Trump Administration Denied Venezuela Offer to Swap U.S. Prisoners for Maduro Ally: Report

When the Venezuelan government offered last year to release U.S. prisoners in exchange for a top financier for President Nicolás Maduro, the Trump administration denied the proposal, the Associated Press reported.

The offer was reportedly discussed during a meeting between Richard Grenell, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, and a top aide for Maduro in September of 2020, according to former Representative David Rivera of Florida, who said he helped organize the meeting.

Businessman Alex Saab, whom prosecutors accuse of aiding corruption in Maduro's inner circle, was extradited to Miami this month. Venezuela reimprisoned six Citgo executives who had been under house arrest shortly after in retaliation.

It was at the September 2020 meeting that Maduro's government brought up the prospect of swapping the Citgo executives, as well as two former Green Berets, for Saab, according to Rivera. While Grenell wouldn't say what was discussed at the meeting, he asserted that hostage negotiations weren't included, AP reported.

"I never discussed a swap. It wasn't something we were interested in nor was it a point of negotiation—ever," he said in a statement. "The purpose of the meeting was clear to everyone who was actually negotiating."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Trump Administration Denied Prisoner Exchange Proposal
Venezuela’s government reportedly offered in 2020 to release imprisoned Americans, the so-called Citgo 6, along with two former Green Berets tied to a failed cross border raid, in exchange for the U.S. letting go Alex Saab, a key financier of President Nicolás Maduro, who was extradited to Miami in October 2021. Above, pedestrians walk near a poster asking for the freedom of Saab that reads in Spanish, "They haven't been able to bend him," in Caracas, Venezuela, on September 9, 2021. Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo

Venezuela's interest in negotiating for Saab was corroborated by another individual with knowledge of the proposal on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private diplomatic effort. AP also saw text messages from right after the meeting between some of the organizers—but not Grenell—in which follow-up steps for a deal to return the American prisoners is discussed.

Rivera's account raises fresh questions about the nature and scope of the back-channel diplomacy. It's also likely to add pressure on the Biden administration, which is already facing criticism for not doing enough to bring home Americans wrongfully detained abroad, to pursue a prisoner deal of its own with Maduro—something it has resisted until now.

Among new details to emerge: Grenell was joined in Mexico City by Erik Prince, the founder of controversial security firm Blackwater and whose sister, Betsy DeVos, was Trump's education secretary.

In Rivera's telling, he was asked to get involved by Raul Gorrín, a Venezuelan businessman who had been trying to bridge differences between the U.S. and Maduro before being indicted on charges of bribing top Maduro officials. Rivera, a Republican who served a single term in Congress, said he was a translator in encrypted conference calls over Wickr, a messaging app, ahead of the meeting in which Gorrín explained to Prince that Maduro was willing to swap the Americans for Saab.

"Both Gorrín in Spanish and me in English made it crystal clear to Prince repeatedly that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss freeing the Americans in exchange for Saab," Rivera said.

Saab had been arrested a few months earlier in Cape Verde on the way to Iran and was fighting tooth and nail against extradition to the U.S. He was joined by Maduro's government, which considers the previously low-profile Colombian-born businessman a diplomatic envoy and keeper of state secrets that, if revealed, would compromise Venezuela's national security.

According to Rivera, after several back-and-forth calls Prince arranged for him and Grenell to travel to Mexico City to meet with Jorge Rodríguez, a top aide to Maduro and now president of the pro-government congress. In 2019, Prince traveled to Caracas to meet with Rodríguez's sister, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, cementing his role as one of the few American interlocutors to the otherwise isolated Maduro government.

Rivera said he was supposed to be present for the meeting as well but got delayed while making a connection in Houston. When he arrived to the Mexican capital, the meeting at The Westin hotel had already blown up over Grenell's insistence that any prisoner swap be accompanied with an exit plan for Maduro, Rivera said.

In a subsequent call, Prince told Gorrín "that the Citgo 6 were simply not valuable enough to the Trump administration for a straight prisoner swap for Saab," Rivera said.

It's not clear how seriously the Trump administration considered Maduro's offer—if at all. The trip to Mexico City surprised some senior Trump officials, who learned about it from reporters and worried it could undermine efforts to undermine Maduro through sanctions and ongoing investigations into corruption.

Unlike prisoner exchanges the U.S. has recently carried out with other hostile governments, from Cuba to Iran, Saab hasn't yet been tried for his alleged crimes. Moreover, his arrest was the result of a years-long effort by law enforcement that had been cheered on by foreign policy hawks and influential Venezuelan exiles in Florida for whom Saab—the architect of efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions—was a trophy too valuable to give up before he was behind bars in the U.S.

"There was no way we were going to swap for Saab. Grenell and the others had absolutely no authority to offer that," said Elliott Abrams, who served as the U.S. special representative for Venezuela under Trump. "The move to detain and try Saab was an all-of-government interagency effort. These freelancers represented no one but themselves."

Rodríguez and Prince didn't respond to requests for comment. A U.S. government official told AP the State Department "is not in a position to comment on reports of deliberations of a prior administration."

Rivera said he decided to get involved in the prisoner swap because he believed Gorrín had played a positive behind the scenes role securing the release from jail of Venezuela's most prominent anti-governmental activist, Leopoldo López. He also knew a few of the jailed Citgo executives from his time as a consultant working for another U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA.

That work, for which Rivera was to be paid $50 million, is the subject of a lawsuit by Maduro's opponents, who now run Citgo and other PDVSA operations in the U.S. They say Rivera never performed any meaningful work. Rivera, a target of past state and federal investigations into improper campaign dealings, has countersued, arguing breach of contract.

The lack of urgency is especially troubling to the family of José Pereira, the former president of Citgo, who over the weekend was rushed to a private clinic in Caracas for emergency treatment for a cardiac condition that his family says has worsened since his detention four years ago.

Pereira and the other Citgo executives were sentenced last year to long prison sentences over a never-executed plan to refinance billions in the oil company's bonds. They're being held at Caracas' infamous Helicoide prison along with two former Green Berets—Mark Denman and Airan Berry—who were arrested for their involvement in a confusing plot to overthrow Maduro. Also detained is former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who is being held on weapons charges.

Venezuela President
When the Venezuelan government reportedly offered last year to release U.S. prisoners in exchange for a top financier for President Nicolás Maduro, the Trump administration denied the proposal. Above, Maduro gestures as he speaks during the State of the Nation Report "Memoria y Cuenta 2020" at Palacio Federal Legislativo on January 12, 2021, in Caracas, Venezuela. Carolina Cabral/Getty Images