According to one person involved in the organization of the meeting, the offer was made at a previously reported meeting in Mexico City, September 2020, between Richard Grenell, an ally of former President Donald Trump and a top Maduro aide.
Trump's refusal to accept the offer has given the offer new meaning after Alex Saab was extradited this month from Venezuela. Prosecutors believe that he was the main conduit for Maduro's corruption. Venezuela took six Citgo executives, Houston-based, into custody in a retaliation for their house arrest.
Maduro's government wanted to release the Citgo 6 and two other Green Berets who were involved in a failed cross border raid. This was just over a year ago according to David Rivera, a former Miami Congressman, who claims he organized the meeting.
Grenell refused to reveal the purpose of the September 2020 meeting, but insisted that it was not related to hostage negotiations.
"I have never discussed a swap. He made a short statement that it wasn't something they were interested in or a point for negotiation. "Everyone who was actually negotiating understood the purpose of the meeting."
An individual who was privy to the proposal and who wanted to discuss the private diplomatic efforts, confirmed that Venezuela is interested in negotiating for Saab. The Associated Press also received text messages right after the meeting between Grenell and some of the organizers, in which the AP discussed the next steps to reach an agreement with the American prisoner.
Rivera's account raises new questions about the nature of back-channel diplomacy. It is likely to increase pressure on the Biden government, already under fire for failing to do enough to return Americans wrongly detained abroad, and to make a prisoner deal with Maduro, something it has so far resisted.
There are new details: Grenell was accompanied in Mexico City by Erik Prince (the founder of the controversial security firm Blackwater) whose sister Betsy DeVos was Trump's education secretary.
Rivera claims that Raul Gorrin asked him to participate in the meeting. Gorrin was a Venezuelan businessman who tried to reconcile differences between Maduro and the U.S. before he was indicted on charges of bribing Maduro officials. Rivera, a Republican, was elected to Congress for a single term. He claimed that he was a translator on encrypted conference calls using Wickr, a messaging platform. Gorrin told Prince that Maduro would trade the Americans for Saab.
Rivera stated that both Gorrin in Spanish as well as me in English made it clear to Prince that the purpose was to discuss the possibility of freeing the Americans to exchange for Saab.
Saab was arrested in Cape Verde, en route to Iran, a few months prior and was fighting hard against extradition to America. Maduro's government joined him, considering the Colombian-born businessman a diplomat envoy and keeper state secrets that could compromise Venezuela's security if they were revealed.
Rivera claims that after many back-and-forth conversations, Prince organized for Grenell and him to travel to Mexico City in order to meet Jorge Rodriguez, who is now the president of the progovernment congress and a top aide Maduro. Prince visited Caracas in 2019 to meet Rodriguez's sister, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez. This confirmed his status as an American interlocutors with the Maduro government.
Rivera claimed that he was supposed be there but got behind due to a connection in Houston. Rivera stated that the meeting at The Westin had already been canceled when Rivera arrived in Mexico City. This was due to Grenell's demand that any prisoner swap must be accompanied by an exit plan for Maduro.
It is not clear how serious the Trump administration took Maduro’s offer, if any. Some senior Trump officials were surprised by the trip to Mexico City. They heard about it from reporters, and they worried that it might undermine efforts to subdue Maduro with sanctions and ongoing corruption investigations.
Saab is not being tried for the alleged crimes, unlike prisoner exchanges that the U.S. recently conducted with other hostile countries, such as Cuba and Iran. His arrest was also the result of years of law enforcement efforts that were cheered by foreign policy hawks, influential Venezuelan exiles living in Florida. Saab was an architect of U.S. sanctions and was too valuable to be given up before he was in U.S. custody.
"There was no way that we were going to trade for Saab. Grenell and the other had no authority to offer it," stated Elliott Abrams who was the U.S. special representative in Venezuela under Trump. "The all-of-government interagency effort to detain Saab and make him stand trial was a joint effort. These freelancers were not only representing themselves but also others."
Rodriguez and Prince did not respond to requests for comment. According to a U.S. official, the State Department is not able to comment on reports about deliberations by an earlier administration.
Rivera stated that he was motivated to participate in the prisoner exchange because Gorrin played an important role in securing Leopoldo Lopez's release from jail. Rivera also worked as a consultant for another U.S. subsidiary to PDVSA and knew some of the Citgo executives in jail.
Rivera was supposed to receive $50 million for this work. Maduro's rivals, who now manage Citgo and other PDVSA operations across the U.S., are suing Rivera. They claim Rivera has never done any meaningful work. Rivera was the subject of several past federal and state investigations into improper campaign transactions. Rivera countersued, arguing breach-of-contract.
Families of the nine Americans currently in Caracas are less optimistic about the chances of a deal with the Biden administration, regardless of Trump's close-door dealings to Maduro.
The Biden team is far less likely to release high-profile detainees than Trump, who hosted ex-American captives at his White House residence and whose unconventional foreign policies gave an impetus to hostage negotiations.
"Mr. "Mr. "The people in charge of returning and protecting wrongfully detained Americans have not taken the first step to directly engage with Venezuelans holding our loved ones."
Jose Pereira's family is particularly concerned by the lack of urgency. Jose Pereira was the former president of Citgo and was taken to Caracas to receive emergency treatment for a condition in his heart that has worsened over the past four years.
Citgo executives Pereira and the others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms last year for a never-executed plan that refinanced billions of bonds in the oil company. They are being held in Caracas' notorious Helicoide prison with two ex-Green Berets, Mark Denman and Airan Bery, who were accused of plotting to overthrow Maduro. Matthew Heath, a former U.S Marine, is also being held on weapons charges.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a veteran hostage negotiator, who traveled to Caracas in order to press for the release of American prisoners, stated that the new details from the Mexico City meeting should be a wake-up call.
He said that he had spoken to Maduro and Venezuelans on behalf of American families and believed Maduro was interested in negotiating their release. "I believe the Biden Administration should approach it with an open mind."