U.S. swaps Maduro ally for ‘Fats Leonard’ in Venezuela prisoner change

US President Joe Biden speaks on his economic policies at the Wisconsin Black Chamber of Commerce in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on December 20, 2023.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

The United States on Wednesday released from jail an accused money launderer close to Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in exchange for that country sending home 10 American prisoners and a defense contractor at the center of a massive bribery conspiracy that tainted the U.S. Navy, according to U.S. President Joe Biden.

The Maduro government also released 20 political prisoners in Venezuela as part of the deal.

Biden said that Venezuela has agreed to send to U.S. custody the former fugitive Leonard Francis, also known as “Fat Leonard,” who was at the center of what a senior administration official called “one of the most brazen bribery conspiracies in the U.S. Navy’s history.”

Francis, who is from Malaysia, fled from house arrest in San Diego, California in September 2022, and then traveled to Cuba and Venezuela with his plan to end up in Russia.

From 2004 to 2013, Francis rewarded senior Navy officers with prostitutes, luxury travel, Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and other gifts for providing him with confidential information to benefit his company, prosecutors have said.

Biden in a statement Wednesday said Francis now “will face justice for the crimes he committed against the U.S. Government and the American people.”

Alex Saab, the Colombian-born prisoner released by the U.S. to Venezuela, was awaiting trial in Miami federal court on a charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering, related to an alleged bribery scheme in Venezuela that siphoned off $350 million.

Members of the Free Alex Saab movement shout slogans during a rally to demand his freedom in front of the National Assembly in Caracas on December 16, 2022.

Yuri Cortez | AFP | Getty Images

Saab, who has been accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of enabling corrupt profits by Venezuela’s autocratic president, has been held without bail since his extradition from the African archipelago nation of Cabo Verde in October 2020.

A federal judge last December rejected arguments that the criminal case against Saab should be dismissed on the claim that he had diplomatic immunity from Venezuela.

Venezuela as part of the deal announced Wednesday also agreed to release Roberto Abdul, who Maduro’s government arrested for alleged treason earlier this month due to his involvement in the opposition presidential campaign of Maria Corina Machado.

Abdul’s arrest was part of a broader siege against Machado’s bid to challenge Maduro. Venezuela issued arrest warrants for several others involved in her campaign.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at a press conference Wednesday, said that obtaining the release of American prisoners has been a “priority when it comes to Venezuela.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a separate Wednesday briefing, “Nothing’s more important to President Biden than the safety and security of Americans overseas.”

“Commensurate with that obligation is doing everything we can to get those that are detained overseas in a wrongful way home with their families where they belong,” Kirby said. “Sometimes, that means you got to make some difficult decisions.”

The Associated Press, in its report about the deal that cited an unnamed source, noted that on Friday and then on Monday two sealed court filings were made in Saab’s case in Miami, an indication that a behind-the-scenes deal was in the works.

In 2019, the Treasury Department said that Saab and his business partner, Alvaro Pulido, had “enabled [Maduro] and his illegitimate regime to corruptly profit from imports of food aid and distribution in Venezuela.”

The release of the 10 American detainees means that all “wrongfully detained” American prisoners held in Venezuela have been returned to the U.S., according to a senior administration official. Last year, Venezuela freed nine other American prisoners in separate high-profile prisoner swaps.

Among those Americans coming home on Wednesday are Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, and Savoi Wright.

A senior administration official denied speculation that this prisoner exchange was part of any negotiations to further ease oil sanctions against Venezuela.

“At no point have we talked about sanctions relief for oil and gasoline in exchange for lawfully detained Americans,” the official said. “That has not ever been a part of this discussion.”

The U.S. instituted those trade restrictions over five years ago after alleging that Maduro’s victory in the 2018 presidential election was stolen and refused to recognize him as the country’s president.

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