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Effort to free captives in Venezuela fails

by ANTHONY FAIOLA THE WASHINGTON POST | July 18, 2020 at 3:55 a.m.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson concluded a four-day special mission to Venezuela on Friday, succeeding in opening a direct channel with President Nicolas Maduro but failing in his immediate objective -- the release of eight high-profile prisoners being held in Caracas, including seven Americans.

In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Richardson, an elder statesmen from the Democratic Party and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said his initial optimism about securing the rapid release of at least some of the prisoners had turned to disappointment after catching Maduro "on a bad day."

"I think I caught him on a bad day, when he was airing a lot of grievances," said Richardson, who has met with Maduro several times in the past. "I was optimistic in the beginning. We had an hour-and-half meeting with Maduro ... it was very cordial, very friendly, but he wouldn't budge."

Though officially a private humanitarian mission, the trip was "coordinated" with the U.S. government, Richardson said in a statement.

Richardson said the mission had been worked out with help from the Trump administration's special representative to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, and Roger Carstens, the special envoy on hostage affairs. He said he carried no direct message from the U.S. government, but had offered to help facilitate further humanitarian aid for Venezuela.

"I do think they lost an opportunity to make things better on the humanitarian front," Richardson said. "I think it's a slight open door with a disappointing result that I thought was attainable. We'll persist, but we'll let some time go by first."

Richardson arrived in Venezuela on Monday, tweeting his intention to intervene with Maduro. Richardson, a five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his "informal diplomacy" on behalf of international prisoners and hostages, said he engaged the Venezuelans at the request of family members of a group of prisoners being held by Maduro's government.

They include a half-dozen oil executives" -- five of them dual U.S. and Venezuelan citizens -- who were detained in Venezuela on corruption charges in 2017. Richardson also sought the release of Luke Denman and Airon Berry, two former American Green Berets arrested in May during a haphazard raid aimed at ousting Maduro.

Richardson took a phone call with Maduro on Tuesday, ahead of his face-to-face meeting Thursday with the leader. He said Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez and Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores, were all present at the talks.

Richardson declined to discuss Maduro's list of "grievances" during the talks. However, a day before his face-to-face meeting, a U.S. Navy vessel -- the destroyer USS Pinckney -- conducted operations off the Venezuelan coast and in waters claimed by Maduro's government.

Richardson said he had noted to Maduro that progress was being made in a previously reached aid deal between the socialist government and opposition leader Juan Guaido. The effort, including the distribution of medical aid to help ease a worsening coronavirus outbreak in the struggling South American nation, still requires working out logistical details, but will be paid for with Venezuelan government funds to be unfrozen by the United States and Europe.

He said he offered to spearhead further aid, as long as Guaido remained involved. "They were OK with that," Richardson said.

But in the end, it wasn't enough.

In a statement Friday, Abrams reiterated U.S. calls for the release of the oil executives. The former employees of Houston's Citgo Petroleum, an oil refiner previously controlled by the Maduro government, were arrested during a business trip to Caracas in November 2017 and have since been charged with money laundering, embezzlement, racketeering and participating in organized crime. The men deny all charges against them.

In February, the men were moved from house arrest to the Helicoide, the notorious Caracas prison run by Maduro's feared intelligence police.

A quick release for Denman and Berry -- given their involvement in a recent military mission against Maduro -- has always been seen as a long shot.

Family members and Maduro's government called Richardson's outreach a "positive" step. In an interview with The Washington Post in January, Maduro called for direct talks with the United States.

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