MIAMI – Venezuela’s government quietly offered last year to release imprisoned Americans in exchange for the U.S. letting go a key financier of President Nicolás Maduro, according to people with knowledge of the proposal and message exchanges seen by The Associated Press.
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, which was rejected by the Trump administration, has taken on new relevance following the extradition this month to Miami of businessman Alex Saab, who prosecutors believe was the main conduit for corruption in Maduro's inner circle. In retaliation, Venezuela reimprisoned six executives of Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil giant, who had been under house arrest.
A little over a year ago, Maduro’s government was looking to release the so-called Citgo 6 along with two former Green Berets tied to a failed cross-border raid in exchange for Saab, according to former Miami Congressman David Rivera, who says he helped organize 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 never discussed a swap. It wasn’t something we were interested in nor was it a point of negotiation — ever,” he said in a brief statement. “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 AP also saw text messages from right after the meeting between some of the organizers — but not Grenell — in which follow-up steps for a deal to return the American prisoners is discussed.
Rivera's account raises fresh questions about the nature and scope of the back-channel diplomacy. It’s also likely to add pressure on the Biden administration, which is already facing criticism for not doing enough to bring home Americans wrongfully detained abroad, to pursue a prisoner deal of its own with Maduro — something it has resisted until now.
Among new details to emerge: Grenell was joined in Mexico City by Erik Prince, the founder of controversial security firm Blackwater and whose sister, Betsy DeVos, was Trump’s education secretary.
In Rivera's telling, he was asked to get involved by Raul Gorrín, a Venezuelan businessman who had been trying to bridge differences between the U.S. and Maduro before being indicted himself on charges of bribing top Maduro officials. Rivera, a Republican who served a single term in Congress, said he was a translator in encrypted conference calls over Wickr, a messaging app, ahead of the meeting in which Gorrín explained to Prince that Maduro was willing to swap the Americans for Saab.
"Both Gorrín in Spanish and me in English made it crystal clear to Prince repeatedly that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss freeing the Americans in exchange for Saab," Rivera said.
Saab had been arrested a few months earlier in Cape Verde en route to Iran and was fighting tooth and nail against extradition to the U.S. He was joined by Maduro's government, which considers the previously low-profile Colombian-born businessman a diplomatic envoy and keeper of state secrets that, if revealed, would compromise Venezuela's national security.
According to Rivera, after several back-and-forth calls Prince arranged for him and Grenell to travel to Mexico City to meet with Jorge Rodríguez, a top aide to Maduro and now president of the pro-government congress. In 2019, Prince traveled to Caracas to meet with Rodríguez's sister, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, cementing his role as one of the few American interlocutors to the otherwise isolated Maduro government.
Rivera said he was supposed to be present for the meeting as well, but got delayed while making a connection in Houston. When he arrived to the Mexican capital, the meeting at The Westin hotel had already blown up over Grenell's insistence that any prisoner swap be accompanied with an exit plan for Maduro, Rivera said.
In a subsequent call, Prince told Gorrín “that the Citgo 6 were simply not valuable enough to the Trump administration for a straight prisoner swap for Saab,” Rivera said.
It's not clear how seriously the Trump administration considered Maduro's offer — if at all. The trip to Mexico City surprised some senior Trump officials, who learned about it from reporters and worried it could undermine efforts to undermine Maduro through sanctions and ongoing investigations into corruption.
Unlike prisoner exchanges the U.S. has recently carried out with other hostile governments, from Cuba to Iran, Saab hasn't yet been tried for his alleged crimes. Moreover, his arrest was the result of a years-long effort by law enforcement that had been cheered on by foreign policy hawks and influential Venezuelan exiles in Florida for whom Saab — the architect of efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions — was a trophy too valuable to give up before he was behind bars in the U.S.
“There was no way we were going to swap for Saab. Grenell and the others had absolutely no authority to offer that," said Elliott Abrams, who served as the U.S. special representative for Venezuela under Trump. "The move to detain and try Saab was an all-of-government interagency effort. These freelancers represented no one but themselves.”
Rodríguez 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 Gorrín had played a positive behind the scenes role securing the release from jail of Venezuela's most prominent anti-governmental activist, Leopoldo López. He also knew a few of the jailed Citgo executives from his time as a consultant working for another U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA.
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 say Rivera never performed any meaningful work. Rivera, a target of past state and federal investigations into improper campaign dealings, has countersued, arguing breach of contract.
Whatever the extent of Trump's closed-door dealings with Maduro, families of nine Americans jailed in Caracas are less hopeful about the prospects for a deal under the Biden administration.
Unlike Trump, who regularly hosted former American captives at the White House and whose unconventional foreign policy gave a boost to informal hostage negotiations, the Biden team has so far been short on high-profile detainee releases.
“Mr. President, we are frustrated by the lack of action by your administration,” the families wrote to Biden in a letter this month. “The people-in-charge of protecting and returning wrongfully detained Americans have not even taken the basic first step of directly engaging with the Venezuelans that are holding our loved ones.”
The lack of urgency is especially troubling to the family of José Pereira, the former president of Citgo, who over the weekend was rushed to a private clinic in Caracas for emergency treatment for a cardiac condition that his family says has worsened since his detention four years ago.
Pereira and the other Citgo executives were sentenced last year to long prison sentences over a never-executed plan to refinance billions in the oil company’s 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. Also detained is former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who is being held on weapons charges.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a veteran hostage negotiator who has traveled to Caracas to push for the American prisoners' release, said the new details of the Mexico City meeting should serve as a wake up call.
“My involvement and discussions with the Venezuelans and Maduro on behalf of the families of the American prisoners leads me to believe Maduro is interested in negotiating for their release," he said. "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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