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US delegation unable to secure release of Americans detained in Venezuela

<i>Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>The US State Department on February 5
Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images
The US State Department on February 5

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

A US delegation that traveled to Venezuela this week was unable to secure the release of any of the Americans detained there.

US Special President Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens was able to meet with wrongfully detained Americans while in the capital city of Caracas and discussed “with senior Maduro regime officials the importance of ensuring that they receive appropriate care where needed,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.

However, the visit by Carstens and Ambassador Jimmy Story, who heads the US’ Venezuelan Affairs Unit, ended Thursday without any of the Americans whom the US considers wrongfully detained being able to return home.

There are at least eight Americans currently known to be wrongfully detained in Venezuela — five of the six American oil executives known collectively as the “CITGO 6” — Tomeu Vadell, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira — along with Luke Denman, Airan Berry and Matthew Heath.

“We will continue to press for the immediate and unconditional release of all wrongfully detained US nationals in Venezuela at every opportunity,” the State Department spokesperson said.

A senior State Department official told CNN that the discussions between the US and Maduro officials were “constructive but both sides have more work to do to narrow the gaps” between their positions. “Some progress” was made from previous discussions between the two sides, according to the State official, who said there is also a feeling that there is “an open line of communication on this topic” between the US and the regime of Nicolas Maduro, whom the US does not recognize as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.

The official declined to provide specific details about the discussions or say whom Carstens and Story met with from the Maduro government, but Carstens was able to visit with all of the Americans whom the State Department considers wrongfully detained. The visits with the detainees did not seem like they were rushed, the official told CNN.

There was also a sense that the men appreciated getting to see the special envoy “because without an embassy there and the consular checkups that come when you have an embassy in country, they just don’t have that opportunity to tell part of their story and to let their loved ones know that someone saw them and they can report back, ‘Hey, I saw your husband, your brother, your father, and here’s how we looked and this is what he said,'” the official said. The US suspended operations at its embassy in Venezuela in March 2019.

One of the detained Americans, Heath, a US veteran who has been detained nearly two years on what the State Department calls “specious” charges, attempted suicide earlier this month.

The senior State Department official said that the delegation had been planning to make the trip to conduct “a health and welfare visit” for all of the detained Americans prior to Heath’s suicide attempt, but concern about his welfare lent urgency to having the visit this week, and that concern was highlighted in discussions with Venezuelan officials.

Heath’s aunt Trudy Rutherford said in a statement Thursday they “believe that Matthew’s physical and mental health both continue to be at risk and are fearful he may attempt suicide again.”

“While we are incredibly grateful for Ambassador Carstens and his team for having made this trip, it is important that there be continued, high level engagement between the U.S. Government centered around bringing Matthew and the other American detainees home,” she said.

“President Biden and President Maduro both stand to benefit from ending the ordeal for all of these Americans and their families and neither benefits from their prolonged detention,” Rutherford said.

The family of Vadell, one of the “CITGO 6” who has been imprisoned since 2017, said in a statement that they “are beyond disappointed to see another plane land in the United States without Tomeu on it.”

“For over four and a half years, this innocent man’s human rights have been violated,” the family said. “It’s unacceptable.”

The Vadell family called on “all stakeholders,” including the US government, Venezuelan authorities, CITGO and the United Nations, to work to secure his immediate release, noting he is almost 63 years old and “coping with heart issues and latent tuberculosis.”

“His health and safety are our highest priority,” they said. “We need everyone involved to act with urgency, because every day matters.”

Two Americans who had been detained in Venezuela, including one of the CITGO 6, were released in March following the visit of two top US government officials to Caracas.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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