Background Press Call on the Return of Americans Wrongfully Detained in Venezuela
(October 1, 2022)
3:10 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Hi there, and thank you all for joining the call today (inaudible) sharing some good news.
For awareness but not reporting, I want to share that we’re joined on the call today by [senior administration official] and [senior administration official]. We’re also joined by [senior administration official]. And we’re joined by [senior administration official].
Just to reiterate, this entire call is on background and can be attributed to a senior administration — or to “senior officials” plural. This is not held under any embargo.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. And good afternoon to everyone. Thank you for joining me today, especially on such short notice.
I am very pleased, very gratified to get to share with you that all seven of the Americans deemed wrongfully detained in Venezuela are currently on their way home to their families in the United States.
So, to clarify, this means that after four years in captivity, the remaining five of the so-called Citgo Six executives are free. In addition, Marine Corps Veteran Matthew Heath, who had been held in captivity for over two years, and Osman Khan, who had spent months wrongfully detained, are all now heading home to America to be with their families and friends.
This very happy outcome is the culmination of really extraordinary efforts and a great deal of perseverance across the U.S. government for many, many months to bring these men home. Maybe most importantly, our understanding is that all seven of these Americans are in stable health. They, of course, have been offered a range of support options, including medical care, following their time in captivity. We will respect their privacy as that moves forward, but it’s important to know that they are receiving the best possible care and will continue to do so.
I would also emphasize that the President has spoken with each of their families and shared the good news of their release. The families, all of whom have been tireless advocates for the releases of their loved ones, are of course eager to be reunited with these free Americans upon their return to the United States.
Stepping back, throughout the course of the Biden-Harris administration, we have prioritized the safe return of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. Today’s very good news adds to a list of successes that this administration has had in bringing home American hostages and wrongful detainees from around the world. That includes bringing Americans home from Afghanistan, Burma, Haiti, Russia, West Africa, and other parts of the world as well.
I would emphasize that throughout the process that leads up to a result like today, the administration engages extensively with the families of those held hostage and wrongfully detained and their advocates. And as we worked diligently to get to today’s result, we continued to engage with the families of these seven and to provide regular updates on our efforts on behalf of their loved ones.
The safe return of these seven Americans is the outcome of tough negotiations. We have been raising their cases with the Venezuelans for months now and pursuing just and timely outcomes. When over the course of those negotiations it became clear that one particular step was required to garner the only acceptable outcome — that of free Americans — the President made a tough decision, a painful decision, and offered something that the Venezuelans have actively sought. Specifically, it became clear in the course of negotiations that the release of two Venezuelans, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, sometimes referred to as the “narco nephews” due to their relationship with Nicolás Maduro’s wife, was essential to securing the release of these Americans.
These two Venezuelans were arrested about seven years ago for unsuccessfully attempting to smuggle cocaine into the United States. They have been in U.S. custody ever since then. They were sentenced in the United States in 2017 for 18 years. And in pursuing freedom for the seven Americans wrongfully detained in Venezuela, the President made the difficult decision to grant clemency to both Flores and Freitas. The consequence of this decision will reunite fathers with their children and grandchildren and will reunite sons with their parents, families, and friends.
As you may recall, the Citgo Six in particular were lured to Venezuela under false pretenses before being arrested, convicted, and held, as I mentioned, for over four years in captivity. Now, this March, March of 2022, a team across the U.S. government, led by the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Roger Carstens, was able to secure the release of one of them, as well as another American wrongfully detained in Venezuela at the time. So two Americans came home in March. While we celebrated the freedom of these two Americans, we never ceased our efforts to bring home all of the wrongfully detained Americans in Venezuela.
Another American traveling team was able to conduct in June of this year welfare checks on those who remained. And meanwhile, we continued our efforts to free them. Today, we celebrate with their families the safe return of these seven Americans.
And for all American families still separated from loved ones who are wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad, we remain dedicated to securing the release of their loved one. This is a priority of the Biden administration.
