The United States has agreed to release a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela in exchange for 10 jailed Americans, including six designated as wrongfully detained, White House officials said on Wednesday.
Alex Saab, who has been accused by the United States of “profiting from starvation” of Venezuelans, is a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for Mr. Maduro. He was indicted in 2019 in connection with a bribery scheme that siphoned an estimated $350 million from a Venezuelan government housing project.
The White House officials declined to reveal details about the 10 Americans, but they said the exchange means that all of the Americans believed to be wrongfully detained in Venezuela now have been released.
As a part of the agreement, Venezuela also agreed to extradite Leonard Glenn Francis, a former defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who is at the center of one of the U.S. Navy’s largest corruption cases. Mr. Maduro will also release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners from custody, White House officials said.
The prisoner exchange comes as the Biden administration tries to improve relations with the authoritarian government in Caracas. The United States recently restarted deportation flights to Venezuela and agreed to lift some sanctions after the Maduro administration agreed to take tentative steps toward free and fair elections.
“It looks like Maduro, so far, is keeping his commitment on a free election,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Wednesday. “But it ain’t done yet. We’ve got a long way to go. But it’s good so far.”
U.S. officials cast the swap as necessary in order to reunite the Americans with their families in the United States. But for some in Venezuela, the deal was a win for Mr. Maduro; many Venezuelans say Mr. Saab has become synonymous with the worst abuses of the Maduro government.
“It is a very significant concession from the Biden administration, which until today insisted that Saab was subject to a judicial process in the United States and they would not interfere with that,” said Mariano de Alba, a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Saab is one of several Maduro-linked officials and businessmen indicted by the U.S. government in recent years, including Mr. Maduro himself.
Washington has accused Mr. Saab of being involved in a scheme in which he and others made off with large sums of government funds meant to feed Venezuela’s hungry.
Mr. Saab was extradited from the West African island nation of Cape Verde to the United States in 2021 to face money-laundering charges, one of the highest-ranking supporters of Mr. Maduro to be taken into American custody. He pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Maduro’s government maintained that Mr. Saab’s detention was illegal, saying he was a diplomatic envoy and could not be prosecuted. His supporters undertook an elaborate global public relations campaign to rally support for his cause.
The swap on Wednesday was the latest prisoner exchange between the United States and Venezuela. In October of last year, Mr. Biden agreed to grant clemency to two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady to secure the release of seven Americans.
As a part of the deal detailed on Wednesday, Venezuela agreed to extradite Mr. Francis, the former defense contractor and Malaysian businessman at the center of a fraud and bribery case that has resulted in federal criminal charges against more than 30 U.S. Navy officials and defense contractors, according to the Justice Department.
He was set to be sentenced last year but escaped house arrest in September 2022 by cutting off his ankle monitor and fleeing to Venezuela. Two weeks later, he was stopped by Interpol agents at the airport in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, trying to board a flight to Russia. He faces up to 25 years in prison and has agreed to forfeit $35 million in gains.
More than two dozen people have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme. They have admitted that they accepted millions of dollars in luxury travel, accommodations, meals or the services of prostitutes from Mr. Francis in exchange for lucrative military contracts for his Singapore-based business, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.
Prosecutors have said that Mr. Francis’s gifts to Navy officials also included more than $500,000 in cash, Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and Spanish suckling pigs. He also threw lavish parties for senior officers at luxury hotels in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
In escaping to Venezuela, Mr. Francis may have believed that years of hostile diplomacy between Mr. Maduro and the United States would have shielded him from extradition. Mr. Maduro has an affable working relationship with Russia, and for months has been considering a visit to meet President Vladimir V. Putin.
But the American and Venezuelan governments raised cautious hope of easing tension when they agreed to the deal in October that lifted some economic penalties against Venezuela.