Even as he celebrates with his family the end of a lengthy “nightmare,” an American oil executive released from detention in Venezuela says he’s praying for the release of five colleagues who “deserve the same rewards.”
After flying overnight from Caracas with a senior State Department official tasked to negotiate the release of American detainees in the South American country, Gustavo Cardenas landed at his house in Houston around 4 a.m. Wednesday.
He claimed his more than four-year incarceration “has caused a lot of agony and pain, far more than I can describe with my words” in a statement to The Associated Press.
“After 1,570 days of unlawful imprisonment, I was released and received my freedom. He described it as “a really difficult moment defined by tremendous anguish, but also by faith, hope, love, and survival.”
He demanded that the remaining members of the Citgo 6 be released as soon as possible for the sake of the Houston oil business where they all worked. He remarked, “They and their families deserve the same blessings and freedom that I received last night.”
He credits his release to President Joe Biden and other US authorities, as well as former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Mickey Bergman of the Richardson Center, which has fought to obtain the release of scores of American detainees across the world.
There was no mention of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose administration imprisoned the men after they flew to Caracas on a business plane for what they thought was an emergency meeting with Citgo’s parent company, state-run oil firm PDVSA, around Thanksgiving 2017.
Instead, disguised security personnel armed with assault weapons stormed a conference room and detained the guys. They were eventually sentenced on charges related to a never-implemented scheme to refinance $4 billion in Citgo debts by pledging a 50% share in the firm as security. Prosecutors charged the men with scheming in order to profit from the proposed trade.
Even though the US has accused Maduro of using them as political bargaining chips to win concessions from the US, they have always maintained their innocence.
Cardenas and Jorge Fernández, an American detained in Venezuela who was not a member of the Citgo 6, were released just hours after Maduro expressed interest in improving relations with the United States, at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked concerns in the US about rising gas prices. He hinted in a televised address that he would agree to US demands that he begin dialogue with his opponents as a first step toward any relaxation from US sanctions that have been hurting the OPEC country for years.
The release, according to US officials, followed months of relationship-building, notably including Roger Carstens, the administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage matters, who accompanied Cardenas and Fernandez back to the United States.
Carstens traveled to Venezuela in December, which did not result in the immediate release of inmates but was praised by top administration officials with creating confidence and laying the stage for Tuesday’s results. Last weekend, he returned to Venezuela with other administration officials, including Juan Gonzalez, the director of the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere division, and Ambassador James Story, the leader of the US government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit based in Colombia.
It was the first travel to Venezuela by a White House official since Hugo Chávez governed the country in the late 1990s, and it was a rare opportunity to address policy problems with the Maduro government, according to the Biden administration. It was “a productive, diplomatic, but extremely open talk,” according to one source, that had no payoff but allowed the Biden administration to express its “vision of the world” with Maduro.
Several additional Americans, in addition to the Citgo 6, are still being imprisoned in Venezuela. Luke Denman and Airan Berry, two former Green Berets, were arrested for their roles in a convoluted conspiracy to depose Maduro, while former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath was held on weapons charges.
Fernandez was apprehended near the Colombian border in February 2021 after being discovered in possession of a drone, which is prohibited in Venezuela. Terrorism was leveled against him.
The talks took place little over three years after the United States severed ties with Maduro and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
The negotiations came together after months of backchannel attempts by middlemen — American lobbyists, Norwegian officials, and international oil businessmen — who pushed Biden to resurrect the Trump administration’s thus far fruitless “maximum pressure” campaign to depose Maduro.
The need to reach out to Maduro, who has been sanctioned and is facing drug trafficking accusations in New York, became even more pressing after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent US sanctions. The Ukraine conflict is expected to reshape global alliances and add to soaring gas costs, which have already pushed inflation to four-decade highs.
Last week, influential Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill began expressing support for a US boycott on Russian oil and natural gas imports as a further step in punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.
Venezuela is Putin’s most important Latin American ally as well as a major oil exporter. Its re-entry into US energy markets might help to reduce the effects of a prospective Russian oil embargo at the pump. Top Democrat and Republic senators, however, promptly slammed the Caracas negotiations.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Chairman Bob Menendez said Biden’s efforts to unite the world against Putin “should not be undercut by propping up” Maduro, whose government is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity committed against protesters in 2017.
The opposition camp supported by the United States reaffirmed on Wednesday that it is open to restarting talks with Maduro in order to schedule free and fair presidential and legislature elections, and that any lifting of economic sanctions must be accompanied by progress toward democracy.
“Any relief from pressure that is not aimed at democracy would simply enhance the authoritarianism that currently threatens the world,” the organization stated in a statement. “… Venezuela can only be a dependable and efficient energy source for the globe if democratic, institutional, and transparency guarantees are in place.”