The United States may not have diplomatic relations with the Chavista regime in Venezuela since 2019, but that has not prevented the Biden Administration from recently sending a delegation to Caracas, with the aim of check the health status of several US citizens and one US resident detained there since 2017.
Several sources have confirmed to ABC that the special envoy of the US president for hostage negotiationsRoger Carstens traveled with a small delegation in Caracas, was able to speak with the prisoners and brought news of them to their families. Carstens flew on a charter flight on Tuesday, December 7, and returned to the US by the same route on Friday, December 10, according to official sources.
The relatives of the prisoners who are in the US were not informed in advance of that visit. According to what they tell this newspaper, some of those relatives now wait for the Biden Administration to attend them to explain the steps they are taking to free those prisoners. Carstens visited Citgo oil company executives arrested in 2017, two US mercenaries arrested in 2020 after a failed attempt to overthrow Maduro and a third former soldier.
“Yes, we made a consular visit to United States citizens and residents wrongly imprisoned in Venezuela. The right of consular visits is something that has a millenary history in diplomacy and that was the reason for the visit, “said the Undersecretary of State for Latin America, Brian Nichols, when asked by ABC on a recent conference call.
Other Administration sources told ABC that the US “continues to advocate for the immediate and unconditional release of all US citizens unjustly detained in Venezuela.” No US diplomat or official had been able to come face to face with the detainees since in 2019 the previous Administration, led by Donald Trump, broke diplomatic ties with Chavismo and recognized the National Assembly and Juan Guaidó as legitimate interlocutors.
As this newspaper has learned, both the Secretary of State, Antony Blink, as the White House National Security Advisor, Jake SullivanThey were aware of the visit and even believed that it was appropriate, despite the poor relations between Washington and Caracas.
Among those prisoners visited are José Ángel Pereira, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, José Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio José Zambrano. They are nicknamed «The six of Citgo», because they were directors of the American company of that name, subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. The regime made them go to Caracas with false excuses and arrested them in 2017 on charges of embezzlement.
In May they entered house arrest, but were recaptured after the extradition to the US of Álex Saab, the supposed figurehead of Maduro, who had been arrested in Cape Verde. They were arrested by Sebin, the intelligence service, and they are in the dreaded Helicoide, the prison that it manages in Caracas, where torture has been documented in the past.
Several human rights activists have also said that in the Helicoide there have been outbreaks of coronavirus, which the regime is unable to control. Chavismo does not give reliable figures on infections and deaths in the country, continuously minimizing the health crisis, as denounced by international organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization.
Several sources familiar with Carstens’ trip have detailed to ABC how the visit was, kept in top secret. The Biden Administration indirectly agreed with the Chavista regime to visit those six Citgo executives and the other three Americans arrested later, in 2020.
Carstens, who has been in office for less than two years, feared that the detainees did not know who he was and were suspicious of him. Therefore, say those sources, brought photos of himself with their families, taken in the US. Apparently, on the Helicoide, Carstens was able to speak with a certain level of intimacy with the detainees. The visits lasted according to official sources between 45 and 90 minutes.
One of the Citgo detainees did recognize Carstens, and asked to touch his face to make sure it was not a ruse by Chavismo.
Chavismo has tried to negotiate with US Citgo prisoners in the past, and there were indirect contacts with the Trump Administration. On December 17, 2020, a meeting took place in Mexico between Jorge Rodríguez, brother of the Venezuelan vice president and Maduro’s trusted person, and a close ally of Donald Trump, Richard Grenell. He said that he attended the meeting in a private capacity and without formally representing Trump. Even so, at that time he still held the position of special envoy of the White House for the peace negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, and, more importantly, between February and May 2020 he was National Director of Intelligence, the position that he supervises all US intelligence agencies from the White House between May 2018 and June 2020, he was also ambassador to Germany.
The so-called «six of Citgo» were found guilty of embezzlement last year in a trial marked by serious irregularities and delayed several times. They have pleaded not guilty. The sentences were between eight and 13 years in prison. Maduro in person accused them of treason and the regime did not leave room for a fair trial, ahead of the time the verdict was going to be.
Carstens was also able to meet Luke Denman and Airan Berry, two retired US soldiers who participated in the botched attempt to overthrow Maduro from Colombia in 2020. Both were signed as mercenaries by Jordan Goudreau, another war veteran who did not go to Venezuela. Carstens was also seen with Matthew Heath, another former US soldier who was also arrested in 2020 on charges of terrorism and arms trafficking.