By Vivian Sequera, Matt Spetalnick and Diego Oré
CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Venezuela released two jailed U.S. citizens on Tuesday in an apparent goodwill gesture toward the Biden administration following a visit to Caracas by a high-level U.S. delegation.
One of the freed prisoners was Gustavo Cardenas, among six Citgo oil executives arrested in 2017 and convicted on charges the U.S. government says were fabricated. The other was a Cuban American, identified as Jorge Alberto Fernandez, detained on unrelated charges.
“Tonight, two Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela will be able to hug their families once more,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
“We are bringing Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Fernandez home,” he said. He gave no more details about their release.
The weekend visit by the U.S. delegation focused not only on the fate of detained Americans but on the possibility of easing U.S. oil sanctions on the OPEC member to fill a supply gap if Biden banned Russian oil imports in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – something he did on Tuesday. Venezuela is Russia’s closest ally in South America.
Washington has sought the release of at least nine men, including those known as the “Citgo 6,” two former Green Berets and a former U.S. Marine.
The freeing of the two could set a more positive tone for talks between the United States and Venezuela, which have had hostile relations through successive American administrations.
The U.S. delegation, the highest-ranking to travel to Venezuela in recent years, met the detainees on Sunday in a Venezuelan prison. U.S. hostage envoy Roger Carstens was part of the group, and he was believed to have stayed behind to finalize the release.
Tuesday’s release followed talks with socialist President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday as the Biden administration sought ways to stave off the impact of soaring U.S. gasoline prices spurred by efforts by the West to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Biden ramped up the pressure campaign on Moscow on Tuesday with his announcement of a U.S. ban on Russian oil and other energy imports. The ban could further increase prices at the pump for American consumers, adding to inflationary pressure.
Engagement with Maduro, a longtime U.S. foe, was also aimed at gauging whether Venezuela is prepared to distance itself from Russia.
But the Biden administration faced strong criticism on Capitol Hill for its contact with Maduro, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses and political repression.
Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the White House not to pursue a deal with Venezuela.
Maduro, he said in a statement, “is a cancer to our hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder.”
The United States in 2019 recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president following Maduro’s 2018 re-election, which Western governments dismissed as a sham.
Cardenas was one of six executives of U.S.-based Citgo Petroleum, owned by Venezuela’s state-own oil company PDVSA, arrested during a business trip to Caracas in 2017. A Venezuelan court in November 2020 sentenced the men, who were accused of crimes including embezzlement, money laundering and conspiracy, to prison terms ranging from eight to 13 years.
The executives – five naturalized U.S. citizens and one permanent U.S. resident – have been in and out of prison and house arrest in recent years, their circumstances often appearing to depend on the state of U.S.-Venezuela relations.
Their detention has been a major sticking point between Caracas and Washington, which has repeatedly demanded their release and called their detention unlawful.
Among the Americans still held in Venezuela is Matthew Heath, a Marine veteran charged with terrorism and arms trafficking. Heath denied the charges. U.S. officials said Heath was not sent by Washington and accused Venezuelan authorities of holding him illegally.
Two other Americans still detained are former U.S. special forces members, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Diego Ore in Mexico City; additional reporting by Marianna Parraga and Mayela Armas; Editing by Leslie Adler, Robert Birsel)