MIAMI (AP) – Six U.S. oil executives jailed in Venezuela more than three years ago on corruption charges were placed under house arrest Friday in good faith with the Biden administration as it reconsiders its policies. to the politically troubled South American state.
The partial dismissal of the six employees of the Houston-based Citgo was confirmed to The Associated Press by members of the men’s family.
Tomeu Vadel, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas and Jose Pereira were drawn by masked security agents during a meeting in Caracas just before Thanksgiving in 2017. They were brought to Venezuela to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent, state oil giant PDVSA.
The so-called Citgo 6 was placed under house arrest once before – in December 2019 – only to be closed two months later on the same day that President Donald Trump welcomed opposition leader Juan Guaido to the White House.
When the men are released, Maduro can bet he will get a better hearing from President Joe Biden, who, in the wake of the election campaign, called Trump’s policy of changing the regime an “ultimate failure” that only serves to strengthen the socialist leader.
Earlier this week, Biden’s senior officials from several federal agencies were due to meet to assess U.S. capabilities, including whether to ease the crippling oil sanctions it has inherited, and take steps to support an uncertain attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, according to two people familiar with the plans.
The meeting, which was to be attended by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, followed a series of Maduro actions in recent days to draw Biden’s attention, including giving up long-standing US demands to allow the World Food Program to work in the country in time. of growing hunger.
In recent days, Maduro’s allies have also quietly discussed with opponents a new electoral council, joint efforts to fight the coronavirus and met with Norwegian diplomats trying to resume talks to end the country’s endless political crisis.
However, the continued imprisonment of Americans was seen as a serious obstacle to any scope.
Juan Gonzalez, senior director of the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere, told the AP on Friday that in order to assess Maduro’s seriousness about possible talks, he wanted to see “concrete steps from the regime, not words”.
In recent weeks, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been behind the scenes to pressure the Maduro government to release the men, all but one of them dual Venezuelan citizens.
“This is a positive and important step that should help ensure their well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak in Venezuela,” Richardson said in a statement.
Richardson, who opened channels for hostile governments in Iran, Cuba and North Korea to win the release of about 40 Americans, promised to work tirelessly to bring the men home.
He also called for the release of Luke Denman and Iron Berry, two former Green Berets involved in a failed attack last year in neighboring Colombia and former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who has been detained on unrelated charges.
The six men were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between 8 and 13 years in prison for an unfulfilled proposal to refinance about $ 4 billion in Citgo bonds, offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. At the time, Maduro accused them of “treason.” They all pleaded not guilty.
Also insisting for the release of the men was Pope Francis. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, sent a letter last fall to then-US ambassador to the Vatican Calista Gingrich, mentioning a letter from the Holy See’s representative in Caracas to Venezuelan authorities calling for clemency.
Parolin was to travel to Venezuela, where he had previously served as ambassador to the Vatican, to attend Friday’s beatification of Jose Gregorio Hernandez, a 19th-century Venezuelan doctor called the “doctor of the poor.” But Vatican II canceled the trip at the last minute, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
“We would like our beloved Tome to be on a plane to the United States with unconditional freedom, but we are very grateful for this positive step taken by Governor Richardson and his team, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the State Department, the Vatican and other allies around the world.” said in a statement by the family of Tomeu Vadel.
AP writer Gisela Salomon in Miami contributed to this report.
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman