HOUSTON – The Venezuelan government on Friday released a group of American refinery executives from prison under house arrest in Caracas, a possible sign that President Nicolás Maduro wants to improve relations with the Biden administration.
The six executives of Citgo Petroleum, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company, based in Houston, have been charged with corruption since 2017, after being ordered to attend a budget meeting in Venezuela. When they arrived, they were arrested.
The group – known as “Citgo 6” – had previously been allowed to return from jail to private homes to be returned to prison.
Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, who tried to negotiate the release of the six – five of whom are naturalized US citizens and the other a US resident – said he saw the transfer as a sign of progress .
“This is a positive and important step that would help ensure their well-being during the Covid-19 epidemic in Venezuela,” Richardson said in a statement.
The men were charged with money laundering and embezzlement involving a $ 4 billion deal with Citgo that never went through. They are generally seen as negotiating pawns as the relationship between the United States and Venezuela has deteriorated in recent years.
When the leaders were last released from prison two years ago, they were quickly returned to prison after then-President Donald J. Trump invited Juan Guaidó, a leader of the opposition, in the White House.
Mr. Guaidó is officially recognized as the president of Venezuela by the United States and other Western countries, but the likelihood that he will ever take control of the government seems low. Mr. Maduro remained in power thanks to a strong grip and help from Cuba, Russia and China.
Citgo operates three major refineries, a large pipeline network and numerous gas stations in the United States. It is currently prohibited to do business with Venezuela under US sanctions.