It is also a priority of this administration to prevent Americans and their families from the unimaginable pain — truly unimaginable — of being held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. This includes — efforts to prevent future detentions like this includes the signing this summer by the President of an executive order that will impose new costs, including sanctions and visa bans against the perpetrators of such acts.
At the same time, this summer, the State Department introduced a new warning indicator, a “D” for “wrongful detention” indicator, to show when travel to particular countries may carry the risk for Americans of wrongful detention, particularly for long periods of time and beyond potentially the ability of the U.S. government to assure their release. This indicator comes in addition to our previous and continuing efforts to highlight in other ways the risk of hostage taking with a “K” indicator for “kidnapping” in specific locations.
I want to emphasize that the tough decision made by the President to reach today’s happy outcome is the type of tough call only a President can make. The granting of clemency is something only the President can do. The type of result, therefore, that only a government can achieve and therefore only a government can negotiate.
And as I see the commentary begin by those outside government about how this came to pass, I just want to be very clear that this very happy result was negotiated and effectuated by the U.S. government and the U.S. government alone.
It is our duty to ensure the safety of American citizens, and so we will continue working tirelessly to bring home other Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad, and to prevent and deter others from being taken hostage or wrongfully detained.
With that, let me hand things off to my colleague [senior administration official] to give a little bit more color on how the day is unfolding.
Over to you, [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, thank you, [senior administration official]. Hey, everyone. Thanks for calling in and thanks for all your work in the press tracking the wrongful detentions throughout these many years.
We are — just to echo what [senior administration official] said, we welcome the release of our Americans who have been held wrongfully, and we welcome the return of all of our wrongful detainees.
We obviously express our deepest gratitude and appreciation to our many partners who worked to secure their release, starting with the President’s team or through White House, but also here at the State Department, our own SPEHA team, and throughout the U.S. government, but also to include you all in the media, in the press for keeping attention on the wrongful detentions in Venezuela and thankfully covering the opportunity to celebrate the return of our Americans.
I’ll just say U.S. officials met with each individual upon their release from detention, and we continue to provide all appropriate assistance and we’ll continue to do so in the coming hours — in coming days.
I just want to stress something [senior administration official] said — that this was the product of extended an effort, engagement — diplomatic engagement — to secure the release.
But I also want to say that this is — throughout this horrible period of detention for our Americans and for their families, it’s also been a period of engagement with the families. As [senior administration official] described them, they are tireless advocates, but they’re also, from our perspective in the SPEHA office, tireless partners. We’ve engaged with them, spoken with them through the ups and downs over the last several years.
And even when there were ups, as [senior administration official] mentioned, in March, when we got two of our citizens back, there’s always a little bit of down at times when we don’t get everybody back. But that’s why we’re overjoyed in this case, and today, that we got all our wrongful detentions — all of our Americans who were wrongfully detained back home and heading to the arms of their families.
While we continue to celebrate the release, obviously, we have a lot of work to do. Besides enabling the families to speak with their loved ones, newly freed from wrongful detention, we will have to make sure that they’re taken care of, but we also have to turn to the wrongful detentions we need to bring to an end elsewhere in the world. That’s part of our mission at SPEHA, and it’s a shared mission throughout the United States government, and shared with our comrades over at the White House.
We’ll continue to work extensively using a wide range of tools, including the diplomatic tools we brought to bear here, to bring all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad until their successful release is evidence of our — and their successful release is evidence of our commitment.
I want to thank everybody. And I think at this point we’re ready to take some questions.
Q Hi, thank you so much for doing the call. Great news that all these guys got out. [Senior administration official], when did the President sign off on this clemency for the two Maduro nephews? And if it was a while back, what was the delay in getting the logistics together? And when did this become clear that this was the only option Maduro would take? And did the U.S. have to give Maduro anything else to secure these releases? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much for the question, Jennifer.
So I’ll probably stay a bit vague, but let me say that the President approved this a number of weeks back. And then, of course, it takes time to negotiate that and to work through logistics as well.
Today has been a satisfying, but at times complicated, day in which, of course, each side wanted to confirm that the right individuals were traveling in the right direction and were prepared to be released. So that took some time to work out. But ultimately, of course, we work on these issues, treat every day as a day of urgency, a day too long for Americans to be held as hostages or wrongful detainees.
I would also say that in the course of the conversations that led to this, we explored with the Venezuelans various options, consistent with our own national interests. And some of the things that we have talked about, we will continue to talk about.
But I think the core of what enabled this very happy result is what we’ve, of course, been discussing, which is the painful choice to release two individuals who have received due process and their day in court and access to counsel in U.S. courts, in exchange for seven individuals we don’t think should ever have been held in the first place. But that’s a step that the President was willing to take because it yielded the very happy outcome of reuniting these folks with their families.
Q Hey, [senior administration official], thanks. Appreciate it. Two questions; one on the Venezuelans. Do we know where the Venezuelans are now? In other words, was there an active swap in which they were sent back to Venezuela at the same time the others came here? And could you describe that exchange?
And second, could you talk a little bit to what’s going on in Iran at the moment, which the U.N. Secretary General has put out a statement about the release, at least temporarily, of the Namazis. And, you know, it obviously seems interesting that these two things are happening at exactly the same moment. Was there any connection between the two of those? Is there anything — is there any involvement that you can talk about vis-à-vis the United States in the decision by the Iranians?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for both of those, Mike. I’ll work backwards. And I won’t have much to say on the second. We are obviously delighted to see any progress with respect to the Namazis. But I think we may have more to say on that in due course. I’ll probably stick to the Venezuela issues for now.
With respect to the two Venezuelans released, again, I’ll stay a bit away from details here for operational reasons. But in a country in between Venezuela and the United States, today a plane landed from our side carrying those two, and a plane landed that had departed from Venezuela carrying the seven Americans we are so happy to be returning home.
And after previous confirmation, virtually and from a distance, that the right passengers had been ready to travel — there was obviously confirmation on the ground, up close visually as well — and then passengers departed on different planes from the ones they came in on. So I assume those two are on their way back to Venezuela now.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: From my part, I’ll just say that my boss, as Special Presidential Envoy Roger Carstens, is with our freed Americans. And that’s what we’re focusing on now.
Q Hi, guys, this is such great news. Just a couple of clarifications. I’m sorry, I missed the very top of the call, but I know that you said these Americans are in the process of being reunited with their families. Are they currently on U.S. soil or are they en route to U.S. soil?
And can you talk a little bit about what finally broke this logjam? Was there something that precipitated the President deciding to go ahead with this deal? And then, finally, is there any color you can offer us on how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, and what they’ve said or asked for since their release? Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. And I’ll start, and then I bet [senior administration official] will give you better answers, especially on the third of those.
So in terms of breaking through, look, these are hard negotiations, both hard with respect to dealing with another side, a side that, by definition, we believe has held hostage or wrongfully detained Americans. They also present painful choices to the United States government, and ultimately, the toughest choices have to go to the President.
And it probably provides a good opportunity to emphasize that even though today is, of course, a happy day and a happy result, those who are returning today have suffered a lot, and their family members have suffered a lot alongside them.
And I would just emphasize that there’s reason that we as a government worked so hard to warn Americans about where they are at risk of facing wrongful detention or kidnappings as they travel and to warn them against undertaking such travel, because such trips are ones that can lead to the type of suffering that happily we were able to bring an end to here, but that it is not always possible to bring an end to, especially not speedily.
In terms of where the Americans are, they are in the air. Out of respect for their privacy, I’ll probably refrain from saying where they head next, but they will be in the care of the U.S. government as they get further evaluation, medical and otherwise. And, of course, it will be then about choices that they wish to make about accepting different forms of care, but a wide, wide range will be offered to them. They will be in tremendous hands.
In terms of how they’re feeling, [senior administration official], I think you’d probably be better placed to speak to that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. Hey, ditto to everything [senior administration official] just said.
