The Maduro dictatorship wanted to negotiate an exchange with the US: it offered Americans imprisoned in Venezuela .exchange for Alex Saab.
The episode takes on new relevance after the extradition of the figurehead of the Venezuelan dictator and the almost immediate arrest by Chavismo of six Citgo executives with dual nationality.
Last year, the Venezuelan government quietly offered to free imprisoned Americans in exchange for Washington releasing a crucial financier of President Nicolás Maduro, according to people familiar with the proposal and discussions of messages that the AP agency had access to.
The offer was discussed in Mexico City during a September 2020 meeting between a Maduro collaborator and Richard Grenell, a close ally of then-President Donald Trump, one of the meeting's organizers said.
The offer, which the Trump administration rejected, has acquired new relevance after the extradition to Miami days ago of businessman Alex Saab. He, according to US prosecutors, was the main channel of corruption in Maduro's inner circle. In retaliation, Venezuela re-incarcerated six executives of Citgo - a subsidiary of the Houston-based Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA - who was under house arrest.
A year ago, the Maduro government appeared willing to free the six Citgo executives along with two former Green Berets linked to a failed cross-border foray attempt, in exchange for Saab, according to the former lawmaker from Miami David Rivera, who said he helped organize the meeting.
Grenell did not want to reveal the topics that were raised during the September 2020 meeting. Still, he flatly denied that it had to do with hostage negotiations.
"I never discussed an exchange. It was not something that interested us or matters for negotiation, ever, "he said in a brief statement. "The purpose of the meeting was clear to all participants in the negotiation."
However, Venezuela's interest in negotiating Saab's freedom was corroborated by another person with knowledge of the proposal who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private diplomatic exercise. The AP also had access to text messages that were sent shortly after the meeting between some of the organizers - but not Grenell - discussing the following steps to reach an agreement for the freedom of American prisoners.
Rivera's account raises new questions about the nature and scope of secret diplomacy. Moreover, it will likely generate further pressure on the government of President Joe Biden, who has been criticized for not doing enough to free Americans detained abroad, to seek to reach an agreement with Maduro on the exchange of prisoners, something along the lines of that. That is resisting so far.
Among the new details that have emerged: Grenell was accompanied in Mexico City by Erik Prince, the controversial security company Blackwater and whose sister, Betsy DeVos, was Trump's secretary of Education.
According to Rivera, the one who invited him to join the efforts was Raúl Gorrín, a Venezuelan businessman. He was trying to settle the differences between the United States and Maduro before he was charged with charges of bribing senior Maduro officials. Rivera, a Republican who served a term in Congress, said he participated as a translator in conference calls through the Wickr message service, before the meeting in which Gorrín told Prince that Maduro was willing to trade Americans for Saab.
"Gorrín in Spanish and I in English made it perfectly and repeatedly clear to Prince that the objective of the meeting was to discuss the freedom of Americans in exchange for Saab," Rivera said.
Saab had been arrested months earlier in Cape Verde on his way to Iran and was fighting tooth and nail against extradition to the United States. Moreover, he had the collaboration of the Maduro government, which considers the discreet Colombian-born businessman a diplomatic envoy and holder of state secrets that, if exposed, would put Venezuela's national security at risk.
According to Rivera, after several calls, Prince arranged for him and Grenell to meet in Mexico with Jorge Rodríguez, a senior Maduro adviser and president of Congress. In 2019, Prince traveled to Caracas to meet with Rodríguez's sister, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, consolidating her role as one of the few US interlocutors with the isolated Maduro government.
Rivera said he was also supposed to attend the meeting but was late making a connection in Houston. By the time he arrived in the Mexican capital, the meeting at the Westin hotel had already failed as Grenell insisted that any prisoner swap include an exit plan for Maduro, Rivera said.
In a subsequent call, Prince told Gorrín that "for the Trump administration, the Citgo 6 simply did not have enough value to be exchanged for Saab," Rivera explained.
It is unclear whether the Trump administration ever considered Maduro's offer. Nevertheless, the trip to Mexico City surprised some senior Trump administration officials, who learned about it from the press and feared it would undermine attempts to undermine Maduro through sanctions and investigations into corruption.
Unlike other prisoner swaps with hostile governments, Saab has yet to be tried from Cuba to Iran for his alleged crimes. In addition, his arrest was the result of years of efforts by the US police, applauded by sectors of the foreign policy rigid wing and by influential Venezuelan exiles in Florida for whom Saab - the architect of efforts to evade US sanctions - was a too valuable a trophy to hand before the American justice condemns it.
"There was no way we were going to trade Saab. Grenell and the others had no authority to offer that," said Elliott Abrams, who served as the United States special representative for Venezuela during the Trump presidency. "The work to arrest and prosecute Saab was an interdepartmental effort by all branches of government. These freelancers did not represent anyone but themselves. "
Rodríguez and Prince did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, a US government official told the AP that the State Department "is not in a position to comment on reports of deliberations by a previous administration."
Rivera said he decided to get involved in the prisoner swap because he believed Gorrín had played a positive role under the table in securing the release of Venezuela's most renowned anti-government activist, Leopoldo López. He also knew some of the jailed Citgo executives from when he worked as an advisor for another PDVSA subsidiary in the United States.
That work, for which Rivera would receive a payment of 50 million dollars, is the basis of a lawsuit filed by opponents of Maduro. They now run Citgo and other PDVSA operations in the United States. They claim that Rivera never did significant work. Rivera, who has previously been the subject of state and federal investigations for improper campaign agreements, filed a counterclaim for alleged breach of contract.
Regardless of the magnitude of the Trump administration's private negotiations with Maduro, the relatives of the nine Americans who are jailed in Caracas have lost some hope about the possibility of the Biden administration reaching an agreement.
Unlike Trump, who regularly received former US prisoners into the White House and whose unconventional foreign policy prompted informal hostage negotiations, the Biden administration has so far fallen short of releasing detainees.
Mr. President, we are frustrated by the lack of action on the part of your government," family members wrote in a letter to Biden this month. "The people in charge of protecting and returning unjustly detained Americans have not even taken the basic first step of engaging directly with the Venezuelans who are holding our loved ones captive."
The lack of urgency is particularly frustrating for the family of José Pereira, the former president of Citgo, who over the weekend had to be rushed to a private clinic in Caracas to be treated for a heart condition that, according to his family, has worsened since his arrest four years ago.
Pereira and the other Citgo executives were sentenced to lengthy prison terms last year for a never-carried-out plan to roll over billions of dollars in oil company bonds. They remain detained in the infamous Helicoide prison in Caracas, along with two former Green Berets - Mar Denman and Airan Berry - who were arrested for participating in a confusing plot to overthrow Maduro. Former Marine Matthew Heath is also in prison on weapons-related charges.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a seasoned hostage negotiator who has traveled to Caracas to secure American prisoners' release, said the new details about the meeting in Mexico City should serve as a wake-up call.
"My participation and discussions with the Venezuelans and with Maduro on behalf of the relatives of the US prisoners leads me to believe that Maduro is interested in negotiating their release," he declared. "I think the Biden administration should approach the issue with an open mind."