U.S. Diplomat Meets With Citgo 6 in Venezuela in Effort to Secure Their Release

U.S. Diplomat Roger Carstens went to Venezuela and met with six Citgo executives to try to secure their release.

Carstens, who is the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and the government's top hostage negotiator, took a chartered flight Tuesday to Caracas and returned Friday.

Four people who knew of the visit said Carstens was able to visit the six executives, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas, and José Pereira, who are held at El Helicoide prison, an infamous Caracas prison that was once a shopping mall. It was changed to hold the government's top opponents, according to The Associated Press.

The six executives for the oil company were stormed in 2017 by masked security agents while in a Caracas conference room for a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo's parent company, state-run PDVSA.

The meeting with Carstens, which was around 90 minutes long, was described as highly emotional by one person. Carstens told the executives that he had a discussion with President Nicolás Maduro's government officials regarding the case but didn't identify them.

Those who spoke about Carstens' visit did so in exchange for anonymity due to lack of authorization to speak about it.

The visit was unreported and is the first known physical outreach from the U.S. with Venezuela after the Trump administration closed the American Embassy in Caracas in March 2019 when they recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's official leader.

Relations between the two countries have since slowly deteriorated. The U.S. implemented strict oil sanctions on Venezuela and targeted top officials by giving them criminal charges, an action that Maduro said was akin to a "soft coup."

Roger Carstens, Visit, Venezuela, Citgo Executives
U.S. Diplomat Roger Carstens' meeting with six Citgo executives at the infamous El Helicoide prison in Caracas, which was around 90 minutes long, was described as highly emotional by one person. In this photo, there is a general view of El Helicoide, the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), in Caracas, taken on Nov. 27, 2021. Frederico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

The timing of the visit is likely to raise eyebrows, coming on the heels of gubernatorial elections considered deeply undemocratic by the Biden administration after numerous opposition candidates were barred from running.

"Fearful of the voice and vote of Venezuelans, the regime grossly skewed the process to determine the result of this election long before any ballots had been cast," the State Department said after the Nov. 21 vote.

The Maduro government, which in the past hasn't hesitated to publicize peacemaking missions by prominent American interlocutors, has kept mum about the surprise visit. Carstens' office declined to comment.

The six executives were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between 8 and 13 years in prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance billions of dollars in the oil company's bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of "treason." They all pleaded not guilty and the U.S. considers them to be wrongfully detained.

After having been granted house arrest, they were swiftly thrown back in jail Oct. 16, 2021, the same day that a close ally of Maduro was extradited by the African nation of Cape Verde to the U.S. to face money laundering charges.

At least three other Americans remain imprisoned in Caracas: Luke Denman and Airan Berry — two former Green Berets arrested in connection with a failed raid aimed at toppling Maduro that was staged from Colombia — and former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who is being held on unrelated allegations.

The visit came just weeks after family members of the Citgo 6, and about two dozen other relatives of hostages and detainees, complained in a letter to the Biden administration that they felt the releases of their loved ones weren't being sufficiently prioritized.

John Pereira, the son of Jose Pereira, who weeks ago was rushed to a private clinic for emergency treatment of a cardiac condition, told the AP at the time that "our feeling is that they can do more."

The Trump administration scored several high-profile releases around the world over four years, giving officials great leeway to pursue negotiations.

President Joe Biden has been less public on the issue than his predecessor, who invited hostages and detainees freed under his watch to appear alongside him in a video aired during the Republican National Convention. That includes Joshua Holt, a Utah man who spent two years in a Caracas jail after traveling to Venezuela to marry a fellow Mormon he met online.

Though no Americans were freed during his current visit, any future releases would represent a significant win for Carstens, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer who was a rare holdover from the Trump administration. Last month, journalist Danny Fenster was freed after nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar.

His release was negotiated by former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who has also traveled to Caracas in the past to push for the Americans' release.

At least 61 Americans are wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named for a freelance journalist killed at the hands of the Islamic State group in Syria.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Roger Carstens, Visit, Venezuela, Citgo Executives
U.S. Diplomat Roger Carstens' visit was unreported and is the known first physical outreach from the U.S. with Venezuela after the Trump administration closed the American Embassy in Caracas in March 2019 when they recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s official leader. In this photo, a mural depicting late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez adorns a wall at his home town Sabaneta, in Barinas state in Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo