The prison swap between Venezuela and the United States has been met with disapproval from certain sectors of Venezuela’s opposition. While the deal led to the release of dozens of political prisoners and put the election agreement back on track, it has also meant that Alex Saab — a key ally of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro — is no longer behind bars. The Colombian businessman-turned-diplomat — who became the Maduro government’s international operator in times of economic sanctions — has been freed, despite facing charges of money laundering and bribery.
After being arrested in Cape Verde in 2020 and spending several months in pre-trial detention in Florida, Saab has returned to Caracas. Such an outcome — which seemed impossible just a few weeks ago — is a win for the Chavismo government. With Saab released, opponents of the ruling party have one less piece of leverage to use against them. Maduro has pulled off a seemingly impossible feat, in what Maryhen Jiménez — a doctor in Political Science and academic at the University of Oxford — describes as a “new display of political power” in his confrontation with the United States.
On social media and WhatsApp groups, there are growing comments about how Maduro’s ability to negotiate in decisive moments is underestimated. The Chavismo government made Saab’s release a prerequisite to any conversation around a path to free and fair elections. In previous agreements, the United States also made other important concessions to Maduro, most notably releasing his relatives who had been charged with corruption, and clearing them of charges. Energy sanctions on Venezuela were also lifted, with some conditions, after the Maduro government and opposition signed the Barbados agreement, a document that paves the way for elections in 2024.
While writer and academic Diego Bautista Urbaneja agrees that many Venezuelans are “indignant” about Saab’s release, due to the seriousness of the charges against him, he argues that the key issue “is that Saab, as a prisoner, had lost all value.” Urbaneja points out that Saab had collaborated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). “Any value he still had was as a bargaining chip. He had already said everything he knew, he was questioned, he must have collaborated and told the U.S. justice system everything. If handing him over would free 30 opposition prisoners, including 12 Americans, perhaps it was worth it.”
Urbaneja does not expect Saab’s release to have a big impact on the internal order in Venezuela. “We have the same problem: achieving political change peacefully, through electoral and probably negotiated means. This hinges on whether María Corina Machado, the winner of the primaries, can participate as a candidate.”
Shortly after the prison swap was announced, Corina Machado issued a statement in which she hinted that she participated in the negotiations. “It is public knowledge that the United States and the Maduro regime have established a negotiation complementary to the Barbados talks. While we are not part of it, we have become involved, to help achieve the goal of free elections and the interests of Venezuelans being fully represented.”
The opposition leader did, however, address the anger over Saab’s release. “The electoral route is complex and faces multiple threats. Those in power use all their resources to demoralize us; that is why they turn a criminal who has exploited the hunger of our people into their favorite bargaining chip,” she said.
Julio Castillo, a columnist, activist and political analyst, says what’s key is ensuring that negotiations don’t reach a stalemate. “The expectations of the United States are one thing, and the expectation of the Venezuelan opposition is another,” he says. “The most important thing is that there is an open flow of communication, that conversations are taking place, that it is a process and negotiations continue.”
“It is too early to draw definitive conclusions about the immediate usefulness of these exchanges,” says Jiménez. “Minimizing the impact of the release of these 30 political prisoners — some sentenced to serious sentences — as some do in the opposition, is a mistake. These leaders are returning to their communities, their influence will be amplified, and their families will receive enormous relief.”
Jiménez says that Corina Machado’s new tone in the current context is particularly interesting, arguing that the prison swap “may be a good thermometer to measure her influence.” He explains: “María Corina has realized that she is no longer the leader of a niche of the radical sectors, but rather is at the head of a complex process for national unity, which must be incremental, but not maximalist. Her behavior is different.”
Corina Machado overwhelmingly won the opposition primaries in October, despite being banned from running for office by the Maduro administration. She appealed the ban to the Supreme Court, and is now waiting for their ruling on whether she can take part in the presidential election. In the meantime, the opposition leader has limited herself to pointing out that once all Maduro’s demands are met — the lifting of sanctions, the release of Saab and the end of the legal cases against some of his relatives — he “would have no excuse” not to face her in free, honest and verifiable presidential elections in 2024.
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