US clemency for Saab is a boon for Maduro, critics say

By Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s release of 30 U.S. and domestic prisoners in exchange for freedom for a key ally of President Nicolas Maduro represents an opportunity for Maduro to bolster his political strength ahead of elections next year, analysts said.

Businessman Alex Saab was granted clemency by U.S. President Joe Biden and sent back to Venezuela on Wednesday in exchange for the releases.

U.S. prosecutors had accused Saab of siphoning off some $350 million from Venezuela via the United States in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials.

Saab, who denies wrongdoing, had been held in federal jail in Miami awaiting trial since October 2021.

His triumphant return to Caracas – greeted on the airport tarmac by Maduro’s wife and then received at the presidential palace by Maduro himself – could help the president shore up domestic support.

“It is a demonstration of (Maduro’s) willingness not to abandon his own,” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of Caracas consultancy Datanalisis. “He’s telling the members of his party that he is willing to do everything, even be left without resources, to defend them.”

At the time of his arrest in 2020, Saab, a Colombian businessman, had been designated a diplomat by Maduro to negotiate shipments of fuel and humanitarian aid from Iran.

Upon his return to Caracas he thanked the government for not abandoning him, saying Maduro’s administration would never surrender.

The White House had been pressuring Caracas in recent weeks to fulfill its side of a deal, in which Washington provided relief from sanctions in return for an agreement by Maduro to hold free elections in 2024 and release those the U.S. said were being unfairly held in Venezuelan jails.

Maduro said Wednesday’s swap was a partial compliance with that accord and marked a step toward a new era of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Already, the government’s coffers had been on track to benefit from the sanctions relief. The government has predicted it will get 27% more income from state-run oil company PDVSA next year, likely allowing it to increase social spending ahead of the 2024 vote.

Critics said the swap would further embolden Maduro and weaken Washington’s position.

“(Saab’s) release deals a heavy blow to U.S. credibility in the fight against corruption, particularly in Latin America,” Marshall Billingslea, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury under President Donald Trump, said on social media.

“It sends a disastrous signal to partner nations who cooperated with us, believing Saab would face justice … it is a ‘gut-punch’ to the Venezuelan opposition,” he added.

A U.S. official defended the move, saying President Joe Biden faced a tough choice.

“In order to make this exchange, the president had to make the extremely difficult decision to offer something that the Venezuelan counterparts have actively sought,” the official said, requesting anonymity to speak freely. “The president made what was a difficult choice but the right choice.”

Biden told journalists in Wisconsin that Maduro was so far upholding his end of the deal but that there was a long road ahead.


Though some well-known opposition figures were among those who could be or had been released, there is still much that remains unclear about Maduro’s compliance with other parts of the election deal.

Three people involved with the campaign of opposition presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado are expected to have arrest orders withdrawn, sources have said. Machado’s campaign declined to comment.

The recently-detained Roberto Abdul, who was involved with the organization of the opposition’s October primary, has also been freed, a rights organization said.

But progress is still needed toward rescinding public office bans against some in the opposition, including Machado, announcing an election date, and other guarantees, said analysts.

“We’ll have to see if it’s just a prisoner exchange or if it means a path to free and fair elections,” said Oswaldo Ramirez of Caracas’ OCR Consultores.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas, additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Christian Plumb and Rosalba O’Brien)