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Jailed U.S. oil execs shifted to house arrest in Venezuela

by JOSHUA GOODMAN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | May 2, 2021 at 3:55 a.m.
FILE - This undated file photo posted on Twitter on June 18, 2020 by Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, shows CITGO oil executives Jose Angel Pereira, from left to right, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano, standing outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, in Caracas, Venezuela. The oil executives jailed in Venezuela more than three years ago on corruption charges were granted house arrest on Friday, April 30, 2021, in a gesture of goodwill toward the Biden administration as it reviews its policy toward the politically turbulent South American country. (Posted on Twitter by Jorge Arreaza/Venezuela's Foreign Ministry via AP File)

MIAMI -- Six American oil executives jailed in Venezuela more than three years ago on corruption charges were granted house arrest Friday in a gesture of goodwill toward the Biden administration as it reviews its policy toward the politically turbulent South American country.

The partial release of the six employees of Houston-based Citgo was confirmed by family members of the men.

Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas and Jose Pereira were hauled away by masked security agents while at a meeting in Caracas just before Thanksgiving in 2017. They had been lured to Venezuela for a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo's parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA.

"We wish our loved one Tomeu were on a plane to the USA with unconditional freedom but are very grateful for this positive step made possible by [former New Mexico] Gov. [Bill] Richardson & his team, Secretary of State Antony Blinken & the State Department, the Vatican, and other allies around the world," Vadell's family said in a statement.

Richardson was among those working behind the scenes to press Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government to release the men, all but one of them dual Venezuelan-U.S. citizens.

"This is a positive and important step that should help secure their wellbeing during the COVID-19 outbreak in Venezuela," Richardson said in a statement.

The six executives were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between 8 and 13 years of prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. Maduro at the time accused them of "treason." They all pleaded innocent.

The so-called Citgo 6 were granted house arrest once before -- in December 2019 -- only to be rejailed two months later on the same day that President Donald Trump welcomed opposition leader Juan Guaido to the White House.

In releasing the men, Maduro could be betting he'll receive a better hearing from President Joe Biden, who on the campaign trail called Trump's policy of regime change an "abject failure" that has served only to strengthen the socialist leader.

Last week, senior Biden officials from several federal agencies were scheduled to meet to weigh U.S. options, including whether to ease up on crippling oil sanctions it inherited and take steps to support an uncertain attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, according to two people familiar with the plans.

The meeting, which was to be attended by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, followed a series of moves by Maduro in recent days to grab Biden's attention, including yielding to longstanding U.S. demands that the World Food Program be allowed to operate in the country at a time of growing hunger.

In recent days, Maduro's allies have also quietly discussed with opponents the makeup of a new electoral council and joint efforts to combat the coronavirus, and they met with diplomats from Norway trying to revive negotiations to end the country's political crisis.

However, the continued imprisonment of Americans was seen as a formidable obstacle to any outreach.

Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council's senior director for the Western Hemisphere, said Friday that to gauge Maduro's seriousness about any eventual negotiations he wanted to see "concrete steps by the regime, not words."

Richardson, who has opened back channels to hostile governments in Iran, Cuba and North Korea to win the release of some 40 Americans, vowed to work tirelessly to bring the men back home. Also pushing for the men's release was Pope Francis.

Information for this article was contributed by Gisela Salomon of The Associated Press.

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