Jailed American in Venezuela tells family he’s in ‘complete shock’ after visit from Biden official

The family of an American citizen who’s been held hostage along with five other executives from their company, Citgo, told NBC News they were surprised but grateful that a top Biden administration official visited the men in Venezuela.

Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens spoke to the families of the former executives Friday about the “wellness check.”

“He said he was impressed at how strong they maintained themselves throughout these four years,” said Carlos Añez, whose father Jorge Toledo is detained, about the families’ conversation with Carstens. “I think it’s a very important step.” 

Jorge Toledo, former vice president of supply and marketing for Citgo, with his wife and two children.Courtesy Toledo Family

Carstens returned from a visit to Venezuela Friday to check on the health of nine Americans being held there.

It’s the first time in two years there is a visit of this nature by a senior U.S. government official. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro broke diplomatic ties with the U.S. in 2019, after former President Donald Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the South American country’s interim president. The U.S. embassy in Caracas was shuttered in March 2019.

Those being held in Caracas include the six former Citgo executives who were jailed since 2017 on corruption charges stemming from a never executed deal to refinance Citgo’s debt. Citgo, based in Houston, is the U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.

During a phone call after the visit with his family, Toledo said from prison that he was in “complete shock” to see Carstens.

“My dad’s spirits were lifted a little bit by the visit, which is great because he had been quite down for a while,” said Añez.

A State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement, “we can confirm that the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens traveled to Caracas for discussions about the welfare and safety of U.S. nationals in Venezuela.” 

The six Citgo men, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Gustavo Cárdenas and José Pereira, were arrested just before Thanksgiving in 2017. They had been called for a last-minute meeting in Venezuela. Once in the conference room at the PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, armed, masked security agents arrested the men.

CITGO oil executives, from left, Jose Angel Pereira, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano, stand outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service in Caracas, Venezuela, in an undated photo posted on Twitter by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza.Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry via AP file

The men have been granted house arrest twice since their detention. The first time lasted two months. The second time was in April 2021 and they were re-jailed in October on the same day Alex Saab — a close Maduro-ally — was extradited to the U.S. from Cape Verde on money laundering charges.

There are three other Americans jailed. Two of them are former U.S. Special Forces soldiers Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were sentenced to 20 years for their part in a failed beach attack aimed at overthrowing Maduro, according to Venezuelan prosecutors.

The ninth American is retired Marine Matthew Heath, who was arrested and charged with terrorism in September 2020 for allegedly having an arsenal in his car.

A former congressional staffer with knowledge of prior negotiations told NBC News one of the factors complicating the cases of the jailed Americans is that the Venezuelan government has been repeatedly punished, even after making goodwill gestures.

American Joshua Holt was released from prison in Venezuela in 2018 after long negotiations. Venezuelan Governor Rafael Lacava was instrumental in his release, even traveling to Washington D.C. to discuss the case. Months later, the Trump administration sanctioned Lacava.

“It was very unfortunate, because he had been extremely helpful,” said the staffer. “What Venezuelan authorities heard from the United States was ‘give us these people and we will just continue to sanction.’”

Weeks before the 2020 U.S. elections, U.S. envoy Richard Grenell met with Jorge Rodríguez, a close associate of Maduro, in Mexico City in an attempt to secure the release of the Citgo 6. The Venezuelan government offered that if the U.S. dropped its request for extradition for Alex Saab, they would release all American citizens.

“I think there was a pretty hellacious fight over that after he returned,” the former staffer said. The U.S. did not accept the offer and the Biden administration extradited Saab in October.

“The Venezuelan government feels they’ve gotten punished,” the source said.

Maduro’s government also suspended negotiations with the opposition in response to the extradition.

“It is my view that if the negotiations are renewed with engagement and support from the United States to find a negotiated settlement between the government and the opposition,” the former staffer said, “that would help create conditions for the release of imprisoned Americans.”

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