The case for keeping the two executives held in Venezuela

As U.S. diplomats continue to insist that Michael Manly and Guillermo Zuloaga — the two oil executives that the Venezuelan government picked up by the thousands last year on the charge of conspiring to overthrow Nicolas Maduro — be tried in Venezuela, it’s worth asking why Washington remains so unwilling to let go of these men.

There is plenty of evidence in favor of their innocence. The two oil executives, arrested at Caracas’s airport in December 2016, are accused of plotting to create a new Venezuelan government, or so the Venezuelan government insisted they were. As originally charged, the men were allegedly plotting to overturn the national election of December 6 of the previous year, held by a Machiavellian Maduro. (The two-month-long election was widely criticized as a sham, with officials claiming in advance that the vote would not count for much.) That poll, however, saw Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, enjoy a strong show of support, receiving 87 percent of the vote, with 8 million votes in his favor, and 4 million votes in support of Maduro. Indeed, as Vox has pointed out, it’s difficult to even remember a time when the national government was trusted even with an 80 percent approval rating.

However, while protesters around the country were determined to see Maduro overthrown — and indeed, they tried on numerous occasions to do so before Maduro was unceremoniously shoved out of the country in April — they never hoped for him to end up in prison. Indeed, as James Coyle and Alex, Gertler, point out in The New York Times, there has been a strong tendency, in the words of a Honduran official, to describe the fall of Maduro “as the kick of a very heavy boot” on Venezuela’s “back.” The head of the Venezuelan congress even went so far as to say that Maduro had “cracked the bones of our country” before he was executed.

The two executives being held by the Venezuelan government and recently sentenced to sentences ranging from 18 to 55 years on charges that the New York Times has likened to “1984,” may be seen as complicit in what critics see as Venezuela’s descent into tyranny. Yet the arrest of the two executives, in contrast to the constant vigils of support that protesters enjoyed for months last year (where they were often pictured with their hands on their hips in a signature Chavez gesture), also have their doubters.

“The police are especially targeting those trying to spark change, including Alex, Guillermo, companies like Exxon and Bill, who is still awaiting bail and facing charges on similar charges,” he said. “Those arrested have never been political leaders in Venezuela. They are businessmen.” Guillermo and Alex’s arrests have not only drawn international headlines — and criticism from the likes of actor Robert De Niro — they have also found a receptive audience in Washington. Once part of a diplomatic panel called “The Venezuela Dictatorship Solution” which was scheduled to meet with the Trump administration, Guillermo was refused bail in August. After spending an unspecified amount of time at Guantanamo Bay, he was flown to his home country in September, while Alex was released in December after spending nearly three months at the John F. Kennedy federal penitentiary in Florida. As for the company that allegedly allowed them to have their hands on smartphones while in prison, Exxon has so far dismissed Venezuela’s charge that the men attempted to gain access to confidential information, stating that its relationship with the country has been “thoroughly vetted” and that any recordings of its private discussions regarding oil contracts “were not made with the company’s knowledge or at its request.” Meanwhile, the office of the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela has claimed that no Venezuelan officials have come forward to formally defend their alleged dealings with the two executives, though it notes that the men have responded to such claims in their complaints, which have included references to a “stream of rumors” about their whereabouts. They are, thus, not facing trial in Venezuela, the office has insisted.

How long then can the administration of Donald Trump continue to support the Maduro regime’s arresting of these two men, unless it doesn’t want to undermine Maduro’s regime in advance of Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election, the first since the twin election victories of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro?

Read the full story at The New York Times.


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