Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference on December 4, 2023. AFP

The United States and Venezuela reached a deal Wednesday to swap 10 American prisoners for an ally of President Nicolas Maduro, as Washington eases pressure on the leftist Caracas government while it pushes for progress on democracy.

President Joe Biden made the "extremely difficult decision" to free Alex Saab, the onetime confidant of the Venezuelan socialist leader who is accused by the United States of money laundering, US officials said.

Caracas is in return releasing 10 American citizens and 20 Venezuelan political prisoners -- and returning a fugitive dubbed "Fat Leonard" who was involved in the US Navy's worst ever corruption scandal.

"Today, ten Americans who have been detained in Venezuela have been released and are coming home," Biden said in a statement, adding that he was "glad their ordeal is finally over."

Biden's statement, which did not mention the release of Saab, said that the United States was "ensuring that the Venezuelan regime meets its commitments."

The White House named four of the freed Americans as Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Savoi Wright.

The prisoner swap comes after the United States agreed in October to ease oil and gas sanctions against Maduro's government after it struck a deal with the opposition to hold an election.

The deal to free Saab and the US prisoners was "essentially an exchange of 10 Americans and a fugitive from justice for one person returned to Venezuela," a senior US official said.

"The president had to make the extremely difficult decision to offer something that the Venezuelan counterparts actively sought and he made the decision to grant clemency to Alex Saab," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Saab, a Colombian national whom Maduro gave Venezuelan nationality and an ambassadorial title, was arrested in June 2020 on a stopover in Cape Verde and extradited to the United States four months later.

Saab and his business partner Alvaro Pulido are charged in the United States with running a network that exploited food aid destined for Venezuela, where millions have fled a destitute economy despite oil wealth.

The pair are alleged to have moved $350 million out of Venezuela into accounts they controlled in the United States and elsewhere.

Maduro reacted furiously to Saab's extradition, suspending talks with the US-backed opposition on ending the country's political and economic crisis.

Meanwhile Leonard Francis, the fugitive arrested and returned by Venezuela, was a military contractor known as "Fat Leonard" who escaped house arrest in California in September 2022.

Francis, a Malaysian national, pleaded guilty in 2015 to offering some $500,000 in bribes to Navy officers to steer official work to his shipyards, carrying out work on US vessels that prosecutors say he overcharged the Navy for to the tune of $35 million.

A prisoner exchange has long been in discussions between the rival governments as the United States switches strategy to engaging Maduro.

The United States, under Donald Trump, in 2019 declared Maduro to be illegitimate following wide allegations of election irregularities and launched a campaign through sanctions and pressure to remove him.

But Maduro withstood the pressure, holding on through support from a loyal political support base and the military as well as from Cuba, Russia and China.

Over the past year new left-leaning governments in Latin America, especially in Colombia, have also broken from the tough approach on Maduro once advocated by Washington.

The US dealings with Venezuela come despite separate concern over Maduro's escalation of a long-simmering territorial dispute with Guyana over the oil-rich Essequibo region, although tensions eased last week.

The United States frequently is willing to trade high-profile prisoners for detained Americans, whose cases generate public sympathy.

Biden said he remained "deeply focused" on securing the release of US citizens including hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, and reporter Evan Gershkovich and former Marine Paul Whelan, held by Moscow on espionage charges.