U.S. President Joe Biden says two U.S. citizens who were "wrongfully detained" by the Venezuelan government have been released, days after a delegation of senior U.S. officials visited the South American nation in an apparent effort to smooth relations between the two countries.
In a statement posted to the White House website, Biden welcomed Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Fernandez back home Tuesday following their release.
The president said Cardenas, an executive with the U.S. branch of Venezuela's state-run oil company, was arrested in 2017. Fernandez was arrested last year "on spurious charges." Biden expressed his gratitude to Roger Carstens, U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs, and to "our entire diplomatic team for their tireless efforts to secure their release and reunite these families."
The release comes after Carstens joined National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez, and U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela James Story for talks Saturday with members of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government. The meetings reportedly were designed to explore the possibility of easing U.S. sanctions against the major oil producer.
The talks were the highest-level meetings between U.S. officials and the Maduro government since 2019 when former President Donald Trump's administration broke off diplomatic relations with Venezuela, accusing Maduro of rigging the presidential reelection. The Trump administration also blocked all U.S. revenue to Venezuela's national oil company.
Sources with knowledge of the diplomatic talks Saturday said they had been in the works for months, as the Biden administration weighs easing sanctions as a bargaining chip for the release of U.S. citizens being held in Venezuela. But they say the talks took on new urgency with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At a news briefing earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the trip was meant "to discuss a range of issues — including, certainly, energy security, but also to discuss the health and welfare of detained U.S. citizens."
Several other U.S. citizens remain detained in Venezuela.