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 the 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.
Whatever the extent of Trump’s closed-door dealings with Maduro, families of nine Americans jailed in Caracas are less hopeful about the prospects for a deal under the Biden administration.
Unlike Trump, who regularly hosted former American captives at the White House and whose unconventional foreign policy gave a boost to informal hostage negotiations, the Biden team has so far been short on high-profile detainee releases.
“Mr. President, we are frustrated by the lack of action by your administration,” the families wrote to Biden in a letter this month. “The people-in-charge of protecting and returning wrongfully detained Americans have not even taken the basic first step of directly engaging with the Venezuelans that are holding our loved ones.”
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’s 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.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a veteran hostage negotiator who has traveled to Caracas to push for the American prisoners’ release, said the new details of the Mexico City meeting should serve as a wake up call.
“My involvement and discussions with the Venezuelans and Maduro on behalf of the families of the American prisoners leads me to believe Maduro is interested in negotiating for their release,” he said. “I think the Biden administration should approach this with an open mind.”