MIAMI — The United States freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the extradition of a fugitive defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.
The deal represents the U.S. government's boldest bid to improve relations with the major oil-producing nation and extract concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader. The largest release of American prisoners in Venezuela's history comes weeks after the Biden administration agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro and an opposition faction to work toward free and fair conditions for the 2024 presidential election.
The release of Alex Saab, a Maduro associate who was arrested on a U.S. warrant for money laundering in 2020 and long was regarded as a criminal trophy by Washington, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. U.S. officials said the decision to grant him clemency was difficult but essential in order to bring home jailed Americans, a core administrative objective that in recent years has resulted in the release of criminals who once once been seen as untradeable.
The deal also guarantees the release of 10 Americans who had been held in Venezuela, including six who have been designated by the U.S. government as…