In terms of what they’re feeling, as [senior administration official] said, they seem stable, but obviously, they’re happy, they’re overjoyed to be heading home, back to their loved ones and to have had the opportunity to speak to their families. And they’re with SPEHA Carstens, and all of us are overjoyed to have the opportunity to get them back to the United States.
Beyond that, I don’t want to get out ahead of the families, and I want to leave it to them to tell their stories, but we’ll have more to say in coming days. But for now, this is a joyous day, and I look forward to the families being able to tell their story, being reunified with their loved ones, our freed Americans. Thank you.
Q Hi there. Thanks for doing this. I just want to follow up on something that was said a little bit ago. One of the officials said in the course of the conversation that led to this, “We explored with the Venezuelans various options.” I just want to understand if that exploration was made on the topic of releasing the hostages, or did your conversation with the Venezuelans during this process have expanded on to the bilateral relationship between the two countries. If that’s the case, have you actually made any progress?
And I just want to take this opportunity to ask about Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner. We haven’t heard recently on what’s the latest in their case. If you can give us an update, that would be great. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for both questions. I may not have much on either, though I’ll try and I’ll see if [senior administration official] wants to add anything, especially on the first.
Look, I think we’ll probably leave our conversations with the Venezuelans between us and the Venezuelans. We obviously were very relieved to be able to reach this arrangement and to bring home the Americans, and that took a lot of discussions and negotiations, but I’ll probably leave the details of those to those having them.
With respect to Whelan and Griner, on a day like today, other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, as I mentioned, remains very, very much on our mind. And what is a happy day for some American families as they greet their loved ones coming home is, I suspect, a particularly hard day for others who are waiting for that day for themselves. And we will keep working until we bring Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner and other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home, but I’m not sure I have particular updates on those cases at the moment.
[Senior administration official], anything you want to add on the first one?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Look, let me just contextualize this action in the context of just our policy toward Venezuela. It has not changed. We continue to believe that a Venezuelan-led dialogue that leads to the restoration of free and fair elections in the country is our priority and are prepared to calibrate our overall sanctions policy accordingly.
But what this shows and demonstrates is that, you know, diplomatically we’re able to advocate for the release of Americans, which is the President’s top priority, at the same time that we’re advancing our interests.
But I think the focus today really is on the families and on the detained Americans and really not on our overall approach to Venezuela.
Q Hi. Thank you so much. I have two questions for [senior administration official]. The first one: Do you see this action as a step in the right direction by Nicolás Maduro? And is this a step for the government of Maduro to return to the negotiations with Mexico?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, I think that, you know, obviously our top priority is the safety of American citizens and bringing them home. And as I mentioned, we remain committed to supporting a Venezuelan-led dialogue. We remain in very close contact with the Unity platform to support a return to negotiations, and we will continue to do that.
Q Good afternoon, everybody. We just want to confirm if that negotiation involved any other country, like their neighbor, Colombia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These were direct discussions between the United States and Venezuela.
Q Hi, everyone. Thanks for doing this. Two questions. First, was the President personally involved in speaking with Maduro? Or what was the highest level of negotiations over the swap? That’s one.
And two, [senior administration official], I know you mentioned that all of the wrongfully detained Americans have been freed at this point. That’s an official designation, obviously. But we do understand that additional Americans are there. So do you acknowledge that, even if they haven’t been officially designated as wrongfully detained? And if so, do you want to make a note of that? Because I know you’re putting an emphasis on the fact that all of the wrongful detainees have been freed.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Michael. I think I’ll probably stay away from the first one a bit and leave the negotiation in the details and who conducted them to the folks who conducted them. But, of course, we’re happy for the outcome.
Look, we do acknowledge, of course, that there are Americans — other Americans detained in Venezuela; there are Americans detained in many, perhaps most, countries around the world. And, of course, it is a small subset of those who are deemed by the State Department under the 11 factors laid out in the federal law known as the Levinson Act to be wrongfully detained.
At the same time, that is itself evolving, and there are cases that are new and get considered; there are cases that are old and get reevaluated based on new information. So, all of these things we always know to be evolving.
