Relatives of six American oil company employees detained by the Venezuelan authorities have made a powerful appeal for their release, demanding they not be overlooked as tension mounts in the country.
The six men – five US citizens and one permanent resident, and all employees of Citgo, the US subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-run Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) – were detained in November 2017 after being called to Caracas from Houston for a meeting. They were arrested and charged with corruption over an alleged $4bn agreement to refinance company bonds. They deny the accusations.
President Nicolas Maduro went on television to denounce them as “traitors”, saying: “They’re properly behind bars, and they should go to the worst prison in Venezuela.” Asdrubal Chavez, a cousin of the late president, was appointed company’s new president.
For 16 months, the relatives of the Venezuelan Americans, who have become known as the Citgo 6, were advised to remain silent. Now, after 500 days in captivity and the men’s initial hearing having been postponed on 13 occasions, they are speaking out.
“We’re appealing to anyone who can help them or who cares about human rights, to release them,” said Carlos Añez, son of Jorge Toledo, the company’s vice president of marketing.
Speaking from Texas, he told The Independent: “That’s why we’ve even appealed to the jailer who has the keys to the jail – please let them go.”
Mr Añez, who in recent weeks has been able to speak to his father after a phone was installed in the jail where the men are being held, said all had lost weight during their captivity, his father as much as 60lbs.
At one point they were being fed only 600 calories a day. This week, a contemporary photograph emerged of another of the men, Tomeu Vadell, revealing the dramatic loss in body mass he has suffered.
Mr Añez said recently, the men’s relatives’ had been able to bring them food: “If it was not for the food that my father’s brother has been able to bring, I am sure he would be dead.”
He said the men – Mr Toledo, Mr Vadell, Jose Pereira, brothers Jose Luis and Alirio Zambrano, and Edoardo Orsoni – were being held with 59 other prisoners in a cell designed for 20. To stand up and walk, or do push-ups, the men were forced to take turns, as there was insufficient room for them all.
Some in the US media have used the plight of the six inmates as a reason to demand the ousting of Mr Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term last month after an election in May 2018, that was boycotted by most of the opposition.
Fox Business Network interviewed some of the relatives before speaking to Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who declared himself president last month and was quickly recognised by the US, UK and Canada. Mr Guaidó, who this week plans to transfer shipments of US aid across the Colombian border, said he would make freeing the men a priority.
Jorge Toledo, @Citgo Vice President of Supply and Marketing. 443 days in a Venezuelan prison. He left Sugarland Regional on Nov 19, 2017 for an emergency budget meeting in Venezuela. His family says he went from 176 pounds to below 130 in his first 10 months in jail. pic.twitter.com/b1neDEUOKG— Josh Marshall (@JoshKHOU)February 7, 2019
On Friday, Mr Guaido arrived with Colombian President Ivan Duque at a concert attended by up to 200,000 people on the Colombia-Venezuela border, that is seeking to raise $100m for humanitarian supplies. Some have criticised the organiers - among them Richard Brason - for what they say is a politicisation of aid. Also on Friday, Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil, killing two, after community members stopped a military convoy.
Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and a number of observers believe this is crucial to understanding the stand-off between Mr Maduro and the US-backed coalition seeking to replace him.
The view has been reinforced by claims in a new book, The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, by former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe. Mr McCabe claims the president in 2017 asked him why the US was not at war with Venezuela, allegedly saying: “That’s the country we should be going to war with. They have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.”
Venezuela has for years relied on oil exports to support its economy, something that permitted Mr Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, to invest heavily in social programmes, when prices were high. A failure to broaden the economy, combined with alleged corruption in the nation’s oil business and a crash in prices, have added to Venezuela’s economic woes.
So too, have US sanctions. In January, Washington expanded sanctions to include PDVSA, which for years was a major exporter to the US. The sanctions also included Citgo. US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said revenues earned by the companies would be held in escrow until Mr Guaidó had been granted control of the government.
Shortly after the sanctions were imposed, the Wall Street Journal said Venezuela’s oil exports had fallen sharply as it struggled to find buyers.
“The Trump administration’s recent moves on Venezuela have so many historical echoes it’s a veritable déjà vu layer cake,” Jon Rainwater, executive director of Peace Action, a Washington DC-based NGO, wrote recently. “The appointment of Elliot Abrams as US Special Envoy to Venezuela last week was the icing on the cake. Abrams is an unrepentant interventionist.”
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who is among those seeking the Democratic nomination for 2020, is urging the US to keep out of Venezuela. She tweeted: “The US must stay out of Venezuela and let the people determine their own future. US meddling in Latin America has been disastrous for the people of the countries where we intervene.”
The Venezuelan foreign ministry failed to respond to inquiries. The Associated Press said the country’s attorney general last week filed criminal charges against the new PDVSA and Citgo boards, appointed by Mr Guaido.
A US state department spokesperson said: “Due to privacy considerations, we are generally unable to comment about individual cases, but we continue to work closely with international partners to ensure the safety and security of US citizens in Venezuela.”
Mr Añez, the son of Mr Toledo, does not believe the six hostages or their families are being used as leverage by supporters of Mr Guaidó. He said he wanted his father to come home so he could play with his grandchildren. The relatives of the other men have echoed the plea for their release.
“I don’t think we’re being used,” he said. “If there was the chance for us to have spoken out earlier, we would have. We have no idea why they’re being held. This was an important human interest story 15 months ago if we have been able to tell it.”