U.S. Not Ready for New Detainee Exchange Negotiations in Venezuela: Official

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The United States is not ready to discuss a prisoner swap like the one described in a letter and video addressed to U.S. President Joe Biden for an American detained in Venezuela, according to two officials in Washington. Eyvin Hernandez was “quite possibly coerced” into asking Biden to swap him along with seven other U.S. detainees for Alex Saab, a Colombian-born businessman facing trial in Miami, said one of the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hernandez, a Los Angeles public defender, sent the letter and video to Biden in February. “I make this appeal on behalf of myself, my family, my friends and all other Americans who are here illegally detained in Venezuela,” Hernandez said in the video, which was reviewed by Reuters and is reported for the first time. “We know we will be released if he makes a trade for Alex Saab for all of us.”

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about whether such a prisoner exchange was being considered and whether Hernández was coerced into making the video. In the video, Hernández says that swapping him and the other seven U.S. detainees for Saab, who is very close to President Nicolas Maduro, would be the “only way” they could be released.

Saab, extradited from Cape Verde to Florida in 2021, is accused of diverting around $350 million from Venezuela through the United States in a bribery scheme linked to the South American country’s state-controlled exchange rate. Saab denies the allegation. No trial date has been set.

Declining to comment on “the details of any particular ongoing cases,” a U.S. State Department spokesman indicated that talks about a prisoner swap involving Saab could be possible with Venezuela after his trial has concluded.

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“I strongly caution against any reports suggesting that an agreement was reached to secure the release of an American unjustly detained in Venezuela or that there are active talks about the release of a major criminal suspect who has not even gone to trial,” the spokesman told Reuters.

Any such information, the spokesman said, would serve “as a speaker of the desires” of the Venezuelan government.

The first U.S. official also said no talks were taking place on a prisoner exchange.

Biden argues that securing the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad is a top priority. He has presided over a series of exchanges, including one in December in which Moscow released National Association for Women (WNBA) star Brittney Griner in exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the United States.

Hernandez’s brother, Henry Martinez, told Reuters from Los Angeles that the family “does not have any official U.S. information about this possible exchange.”

In the video, Hernandez was not shaved. He looked well-fed, wearing a green sweater over a blue prison uniform. The handwritten letter was on the desk in front of him.

The video appeared to have been recorded at the detention center where Hernández is being held in Caracas, suggesting that Venezuelan authorities allowed the letter to be recorded and sent.

Reuters could not determine how the video and letter were sent to the White House. Hernandez’s messages were previously reported by Newsweek, but without excerpts. In his letter, Hernánez wrote that his request for a prisoner exchange was supported by three other U.S. detainees: Jerrel Kenemore, Jason Saad and Joseph Cristella.

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In the copy, reviewed by Reuters, Hernandez noted that Biden signed a July 2022 executive order reaffirming his commitment to releasing Americans unjustly detained around the world and urged the U.S. leader to “end this nightmare.” The Biden administration last October declared Hernandez, 45, wrongfully detained. He and Kenemore, 53, were arrested in March 2022 and charged with illegally entering Venezuela from Colombia.

Also last October, Venezuelan authorities released seven Americans in exchange for two relatives of Maduro jailed for drug trafficking in the United States, in a process of talks between U.S. and Venezuelan officials that began in March 2022. Those talks marked a shift in U.S. policy following former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which imposed sanctions aimed at forcing Maduro to cede power after deeming his 2018 re-election fraudulent.

The Biden administration has been looking at alternative sources of petroleum due to the disruptions related to the war in Ukraine. But Washington says Maduro’s government must take concrete steps toward free elections, releasing detained politicians, among others, to consider any possible easing of sanctions.

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