I think, for today, we take tremendous satisfaction in knowing that we are bringing home all those who have been deemed wrongfully detained in Venezuela. It also served as a moment, as I indicated before, just to emphasize how important it is to avoid the next set of cases from even happening, whether in Venezuela or elsewhere.
That is why this administration has worked so hard to make even clearer to Americans through the “D” for wrongful detention indicator countries to which they should not travel given the risk of this. It’s why the President issued an executive order to punish this sort of behavior and thus to deter it. And it’s why Secretary Blinken, from very early in his tenure at the State Department, has worked very hard with Roger Carstens and Steve and others to put the full weight of the United States behind that Canadian-led international push to establish a norm against arbitrary detentions.
All of that, as well as other steps that we take, are intended to build on the successes of getting Americans like these seven home by preventing, deterring the next potential set of such cases from arising in the future.
Q Thank you so much for doing this and for this opportunity. My two questions are: This administration has warned that Maduro kidnaps Americans even, in a deceitful way, in Colombia to have them as a bargaining chip. Does this not give Maduro the message that he can continue doing it because the United States is going to give in to its demands?
And another thing: What message does this send to the criminal or financial accomplices of the Maduro regime that they can commit their atrocities or their acts of corruption, and Maduro is going to be able to free them in an operation similar to this?
The question that many ask is if Alex Saab, for example, will be the next to be released. Alex Saab could be released? Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for the questions. And I’ll take a stab at them. [Senior administration official] may want to add to them as well.
Look, if anyone takes away from something like this that this type of decision by a President is anything but a painful and exceedingly rare choice, then they are drawing the wrong inference. This is news, and you all are joining us to talk about it, precisely because it is so extraordinarily rare that a choice like this is made, but it is one that this President made to bring home seven Americans who had been away from home, away from their families and friends for far too long. But no one should draw any conclusion that this is anything but rare.
That is, I think, the message both for those abroad as well as for those at home who should heed the warnings about travel and about where they may find themselves at risk of wrongful detention without the U.S. government having recourse or ways to bring them back. And so I would just urge that — for audiences both home and abroad — that this is a challenging thing to negotiate, a painful decision to make, and a very, very rare occurrence.
At the same time, the willingness to do it, I think, shows the extraordinary commitment, a policy commitment, but also a human commitment that the United States has, that this President has to Americans, and to ensure that Americans who are suffering in at times appalling conditions, when held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, are freed from those conditions and are where they should be — with their loved ones, their family, their friends.
[Senior administration official], do you want to add anything to that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just briefly. Look, on Alex Saab, he’s on trial. So I think I would refer you to Department of Justice. I think they’ll have views on that. That’s it.
Q Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I wasn’t sure if this was asked earlier, but wanted to hear if there was any reports of how they’re doing mentally, if they suffered any physical harm while they were in detention. If you could just speak to that, in your meetings with them.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], recognizing that we may not have much to say out of respect for their privacy, do you want to say anything on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I’ll just — I’ll keep it quick for that very purpose.
Hey, thanks for the question, and thanks for your concern for the condition of our freed Americans.
As I said earlier, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Rogers Carstens is with our freed Americans now. Given the situation they’ve been in, obviously we have to be — it’s going to take some time to know — to get a good handle on what they’ve been through. But I think until they get back to their families, we need to let the families and the freed Americans speak for themselves.
I will say, obviously, based on SPEHA Carstens’s initial interaction with our freed Americans, they’re obviously very overjoyed at the prospect of returning to the arms of their loved ones very soon, and we share that joy with them.
But as I said, we have to allow the families and the freed Americans to speak for themselves. And I want to thank you for your interest in their condition, but also the way that you and your colleagues have been tracking their cases and showing your support to the loved ones, to the families of our detained Americans, now freed Americans, throughout these years. It’s incredibly important that their story get out there. And the family will have an opportunity along with their freed loved ones to share more of that story in coming days.
MODERATOR: This concludes our call. Just as a reminder, the entire call was on background, attributable to “senior administration officials.” Thank you all for joining us. Take care.
3:45 P.M. EDT