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Venezuela released at least two Americans from prison Tuesday after U.S. officials from the White House and State Department made a high-level visit to the country over the weekend, according to reports.
Gustavo Cardenas was one of six U.S.-based Citgo Petroleum executives arrested in 2017 and convicted on charges the U.S. said were made up. Jorge Alberto Fernández, a tourist, was accused of terrorism because he brought a drone into Venezuela, according to Reuters.
Last weekend marked the highest-level visit from U.S. officials to the country in years. In 2019, the Trump administration banned Venezuelan oil imports over allegations by the West that authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro had conducted an illegitimate election.
The prisoner release came on the same day President Biden said the U.S. plans to ban imports of Russian oil, natural gas, and coal. Venezuelan oil could help offset the loss of Russian imports but U.S. officials said the release of the Americans was not part of any deal, but rather an apparent goodwill gesture.
In a speech last Thursday, Maduro said, “Here lies the oil of Venezuela, which is available for whomever wants to produce and buy it, be it an investor from Asia, Europe or the United States.”
Venezuela is a Russian ally, and Moscow came to the Latin American country’s financial aid when the U.S. banned its oil imports. The U.S. trip was partially meant to capitalize on Russia’s sanction-weakened economy and help pull Venezuela further away from Putin’s influence, according to the New York Times.
The U.S. is also seeking the release of the five other Citgo employees and three U.S. veterans, according to the Times.
“These men are fathers who lost precious time with their children and everyone they love, and their families have suffered every day of their absence,” Biden said Tuesday of the release, according to Reuters. “We also remember the names and the stories of every American who is being unjustly held against their will — in Venezuela, in Russia, in Afghanistan, Syria, China, Iran and elsewhere around the world.”
The visit wasn’t without criticism, however.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.Y., and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Maduro a “cancer to our hemisphere” and said, “We should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder,” according to Reuters.
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., told Fox News in an email, “The commonsense decision by the Biden Administration to ban imports of Russian oil is undermined by their flirting with instead seeking imports from pariah nations like Iran and Venezuela.”
Rep. Alexandria Oscaio-Cortez told Fox News that turning to Venezuela or Iran for oil was a mistake. “None of these options are good ones because of our dependency on oil,” she said.
“I think this is the deal with fossil fuels in general is that it’s not an accident that oil-rich states tend to be petro-authoritarian states,” she said, adding that while she understands there are short-term supply issues, the U.S. should refocus on investments in solar and wind.