Just days before Thanksgiving last year, a group of longtime Houston residents landed in South America for a meeting about Citgo, the U.S.-based, Venezuela-owned oil company where they worked. But the November 2017 meeting was a ruse.
Instead of discussing business, the company executives were fired, arrested, and thrown in jail two days before planned family gatherings, and were accused of negotiating a loan on poor terms.
One year later, the deposed executives — including five naturalized American citizens — remain in custody as Venezuela’s authoritarian government presides over an economic collapse and ever-worsening relations with the Trump administration.
Defenders view the group’s alleged crime as flimsy pretext for leadership change at Citgo, where the men were replaced by executives believed to be closer to socialist President Nicolas Maduro. Among them are CEO Asdrubal Chavez, a cousin of Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
In prison, the situation is bleak, according to people familiar with the men’s little-reported detention. Ordinary Venezuelans are losing weight due to food scarcity, and behind bars one of the U.S. captives lost 50 pounds in six months, a source told the Washington Examiner earlier this year.
“We’ve gotten no more information about the situation for a while and are only notified about whether or not food can be dropped off on a weekend,” said one family member, who asked not to be named.
“I don’t believe there is a strategy about keeping everything low-profile, rather I think we are all scared,” the relative said. “At this point in time, I know as much about the situation as you do. … Right now, I can only hope and pray for an end.”
The State Department declined to comment on specific cases, but an official told the Washington Examiner that “in some cases, we have difficulties obtaining access to detained individuals in Venezuela, particularly those with dual citizenship.”
“The U.S. Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas,” the official said. “We also call for the Venezuelan government to ensure that all U.S. citizens detained in Venezuela, including dual-nationals, are afforded a swift, fair, and transparent judicial process.”
In May, Venezuela released one American detainee, former Mormon missionary Joshua Holt, who was held on weapon charges, after high-profile advocacy from politicians including Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and President Trump. But most articles on Holt’s release didn’t mention the Citgo leaders’ incarceration.
Despite the relative obscurity of the detentions, a senior Trump administration official said after being asked on a White House conference call in March that the men were being used as “hostages.”
“The individuals that are being held in Venezuela, whether dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizens from the Citgo company or the U.S. citizen Joshua Holt, are being held from our perspective illegally, illegitimately by the government of Venezuela,” the official said. “These individuals are bargaining chips that the Maduro dictatorship is using as hostages, and we are still calling for them to be released.”
That official did not respond to a request for comment, and the White House’s National Security Council declined to comment.
The American detainees are Citgo’s former vice president for refining Tomeu Vadell, former vice president for supply Jorge Toledo, former vice president for shared services Jose Luis Zambrano, former Corpus Christi refinery director Alirio Zambrano, and former head of public affairs Gustavo Cardenas.
It’s unclear if other Americans are held in Venezuela, but a current State Department travel advisory warns: “Security forces have arbitrarily detained U.S. citizens for long periods. The U.S. Embassy may not be notified of the detention of a U.S. citizen, and consular access to detainees may be denied or severely delayed.”
As president, Trump has made a point of winning freedom for Americans abroad, with successes ranging from hostile North Korea to allied Egypt. But cases with louder advocates and without dual citizenship appear to have had a better shot.
Recently, Turkey released detained pastor Andrew Brunson, held on dubious links to a coup attempt, after Trump applied sanctions to government ministers, following bipartisan agitation from politicians including Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Sam Brownback, the former Republican governor and senator from Kansas.
Trump thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but did not publicly request by name the release of other Americans held on similar charges, including NASA scientist Serkan Golge, who has dual citizenship and was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in February.
American politicians working on behalf of the five U.S. citizens in Venezuela won’t publicly discuss the case in an apparent nod to family wishes, contributing to near-invisibility for the men.
A spokesperson for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has advocated for the families, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, who has taken a leadership role supporting the families, many of them constituents, ignored multiple requests for comment.
A Houston attorney who represents some family members declined to comment and asked that this article not mention she was contacted.
The Venezuelan embassy in Washington did not provide a statement on the case, nor did Citgo, which is 50.1 percent owned by bondholders of the Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela. Citgo is 49.9 percent held by Russian oil company Rosneft.
There are some signs of U.S. government action against the new Citgo leadership, though it’s unclear if that action is directly linked to the detentions. Last year, before the arrests, the U.S. adopted rules to prevent Maduro from using Citgo to evade sanctions. And in July, the U.S. canceled the visa of Citgo CEO Chavez, though it’s unclear why.
One person familiar with the company said there’s a bigger-picture reason for concern, arguing the corporate coup is directly related to Maduro’s desire to control Citgo.
“This is not a meatpacking company — this is a company that has three major refineries in the United States and a lot of national security assets,” they said. “That should be the story.”
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