By Betsy Klein, Arlette Saenz and Jennifer Hansler, CNN
President Joe Biden on Saturday announced the return of seven Americans he said were wrongfully detained in Venezuela for “years.”
“Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan. These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong,” the President said in a statement.
The seven American detainees were released in exchange for the release of two Venezuelans imprisoned in the US for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the country, both nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores.
Vadell, Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, and Pereira are five of the six American oil executives known as the “CITGO 6” arrested in Venezuela more than four years ago. Two Americans who had been detained there, including one of the CITGO 6, were released in March following the visit of two top US government officials to Caracas. Heath, a Marine veteran, was detained in September 2020. Khan has been detained since January 2022. All seven individuals were classified by the US government as wrongfully detained.
Vadell, Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Pereira, Heath, and Khan, a senior administration official told reporters Saturday, are in “stable health” and have been offered medical care and a “range of support options.”
Biden spoke with each of the families to “share the good news of their release,” the first senior official said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio lambasted the decision to swap the seven wrongfully detained Americans for the two Venezuelans, warning that the trade “puts Americans all over the world in danger.”
“That has now put a price tag on Americans,” Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I wanted those people released as much as anybody, 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.”
“I think seven innocent American hostages in exchange for two convicted drug dealers, who happened to be the nephews of (Venezuela President Nicolas) Maduro, is a huge win for Maduro and, unfortunately, puts Americans all over the world now in danger,” Rubio added.
On Saturday, the senior administration official described the prisoner exchange with Venezuela as a “tough” and “painful” decision for Biden and the US government.
“Over the course of those negotiations, it became clear that one particular step was required to garner the only acceptable outcome: that of free Americans. The President made a tough decision, a painful decision, and offered something that the Venezuelans have actively sought. Specifically, it became clear in the course of negotiation that the release of two Venezuelans, Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, sometimes referred to as the ‘Narco nephews’ due to their relationship with Nicolas Maduro’s wife, was essential to securing the release of these Americans,” the official said.
In 2016, Flores and Campo were convicted in US federal court of conspiring to smuggle more than 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. They were sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017.
Biden, the first official said, “made the difficult decision to grant clemency” to both Flores and Campo.
The President approved the swap a “number of weeks back,” and was followed by negotiation and logistical efforts that “took some time to work out,” the official said.
The released Venezuelans and Americans were both flown to “a country in between Venezuela and the United States” for the exchange. Once both planes landed, there was both virtual and visual confirmation “that the right passengers were ready to travel” and “passengers departed on different planes than the ones they came in on,” the first official said.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, is with the freed Americans, the official added. Carstens’ initial impressions, the official said, were that the freed Americans were “overjoyed” to be returning to their families, declining to elaborate further on their conditions.
Their release comes months after a US government delegation quietly traveled to Venezuela in June “for discussions about the welfare and safety of US nationals in Venezuela,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN at the time.
The Zambrano family is “thrilled” that they have been freed and can now “get the much needed medical care they need” in the US, the family said in a statement.
“We could not have made it this far without the advocates and other hostage families that have so generously been a light in darkness to get us to this blessed day,” the family said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the latest development and congratulated State Department personnel for “their tireless efforts to achieve this outcome.”
“Although we celebrate the release of these U.S. nationals from Venezuela, we still have more work to do. The safety and security of Americans worldwide is my highest priority as Secretary of State, and we will continue to press for the release of all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained abroad,” he said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Bring our Families Home Campaign celebrated the news of the detainees’ release “after a long and difficult captivity.”
“We applaud President Biden for having the courage to make this deal and encourage him and the Administration to continue building upon the momentum that begun with (Trevor Reed’s) release,” spokesperson Jonathan Franks said, alluding to the former Marine who was detained in Russia in 2019 and was released in a prisoner swap earlier this year.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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