CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A U.S. filmmaker jailed for alleged espionage in Venezuela was expelled from the country and returned to the United States on Wednesday in a gesture that could signal a thaw in tense relations between the two countries.
The release of Timothy Tracy, 35, 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 expulsion came just as Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Guatemala to discuss relations between the two countries, which have been without ambassadors 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, suggesting 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.
The trip was part of efforts by the so-called "Grupo de Boston" in 2002-2003 to salve internal tensions in the socialist-run South American country after a failed coup against Chavez.
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 that the case against Tracy on charges including conspiracy and criminal association 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 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 April 14 elections.
The Obama administration has backed opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' call for a full recount.
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 Tracy would be arriving in California, where he has lived for a decade, on Wednesday afternoon. He later said Tracy had stopped in Florida.
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda in Caracas and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak