap must be accompanied by an exit plan for Maduro.
Prince told Gorrin that the Citgo 6 were not worth enough for the Trump administration to swap Saab for a straight prisoner exchange. Rivera stated.
It is not clear how serious the Trump administration took Maduro’s offer, if any. Some senior Trump officials were surprised by the trip to Mexico City. They learned of it from reporters and were concerned that it might undermine efforts to subdue Maduro with sanctions and ongoing corruption investigations.
Unlike the prisoner swaps that the U.S. recently made with other hostile countries, such as Iran and Cuba, Saab is not yet being tried for his crimes. His arrest was also the result of years of law enforcement efforts that were cheered by foreign policy hawks, influential Venezuelan exiles living in Florida. Saab was an architect of efforts to circumvent U.S. Sanctions. There was no way we would swap for Saab. Grenell and the other men had no authority to make that offer,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative in Venezuela under Trump, said. “The all-of-government interagency effort to detain Saab and make him stand trial was a joint effort. These freelancers represented no one but themselves.”
Rodriguez and Prince didn’t respond to requests for comment. A U.S. government official told the AP the State Department “is not in a position to comment on reports of deliberations of a prior administration.”
Rivera said he decided to get involved in the prisoner swap because he believed Gorrin had played a positive behind the scenes role securing the release from jail of Venezuela’s most prominent anti-governmental activist, Leopoldo Lopez. Rivera also worked as a consultant for another U.S. subsidiary PDVSA. He knew some of the Citgo executives in jail.
That work, for which Rivera was to be paid $50 million, is the subject of a lawsuit by Maduro’s opponents, who now run Citgo and other PDVSA operations in the U.S. They claim Rivera has never done any meaningful work. Rivera, a target of past state and federal investigations into improper campaign dealings, has countersued, arguing breach of contract.
Despite Trump’s close-door dealings and ties with Maduro, the families of the nine Americans held in Caracas have less hope of a settlement under the Biden administration.
Unlike Trump, who hosted ex-American hostages at the White House, and whose unconventional foreign policies gave an impetus to informal hostage negotiations. The Biden team has not yet released any high-profile detainees.
“Mr. “Mr. “The people in charge of returning the wrongfully detained Americans have not taken the first step to directly engage with the Venezuelans holding our loved ones The lack of urgency is particularly troubling for the family of Jose Pereira (the former president of Citgo), who was rushed to a private hospital in Caracas over the weekend for emergency treatment for a heart condition his family claims has worsened since his arrest four years ago.
Pereira, along with the other Citgo executives, were sentenced last January to lengthy prison sentences for a never-executed plan of refinance billions of oil company bonds’ bonds. They’re being held at Caracas’ infamous Helicoide prison along with two former Green Berets — Mark Denman and Airan Berry — who were arrested for their involvement in a confusing plot to overthrow Maduro. Former U.S Marine Matthew Heath is also being held on weapons offenses ..
Former New Mexico Gov. Former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson is a veteran hostage negotiator and has traveled to Caracas to press for the release American prisoners. He said that the new details about the Mexico City meeting should be a wake-up call.
“From my involvement with Maduro and the Venezuelans on behalf of the American families of prisoners, I believe Maduro would be interested in negotiating their release,” he stated. “I think the Biden Administration should approach this with an open mind.”
AP writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
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