Tue, May

Why Aren’t U.S. Citizens Detained Abroad A Priority For The White House?


GUEST COMMENTARY - News last month of a deal between the Biden administration and Venezuelan government, left family members of detained U.S. citizens scratching their heads and asking themselves why their loved ones are not a priority for the White House. The breakthrough in negotiations saw the U.S. offering sanctions relief in exchange for democratic assurances and the release of a handful of Venezuelans from prison.

The deal drew criticism from hardliners on the Venezuela issue, like Senator Marco Rubio, who called for the immediate reimposition of sanctions. In response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized Venezuela “is not going to have carte blanche to carry out actions that are in contradiction with the commitments they have assumed to move towards free and fair elections.”

Feeling the pressure, Juan González, the White House’s top Latin America official, recently set a November 30 deadline to see progress from the Maduro government on the issue of elections, specifically about allowing opposition figure Maria Corina Machado to run in next year’s presidential election. González warned that a failure to move forward on this would see the U.S. “snapback” or reimpose sanctions.

These discussions about elections and Venezuelan domestic politics fail to center the one concrete thing that the U.S. could certainly gain from negotiations with Venezuela: the return of detained American citizens.

Moreover, while U.S. officials claim the deal is about opening democratic spaces of democracy building, the underlying motives for it are less idealistic. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and turmoil in the Middle East, the Biden administration is wary that oil prices will skyrocket in the months prior to the U.S. elections. The White House is betting that sanctions relief will settle oil markets enough that Americans won’t feel a pinch at the pump.

On top of that, the Biden administration has been under fire from both the left and the right on the issue of Venezuelan migration. In widely publicized political stunts, the governors of Texas and Florida sent Venezuelan migrants to New York, California, Illinois and other blue states last year, as if to wash their hands of the problem. Congressional Democrats have also urged President Biden to stem the tide of Venezuelan migration by lifting sanctions.

The deal between the U.S. and Venezuela had clear economic and political motives. It was less about “democracy” and more about reading polls that show President Biden in real trouble with his reelection bid. And yet despite the importance of the deal, it may fall apart because the White House failed to build enough political support.

This problem could have been overcome by prioritizing the release of three American men identified by the State Department as being “wrongfully detained.” These men, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Joseph Ryan Cristella, are from California, Texas and Florida, respectively. The Biden administration missed an opportunity to secure their release and thereby gain political support for the deal from key players in powerful states.

It's not as if the Venezuelans are playing hardball regarding these men. In fact, they’ve made it clear that a prisoner swap has been on the table. The Venezuelans want to secure the release of Alex Saab, a diplomat arrested by the Trump administration. His freedom is a policy priority and a grassroots movement in Venezuela has emerged to ensure that remains the case.

Francisco Palmieri, the top U.S. diplomat on Venezuela affairs, admitted that discussions about a swap of Saab for American citizens were held on the sidelines of the negotiations. However, he characterized these talks as a distraction. Ensuring that Eyvin, Jerrel and Joseph can come home should not be a distraction, it should be a priority.

(Enlaili Acevedo a producer and writer with 15 years of experience in the entertainment business.)