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Are US Detainee Negotiations Slowing the Fight for Democracy in Venezuela?


Since 2019, the United States and dozens of other countries around the world have declared that they do not consider Maduro’s presidency to be legitimate, recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as head of state instead. interim. Yet current US President Joe Biden’s Biden White House has sent senior officials to Caracas three times this year to meet with Maduro and his representatives, in an attempt to negotiate for detained Americans.

Although the Biden administration has barely rolled out the red carpet – it has refused to invite Maduro to this year’s Summit of the Americas and has maintained personal sanctions against Venezuelan government officials – the fact that senior officials are meeting Maduro directly to discuss detainees suggests the White House has abandoned the Trump-era tactic of freezing the authoritarian leader.

The effort appears divorced from the side conversations aimed at boosting Venezuela’s oil production under pressure from rising gas prices around the world – and from the behind-the-scenes political negotiations encouraged by Washington between Maduro and the Guaido-led opposition, a slow process so far.

Under domestic pressure, the Biden administration has already shown itself willing to make principled concessions in order to take practical steps to win the freedom of American citizens abroad.

As CNN previously reported, the White House has already offered to trade WNBA player Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan — both detained in Russia — for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. This proposed exchange trumps opposition from the Justice Department, which is generally against prisoner exchanges.

It is unclear exactly how many Americans are currently detained in Venezuela, and the US State Department often does not comment on specific cases for confidentiality reasons.

But among those publicly known to be detained are five of the six so-called “Citgo 6”, Citgo oil refinery executives detained on corruption charges after denying; two former US Special Forces members, Aidan Berry and Luke Denman, detained in connection with a failed private attempt to force Maduro from power; and Matthew Heath, a former US Marine accused of planning to attack a Venezuelan oil refinery.

Unofficially, State Department sources estimate the actual number of American detainees in Venezuela to be 17.

The State Department considers them all to be wrongfully detained, and lawyers and relatives of the Citgo 6 have often accused Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro of using the group as “pawns” to pressure the US government.

Last month, CNN learned that at least three other US citizens have been detained in Venezuela this year, including a public defender from Los Angeles.

In Venezuela, outreach to the US government to negotiate on behalf of US detainees is led by envoy Roger Carstens, who has met Maduro in person during his multiple trips to Caracas. CNN has reached out to Carstens’ office for comment.

In March he traveled to Caracas with Amb. James Story, who heads the U.S. Venezuela Affairs Unit, and National Security Council Regional Senior Director Juan Gonzalez — the high-level visit was the first since the two countries broke off diplomatic ties in 2019.

Soon after, Venezuela released Gustavo Cardenas, a former Citgo executive, and Jorge Alberto Fernandez, a Cuban-American dual citizen, in March.

Two more trips to Venezuela have since followed.

“You can’t say that [the White House] don’t exert pressure: we’ve had three senior officials’ trips so far,” said a source involved in the negotiations for the release of US citizens.

“It’s not like this has happened before,” they said, pointing to Maduro’s unprecedented level of direct communication with Washington.

The United States does not recognize Maduro's presidency as legitimate.
Some families of detained U.S. citizens urged Biden to offer the same kind of trade his administration did for Griner — a senior Venezuelan official detained in the United States, like Colombian businessman Alex Saab — whom the Justice Department has branded as a leader of Maduro – in exchange for the release of their relatives.

However, a US State Department source told CNN that a similar deal is not being considered at this time.

What Maduro wants

What Maduro wants is no secret. He demanded the lifting of oil sanctions, imposed on Venezuela for its anti-democratic record since 2017, in part in exchange for the release of American detainees.

In June, the US Treasury Department authorized two European companies, ENI and Repsol, to resume exports from Venezuela, in part in an effort to lower oil prices which have soared around the world following the war in Ukraine. Yet the general sanctions on the Venezuelan oil trade remain.

And then there’s Venezuela’s pro-democracy opposition movement, once a priority for the US government.

Talks between Caracas and Washington over the release of US citizens now overshadow negotiations between Maduro’s government and opposition leaders, which began after intense street protests in 2019.

Three Americans were arrested in Venezuela earlier this year, source says

“I think once Juan Gonzalez and James Story got here, Maduro was like, ‘What can I get straight out of this?'” a well-placed source told CNN. opposition.

While sources on both sides have told CNN talks between Maduro and the opposition are ongoing, at the moment there is no clear signal that a new round of talks is underway. Gerardo Blyde, the chief negotiator on behalf of the opposition, and Jorge Rodriguez, Maduro’s representative, met in Caracas in May with the promise to travel together to Mexico to resume the talks – but so far nothing has happened. Norway’s foreign ministry, which brokered the Venezuelan talks, and Venezuela’s information ministry declined to comment.

All of this comes at a great time for Maduro, who has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as economic conditions improve slightly. Although hampered by US sanctions, the global oil price spike has had a positive impact on Venezuela’s public finances. And inflation in Venezuela, while still high, is now more in line with increases in the rest of the world. (For a country used to prices doubling in a month, a monthly inflation rate of 6% is almost healthy.)

The Venezuelan opposition, while keeping the door open for a new round of negotiations, has already called for primary elections to select a candidate to challenge Maduro in November 2024, when a new presidential election is due to take place.

“Mexico is there, if they want us we can go,” said an opposition source, referring to the negotiation process.

“But we can no longer put all our eggs in one basket.”

Reporting provided by CNN’s Jennifer Hansler in Washington.



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