MIAMI (AP) — A senior U.S. diplomat quietly traveled to Venezuela this week and met with imprisoned Americans as part of an ongoing effort to secure release of men the Biden administration believes are being held as bargaining chips by a top U.S. adversary, The Associated Press has learned.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and the government's top hostage negotiator, arrived in Caracas on a chartered flight Tuesday evening and returned home Friday in a previously unreported visit.
It's not clear who in the heavily sanctioned socialist administration of President Nicolás Maduro he met.
But It was the first known face-to-face outreach by a top U.S. official since the Trump administration shuttered the American Embassy in Caracas in March 2019 after recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Ever since, relations between the two countries have grown steadily more hostile, with the U.S. government imposing strict oil sanctions on the country and targeting top officials with criminal indictments, something Maduro has likened to a “soft coup.”
“It was a good thing to see the guys, to show them that their government cares. It was also positive to report back to their families that I had seen them,” Carstens told the AP, adding that he was grateful to Maduro's aides for inviting him down for what he described as a “wellness check.”
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 confirmed the visit late Friday afternoon.
During his visit, he was permitted to check on a group of six American oil executives held in Caracas’ infamous El Helicoide prison, a one-time modernist shopping mall converted into a facility housing the government’s top opponents.
One person familiar with the visit described Carstens’ jailhouse meeting with the six executives from Houston-based Citgo, which lasted about 90 minutes, as highly emotional. Carstens told the prisoners he had discussed their case with Maduro government officials while in Caracas but declined to say whom.
The person and several others with knowledge of the meeting spoke on condition of anonymity to AP because they were not authorized to discuss Carstens' travels.
Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas and José Pereira were hauled away in 2017 by masked security agents who stormed into a Caracas conference room. The men had been lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving of that year to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA.
The six 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.
While at El Helicoide prison, Carstens also met with 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. He also conducted a wellness check with former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who is being held at a separate facility on unrelated allegations.
The visit came just weeks after family members of the Americans jailed in Venezuela, and 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 for a cardiac condition, told the AP at the time that “our feeling is that they can do more.”
President Joe Biden has so far been less public on the issue of hostage affairs than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who scored several high-profile releases around the world over four years, giving officials great leeway to pursue negotiations.
Trump also invited hostages and detainees who were 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 the 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.
Richardson called Carstens' visit to Caracas a “significant" development.
"Speaking directly with those who are holding Americans is important," he said in a statement to The AP. “It does not guarantee success, but I commend Roger Carstens for taking that first step, the families of our detainees for pushing for these efforts and the Maduro government for allowing this humanitarian gesture to take place.”
At least 61 Americans are known to be wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named for James W. Foley, a freelance journalist killed at the hands of the Islamic State group in Syria.
AP Writer Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas, Venezuela and Matthew Lee in Liverpool, England contributed to this report. Tucker reported from Washington.