2 American oil execs jailed in Venezuela put on home arrest

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Two American oil executives jailed in Venezuela have been released and granted house arrest in the South American nation, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said late Thursday.

The two are among six Citgo executives detained more than two years ago while on a business trip to Caracas. The former governor recently visited Caracas on a humanitarian mission and met with President Nicolás Maduro to press for their release.

“This is a positive and important first step,” Richardson said in a statement, adding his gratitude to Maduro for remaining engaged in the dialogue started earlier this month in a personal meeting.

The two men released to house arrest are Gustavo Cárdenas and Jorge Toledo, the governor said.

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Maduro’s government didn’t immediately comment on the men’s release.

María Elena Cardenas, who lives near Houston, said she was relieved to learn of the transfer when her husband called Thursday night and said she was desperately looking for a place for him to sleep since the family no longer has a home in Caracas.

“It’s such a relief to have him in a place where he can breathe fresh air coming through an open window,” she said.

The six men were called to Caracas just before Thanksgiving in 2017 for a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent, Venezuela’s state-run oil giant PDVSA. They were hauled away from a meeting by masked security agents.

Venezuelan authorities accuse the men of corruption stemming from an alleged plan to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. Prosecutors accuse the men of maneuvering to personally benefit from the proposed deal.

All of the six men had been released to house arrest late last year before being taken back into custody two months later.

Officials in June released a video of the men in jail after relatives appealed for international help in securing their release over fears about the men’s health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Richardson, who heads a center that works to free jailed U.S. citizens around the world, made a brief visit to Venezuela earlier this month, saying as he left that he had been unable to secure their release despite talking with Maduro.

The other four jailed Citgo executives are: Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano and Jose Pereira.

Two other U.S. citizens jailed in Venezuela are former Green Berets — Luke Denman and Airan Berry — arrested in May while participating in a botched raid organized from neighboring Colombia to oust Maduro.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton presidency, has opened diplomatic back channels to several hostile governments, including Iran, Cuba and North Korea, to win the release of some 40 Americans.

Washington and Caracas are locked in a tense relationship, with the Trump administration backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president and leading a campaign of dozens of nations seeking to pressure Maduro out. They blame him for the once wealthy nation’s economic and social collapse.

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