By Kevin Gray and Daniel Wallis
MIAMI/CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela on Wednesday deported an American filmmaker who was arrested in April on accusations of spying for Washington and plotting with opposition student groups to destabilize the South American OPEC nation.
"The gringo Timothy Hallet Tracy, who was captured while spying in our country, has been expelled," Interior and Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said on Twitter.
The American's lawyer, Daniel Rosales, said the charges against his client had been dropped, and the 35-year-old returned to the United States on a commercial flight to Miami.
"It was a traumatic experience. He's going to need some time," his sister, Tiffany Klaasen, told Reuters, saying he was still trying to come to grips with his imprisonment.
"We're just really happy that my brother is back and safe," she said by phone from her home in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.
The outcome of the case was seen as a test of new Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's intentions toward Washington following years of hostility from his predecessor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
During a trip to Latin America in May, President Barack Obama called the accusations against Tracy "ridiculous."
Tracy's release came hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Guatemala in a rare high-level meeting between the ideologically opposed governments.
Tracy's sister said a former U.S. congressman from Massachusetts, William Delahunt, who has worked to foster better relations between the two countries, helped win his release.
Delahunt was part of a small U.S. delegation at Chavez's funeral in March. He has been advising Tracy's family since his arrest.
KERRY WELCOMES RELEASE
Friends and relatives of Tracy, who was a director and producer at Los Angeles-based Freehold Productions, according to his LinkedIn profile, said he was making a documentary in Venezuela ahead of its April 14 presidential election.
He was arrested 10 days after the vote as he tried to fly out of the country - amid a flurry of headline-grabbing accusations by the government that included claims of assassination plots against Maduro from U.S. soil.
Venezuela said intelligence agents had been tracking Tracy since late 2012 and had uncovered ample evidence he was plotting with militant anti-government groups to provoke "civil war."
Klaasen said her brother was treated well while he was in jail. "We were in touch with him every day," she said. "We never had any concerns about his safety."
Several dozen Venezuelan filmmakers had appealed for Tracy's release. According to his LinkedIn profile, Tracy attended Georgetown University and his work included the "Madhouse" TV series about stock car racing for the History Channel.
Obama's comments on Tracy's arrest infuriated Venezuela's government and revived accusations of "imperialist meddling" that became routine during Chavez's polarizing 14-year rule.
Maduro rebuffed Obama, describing his U.S. counterpart as "the grand chief of devils" and issuing a formal protest note.
Maduro, who narrowly won April's vote amid allegations of foul play by both sides, has at times also seemed to strike a more conciliatory note.
On Wednesday, Kerry called Venezuela's decision to release Tracy a "positive development" after meeting with Jaua. He said he hoped the two countries could move quickly to reinstate mutual ambassadors, which they have been without since 2010.
"We agreed today, both of us, that we would like to see our countries find a new way forward, establish a more constructive and positive relationship," Kerry said.
Washington has held back recognition of Maduro, and a U.S. official said this week that there remained concerns about how deep post-election divisions in Venezuela would be resolved.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Marianna Parraga in Caracas, Lesley Wroughton in Antigua, Guatemala; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Sandra Maler)