Analysis: Are talks over detained Americans slowing democracy struggle in Venezuela?

Since 2019, the US and dozens of other countries around the world have said they no longer consider Maduro’s presidency legitimate, instead recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim head of state. Yet current US President Joe Biden’s Biden White House has sent senior officials to Caracas three times this year to meet with Maduro and his representatives, in an attempt to negotiate for the detained Americans.

While the Biden administration has hardly rolled out the red carpet — refusing to invite Maduro to this year’s Summit of the Americas and maintaining personal sanctions on Venezuelan government officials — the fact that top officials are meeting directly with Maduro to discuss the arrests suggests. The White House has abandoned the Trump-era strategy of freezing the autocratic leader.

The effort appears separate from parallel talks to boost Venezuela’s oil production under pressure from rising gas prices globally – and has so far moved slowly from behind-the-scenes political talks encouraged by Washington between Maduro and the opposition led by Guido.

Under pressure domestically, the Biden administration has already proven willing to make concessions on principle to take practical steps toward winning freedom for US citizens abroad.

As CNN previously reported, the White House has already offered to trade WNBA player Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who are being held in Russia, for Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout. That proposed swap overrides opposition from the Justice Department, which generally opposes prisoner trading.

It is unclear how many Americans are currently detained in Venezuela, and the US State Department does not typically comment on specific cases due to privacy considerations.

But among those publicly arrested are five of six people known as the “Citgo 6,” officials at the Citgo oil refinery on corruption charges that they deny; Two former US special forces members, Aidan Berry and Luke Denman, were arrested in connection with a private effort to force Maduro from power; and Matthew Heath, a former US Marine accused of plotting to attack a Venezuelan oil refinery.

Unofficially, State Department sources estimate that the actual number of American detainees in Venezuela may be 17.

The State Department considers all of them wrongly arrested, and lawyers and relatives of Citgo 6 have accused Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro of using the group as “pawns” to pressure the US government.

Last month, CNN learned that at least three other US citizens, including a Los Angeles public defender, had been detained in Venezuela.

In Venezuela, the US government’s push to negotiate on behalf of the American detainees has been led by Representative Roger Carstens, who has met with Maduro personally on one of his many trips to Caracas. CNN has reached out to Carstens’ office seeking comment.

In March, he visited Caracas with Amb. James Storey, who heads the US Venezuelan affairs unit, and Juan Gonzalez, senior director of the regional National Security Council — the first high-level meeting since diplomatic ties between the two countries broke down in 2019.

Shortly thereafter, Venezuela released former Citgo executive Gustavo Cardenas and Cuban-US dual citizen Jorge Alberto Fernandez in March.

Two more trips to Venezuela followed.

“You can’t say that [the White House] “Pressure is not being applied: we have so far had three trips by high-ranking officials,” said a source involved in negotiations to release the US citizens.

“It’s not like it happened before,” he said, highlighting Maduro’s unprecedented level of direct communication with Washington.

The US does not recognize Maduro's presidency as legitimate.
Some families of detained US citizens Biden urged His administration offered Griner the same kind of swap — high-level Venezuelan officials detained in the U.S., such as Colombian businessman Alex Saab — whom the Justice Department has named as a Maduro front man — their loved ones in exchange for their release.

However, a US State Department source told CNN that a similar deal is not on the cards at this time.

Do whatever you want

It’s no secret what Maduro wants. He has demanded the lifting of oil embargoes imposed since 2017 over Venezuela’s anti-democratic record, in part in exchange for the release of US detainees.

In June, the US Treasury Department allowed two European companies, ENI and Repsol, to resume exports from Venezuela, partly in an effort to reduce oil prices that have risen worldwide as a result of the war in Ukraine. Still, the usual restrictions on Venezuela’s oil trade remain.

And then there’s Venezuela’s democratic opposition movement, once a priority for the US government.

Talks between Caracas and Washington over the release of US citizens now overshadow those between Maduro’s government and opposition leaders, which began after violent street protests in 2019.

Sources said three Americans were arrested in Venezuela earlier this year

“I think once Juan Gonzalez and James Story got here, Maduro asked himself: ‘What can I get directly from them?

While sources on both sides told CNN that talks are ongoing between Maduro and the opposition, there is no clear sign that a new round of talks is underway at this point. On behalf of the opposition, chief negotiator Gerardo Blyde and Maduro’s representative, Jorge Rodríguez, Met in Caracas in May With the promise of traveling together to Mexico to resume talks – but so far nothing has happened. Norway’s foreign ministry, which is mediating Venezuela’s talks, and Venezuela’s information ministry declined to comment.

All this comes at an excellent time for Maduro, who has gained popularity as economic conditions have improved somewhat. Although hampered by US sanctions, the global rise in oil prices has had a positive impact on Venezuela’s public finances. And inflation in Venezuela, while still high, is now in line with increases in the rest of the world. (For a country where prices double within a month, a 6% monthly inflation rate is almost healthy.)

While Venezuela’s opposition has left the door open to a new round of talks, it has already called for primary elections to choose a candidate to challenge Maduro when a new presidential election is due in November 2024.

“Mexico is there, if they want us, we can go,” an opposition source said, referring to the negotiation process.

“But we can no longer put all our eggs in one basket.”

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler in Washington contributed.

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