MIAMI (AP) – A senior U.S. diplomat traveled quietly to Venezuela this week and met with imprisoned Americans to seek the release of the men the Biden administration believes are being held as bargaining chips by a leading U.S. adversary.
Roger Carstens, the President’s special envoy on hostage-taking and the government’s chief negotiator on hostage-taking, arrived in Caracas on a charter flight Tuesday evening and returned home on Friday for an unreported visit.
It was the first known personal contact by a senior US official since the Trump administration shut down the American embassy in Caracas in March 2019 after recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Since then, relations between the two countries have grown increasingly hostile, with the US government imposing severe oil sanctions on the country and targeting high-ranking officials with criminal charges in what President Nicolás Maduro has compared to a “soft coup”.
The timing of the visit is likely to raise eyebrows as the gubernatorial elections are viewed as deeply undemocratic by the Biden government after numerous opposition candidates were banned from running.
“For fear of the vote and the votes of the Venezuelans, the regime grossly distorted the process of determining the election results long before ballots were even cast,” said the Foreign Ministry after the vote on November 21.
The Maduro government, which in the past has not hesitated to publish peacemaking missions by prominent American interlocutors, has remained silent about the surprise visit. Carstens’ office declined to comment.
But four people familiar with the visit said Carstens was allowed to visit a group of six American oil managers held in Caracas’ infamous El Helicoide prison, a former modernist mall that has been converted into a facility for the government’s top opponents.
One person described Carstens’ jailhouse meeting with the six executives from Citgo in Houston, which lasted about 90 minutes, as highly emotional. Carstens told prisoners he discussed their case with Maduro government officials in Caracas but declined to tell whom.
People spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about Carstens’ travels.
Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas and José Pereira were dragged away by masked security officers who stormed into a conference room in Caracas in 2017. The men had been lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving this year to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent company, state oil giant PDVSA.
The six were convicted of embezzlement last year in a delays and irregular process. They were sentenced to 8 to 13 years in prison for coming up with a never-executed proposal to refinance the oil company’s billions in bonds. Maduro then accused her of “treason”. They all pleaded not guilty and the US regards them as wrongly imprisoned.
After being granted house arrest, they were quickly thrown back in prison on October 16, 2021, the same day a close ally of Maduro was extradited to the United States by the African nation of Cape Verde to face money laundering allegations.
At least three other Americans remain detained in Caracas: Luke Denman and Airan Berry – two former Green Berets arrested in connection with a failed raid aimed at overthrowing Maduro staged out of Colombia – and the former US -Marine Matthew Heath who is being held on another site allegations.
The visit came just weeks after family members of Citgo 6 and about two dozen other relatives of hostages and inmates complained in a letter to the Biden government that they believed that their relatives’ releases were not being sufficiently prioritized.
John Pereira, the son of Jose Pereira, who was admitted to a private clinic for emergency heart disease treatment weeks ago, told the AP at the time that “we feel like they can do more”.
The Trump administration has achieved several high profile publications around the world over the course of four years, which gives officials ample scope for negotiations to continue.
President Joe Biden was less public on the matter than his predecessor, who invited hostages and inmates released under his supervision to appear alongside him in a video that aired during the Republican National Convention. This includes Joshua Holt, a Utah man who spent two years in a Caracas prison after traveling to Venezuela to marry a Mormon he met online.
Although no Americans have been released during his current visit, any future layoffs would represent a significant gain for Carstens, a retired US Army Special Forces officer who was a rare holdover from the Trump administration. Last month, journalist Danny Fenster was released after nearly six months in prison in military-ruled Myanmar.
His release was negotiated by former US diplomat Bill Richardson, who had also traveled to Caracas in the past to press for the release of the Americans.
At least 61 Americans are wrongly arrested or held hostage overseas, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named after a freelance journalist who was killed at the hands of the IS group in Syria.
AP writers, Regina Garcia Cano, of Caracas, Venezuela, and Matthew Lee, of Liverpool, England, contributed to this report. Tucker answered from Washington.