Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures next to First Lady Cilia Flores whose two nephews were released in a prisoner swap with the United States, in a handout photo from the Venezuelan Presidency
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures next to First Lady Cilia Flores whose two nephews were released in a prisoner swap with the United States, in a handout photo from the Venezuelan Presidency

President Joe Biden took the "painful decision" of greenlighting a prisoner swap Saturday with Caracas that freed seven Americans for two Venezuelans who are nephews of that country's first lady, a US official said.

The two governments, which have endured strained relations for years, announced the exchange in nearly simultaneous twin statements.

"Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan," Biden said in a White House statement.

Caracas, in confirming the swap, noted the extended diplomatic negotiations between the two rival nations.

"As a result of various conversations held since March 5 with representatives of the government of the United States, the release of two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned in that country has been achieved," the Venezuelan government said in a communique.

Caracas did not name the Venezuelans, but a senior US administration official identified them as Francisco Flores de Freitas and his cousin Efrain Antonio Campos Flores, both nephews of President Nicolas Maduro's wife.

The cousins had been arrested in Haiti, then taken to New York where they were convicted of drug charges and sentenced in 2017 to 18 years in prison.

It became clear in negotiations that the release of the two Venezuelans, "sometimes referred to as the 'narco nephews' due to their relationship with Nicolas Maduro's wife, was essential to securing the release of these Americans," a senior US administration official told reporters.

"The president made a tough decision, a painful decision, to offer something the Venezuelans have actively sought" in the months-long swap negotiations, the official added.

Five of the seven freed Americans were executives of the Citgo oil corporation, detained in 2017 while on a business trip to the South American country and accused of corruption.

Citgo is the US subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA.

The Citgo employees -- former company president Pereira, along with Vadell, Toledo, and the Zambranos -- each had been sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.

The other two Americans freed -- Heath and Khan -- were arrested separately.

"All seven of these Americans are in stable health," and Biden has spoken with each of them, the administration official said.

Biden for his part vowed his "unflinching commitment to keep faith with Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained all around the world."

The United States had long contended that its seven nationals were held on spurious charges. State Department spokesman Ned Price referred to them a year ago as "political pawns."

The two countries have had strained relations for years. The United States is one of some 60 countries that refused to recognize Maduro as the legally elected president after a widely disputed 2018 election.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- and the pressure it placed on global energy supplies -- brought behind-the-scenes efforts to engineer at least a minimal warming with Venezuela, a major oil producer.

A high-level US delegation traveled to Caracas in March to meet with Maduro in talks some analysts saw as a possible turning point, and which Maduro described as "respectful, cordial and diplomatic."

Following that encounter, Caracas freed two other Citgo employees.

On Saturday, the senior administration official said "the safe return of the seven Americans is the outcome of tough negotiations. We've been raising their cases with Venezuelans for months now."

US President Joe Biden made the 'tough' call to free two convicted drug traffickers, both nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife, as part of a swap for seven Americans held in Venezuela
US President Joe Biden made the 'tough' call to free two convicted drug traffickers, both nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife, as part of a swap for seven Americans held in Venezuela