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Veneuela frees 10 Americans in prisoner swap deal involving fugitive 'Fat Leonard'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Ten Americans are returning home to the U.S. after being detained in Venezuela. It was part of a larger deal reached between the White House and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro - a deal that also involves a return of the man behind a notorious corruption scandal in the U.S. Navy, a man known by his nickname - Fat Leonard. NPR's White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram joins us now with more on this story. So how did this all come together, given that the U.S. and Venezuela don't exactly have diplomatic ties?

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Yeah, you're right, A. These deals actually took months and months to put together. And Qatar actually helped broker the deal. And it all came about because the U.S. and other countries have been looking ahead to next year. It's an election year for Venezuela. And the last time there was elections, the U.S. and many other countries didn't recognize the results. And this time around, they're trying to get Maduro to hold free and fair elections. In October, Maduro agreed to something called the Barbados Agreements, or the Barbados Accords, in which he outlined a roadmap of sorts for how the elections could be free, things like making sure opposition candidates didn't have barriers to run against him. And Maduro also agreed to free political prisoners and wrongfully detained Americans.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's in it for Maduro?

SHIVARAM: Right. So a pretty big thing, actually - the U.S. agreed to temporarily lift sanctions on Venezuelan oil, which is a huge deal for Venezuela's economy. So now they can sell their oil at a market price. The problem, though, is that the deadline Maduro was supposed to reach in some of the Barbados Agreements was November 30. And of course, this prisoner exchange happened yesterday, so that deadline was clearly ignored. President Biden was asked last night why it was OK for the U.S. to be negotiating with the Maduro regime at all, and here's what he said after getting off of his helicopter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's OK because we've freed American people who were held illegally. And we made a deal with Venezuela - with the whole free election so far, they maintain their requirements.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So who are the people coming back to the U.S.?

SHIVARAM: So of the 10 Americans who were released, White House officials say six of them had been wrongfully detained. More than 20 Venezuelan political prisoners were also freed as part of the deal, and one additional person was a fugitive. Leonard Francis, a man who's more commonly known as Fat Leonard, was a defense contractor who was arrested in 2013 for this huge bribery scheme. It involved scores of U.S. Navy officials who he was bribing with money and gifts, like Cuban cigars and Spanish suckling pigs. He pled guilty, but when he was on house arrest, he cut off his ankle bracelet and fled to Venezuela. So in addition to the 10 Americans released, he was extradited too. And there's one more thing Maduro got in this deal - Biden granted clemency to an ally of his, a man named Alex Saab, who was arrested after being accused of money laundering.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thanks a lot.

SHIVARAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.