CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A U.S. filmmaker jailed for alleged espionage in Venezuela was expelled from the country and returned to the United States in a gesture that could signal a thaw in tense relations between the two countries.
The release of Timothy Tracy, 35, occurred just hours before the top diplomats of both countries agreed during a meeting in Guatemala to discuss restoring ambassador-level relations.
It was secured with the help of former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who has long worked to improve often strained U.S.-Venezuelan ties and was hired by Tracy's family as an attorney in the case.
"He's been informally advising us since pretty much the onset and we retained him last week," Tracy's sister, Tiffany Klaasen, said of Delahunt, a member of the U.S. delegation at the March funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Both she and Delahunt also credited the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. government and friends had ridiculed the idea that Tracy was spying in Venezuela. His family said he had been making a documentary about the human costs of Venezuela's deeply polarized society.
Following the early morning expulsion, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Guatemala and agreed, said Kerry, to "begin to change the dialogue between our countries and hopefully quickly move" to appoint ambassadors, which they have lacked in each other's capitals since 2010.
Delahunt acknowledged the coincidence of Tracy's release but said "no conditions" were set by Kerry for the meeting with Jaua.
He said he had intervened on Tracy's behalf with officials in Venezuela, who he said did not include President Nicolas Maduro, but "I want to keep those discussions private."
"On both sides there is a desire to have an improvement in the relationship based upon respect, and that's what's important," Delahunt said.
He suggested it might help that Kerry, then a Massachusetts senator, met Maduro a decade ago when Delahunt took a delegation of Venezuelans including Maduro on a trip to his district in Cape Cod, Massachussetts.
The trip was part of efforts by the "Grupo de Boston" in 2002-2003 to salve internal tensions in the socialist-run South American country after a failed coup against Chavez that was initially recognized by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Tracy's expulsion was initially tweeted by Venezuela's interior minister, Miguel Rodriguez, who described Tracy as having been "captured doing espionage in our country." He had previously accused Tracy of funding opposition student groups.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega said in a statement Wednesday that she had asked for the case against Tracy on charges including conspiracy and criminal association to be shelved, even though "there were elements that could incriminate him."
Family and friends say the Hollywood producer and small-time actor had been in the country since October making a documentary about Venezuelan politics when he was arrested on April 24 at Caracas' airport as he tried to leave the country to attend his father's 80th birthday in suburban Detroit.
U.S. President Barack Obama had deemed "ridiculous" allegations by Venezuela that he was a spy. Friends said Tracy hardly spoke Spanish and had been very open about his work as he met with Venezuelans on both sides of the country's deep political divide.
Tracy's previous production work had included script consulting on "American Harmony," a documentary about barbershop quartets, and a History channel reality TV show about stock car racing called "Madhouse."
Friends said the Venezuela documentary was Tracy's first big foray into international affairs although he did produce last year a show about smuggling on the northern U.S. border.
"He literally has no political agenda. He is very sympathetic to all sides," his friend Aengus James, director of "American Harmony," said after Tracy's arrest.
Tracy's co-producer on the Venezuelan documentary, Ricardo Korda, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the two met in 2001 while students at Georgetown University and that the film's working title is "Connecting the Dots."
U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been especially tense in recent months. Maduro expelled two U.S. military attaches in March on the same day Chavez died, accusing them of trying to foment instability, and Tracy's arrest came amid domestic political turmoil over the opposition candidate's claim that Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor, stole the April 14 special presidential election. The state electoral council said Maduro won by a 1.5 percent margin.
The Obama administration has backed opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' call for a full recount. The Maduro government has not complied, however.
Klaasen said the family spoke frequently to Tracy while he was held.
"He was treated very well," she said. "I was never concerned for his safety."
Klaasen said that even after Tracy was transferred last week to a notoriously unruly prison, El Rodeo, the family was assured he was in no danger.
She said she understood from Tracy's lawyer in Caracas that he was isolated in El Rodeo in a cellblock for foreigners.
James said in an email late Wednesday night that Tracy had arrived, safe but exhausted, in Florida, where he planned to stay for a few days.
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Mattew Lee in Antigua, Guatemala, contributed to this report.
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