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Venezuela moves U.S. oil execs to a harsher jail after Trump hosts opposition leader

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido at the State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido waves after being acknowledged by President Trump during the State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

A few days before Thanksgiving, Tomeu Vadell received a phone call summoning him to Venezuela for a hastily convened budget meeting of the Citgo oil firm that had employed him for more than 30 years.

He would zip down and be back home in Lake Charles, La., in time for the holiday, his family recalls him saying.

That was more than two years ago. Vadell and five other executives for the Houston-based oil conglomerate have been held in Venezuelan prisons ever since. The South American government charged them with embezzlement and other crimes, but U.S. officials call them pawns — caught between President Nicolas Maduro’s battle to stay in power and the Trump administration’s effort to oust him.

The Citgo 6, as they have come to be known among supporters and U.S. officials, have had scant access to legal counsel, U.S. diplomats or family members. They have been living in frightful, overcrowded and dangerous conditions, their relatives and lawyers say. Vadell has lost some 80 pounds because of stress and lack of edible food, his family says.

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Citgo, which is majority-owned by Venezuela’s state-run oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela, has suspended the men’s salaries during their detention, relatives say.

And last week they were moved to harsher facilities after President Trump’s red-carpet treatment of a key Venezuelan opposition leader during the State of the Union address.

Lawyers for the men — five are U.S. citizens and the sixth is a U.S. permanent resident — say they were “lured” to the bogus meeting in Caracas where armed gunmen loyal to Maduro seized them as bargaining chips. They deny any wrongdoing as well as any political activity.

The Venezuelan government bases its accusations on what it claims were illicit contracts allegedly signed or drafted by the men. Maduro has labeled them traitors, although treason is not included in the formal charges. The government refers to the six as “Venezuelan” executives, not Americans. All six men were born in Venezuela, but have lived in the U.S. for years. Some have dual citizenship.

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People familiar with the case say there are behind-the-scenes efforts to free the men. Vice President Mike Pence has spoken out in their support. But, frustrated at the lack of progress, Vadell’s family traveled to Washington this week, and on Wednesday met with State Department officials, but not with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, to plead for help.

“He’s loved and he’s not forgotten,” Cristina Vadell, 28, said of her father, Citgo’s vice president for refining. “But we don’t have enough answers.”

Gabriela Zambrano, whose father, Alirio Zambrano, was arrested along with Vadell and the others, said the families’ agony is compounded by the mystery behind the motivations for the arrests.

“We feel caught up in something that might be way bigger than us,” the twentysomething medical student said by telephone from her home in a Houston suburb. “We’re never giving up.”

Alirio Zambrano, 55, is vice president and general manager of the Citgo refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. His first grandchild, Gabriela’s new daughter, was baptized recently without him. She cherishes a selfie her father sent her shortly after arriving in Caracas in November 2017, saying the weather was great and he’d see her soon.

The other detained executives are Jose Luis Zambrano (Alirio’s brother), Jose Pereira, Jorge Toledo and Gustavo Cardenas. Five became U.S. citizens years ago; Pereira is a legal permanent resident.

Their supporters believed a breakthrough might have been on the horizon late last year when Venezuelan authorities moved the men from basement cells in a notorious prison to a series of private homes. Though referred to by officials as “house arrest,” the detention remained highly restrictive, with constant surveillance from intelligence agents in unfamiliar surroundings.

Still, conditions were improved and some hoped that an end to the ordeal was in sight. But politics again interfered.

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During the Feb. 4 State of the Union address, Trump surprised the audience by introducing as a special guest Juan Guaido, the opposition leader whom Trump has recognized since January 2019 as the rightful president of Venezuela. The next day, Trump hosted Guaido in the Oval Office.

Within hours, Venezuelan intelligence agents began rounding up the Citgo executives and bundled them off to an even more dank prison, the Helicoide, a detention center known for torture and for having driven inmates to suicide, according to relatives and attorneys for the men.

Three days later, Venezuelan lead prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced he was opening the trial of the six on Feb. 19.

Elliott Abrams, the administration’s point man for Venezuela, said he could not say for sure that the transfer was in retaliation for Guaido’s treatment in Washington. Some of the executives’ supporters, however, have no doubt.

Attorney Jason Poblete, who represents the Vadell family, called on U.S. officials to make the Citgo 6 more of a priority.

Trump has claimed the release of people he refers to as “hostages” to be a principal goal of his government.

“The United States calls for the immediate release of these six individuals,” Pence said last year after meeting some of the relatives at the White House. “Of course, we recognize that none of that will happen so long as Nicolas Maduro remains in power.”

Lawyers for the Citgo 6 argue that even under Venezuelan law, a person cannot be held for two years without trial.

But there are no public signs that Maduro will budge. On Tuesday, Guaido, who flew from Venezuela to the U.S. and Europe last month in defiance of a travel ban imposed by Maduro, returned triumphantly to Caracas and, despite fears he would be arrested or worse, was able to go home.

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The fate of the Citgo 6 remains in limbo.

“Day 809: Our dear father is still @ the Helicoide in #Venezuela. They’re in a small space, no AC, & just a bucket of water to bath themselves,” another Vadell daughter, Veronica Vadell Weggeman, tweeted on Saturday.

“Day 810: No news from our father. The silence is killing us. We ask of all parties involved to PLEASE help bring him & his coworkers home!!” she added on Sunday, tagging Trump, Pompeo and other senior officials and members of Congress.

The families have been sustaining their husbands and fathers by sending food, medicine and other supplies, using friends and other contacts still in Caracas. Though Citgo suspended the men’s salaries after their arrest, it provides the families with a stipend, the relatives said.

In a statement, Citgo expressed thanks for U.S. government efforts to free the men. “We continue to support the detainees’ families,” the company said. “Citgo believes that the detention of these men violates their fundamental human rights, including the right to due process under law. We pray for their safety, and for their families as they contend with all of the challenges presented by this lengthy separation from their loved ones.”

Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. But as the country has descended into economic and political chaos, oil production has slumped. As the U.S. subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela, Citgo is Venezuela’s most valuable overseas asset.

But it is now caught in a tug-of-war over who has access to its bounty. Citgo severed ties with Venezuela after Washington imposed sanctions on PDVSA last year, and Guaido named a new board of directors. But Maduro continues to assert his authority over the moneymaker, which is the eighth largest refiner in the U.S.

The Citgo 6 families are not optimistic that the Feb. 19 trial date will resolve their ordeal. More than a dozen previously scheduled court appearances were abruptly canceled without explanation, and lawyers say they have yet to see any actual evidence in the case. Venezuelan justice, the families say, has been a travesty.

“We are really hoping that the right hearts will be moved by our plight,” Gabriela Zambrano said, “and the men will come home.”

Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.


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