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BUT WHEN WILL THEY BE FREED?
by Sharon Rondeau
(Nov. 27, 2019) — During a press briefing at midday on Wednesday, Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams provided a brief update on the “Citgo 6,” six former executives of the Venezuelan-owned Citgo oil company who were accused of corruption and imprisoned without due process in late November 2017 by the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
On November 18, 2017, the men were summoned to what was described as an urgent business conference, then arrested on November 21 on charges of “corruption.” They are reportedly “being held in the basement of Venezuela’s notorious military counterintelligence headquarters (DGCIM) in Caracas,” Univision reported.
In 1986, Venezuela acquired 50% of Citgo, launched by American Henry L. Doherty in 1910 as “Cities Service.” In 1990, Venezuela purchased the remaining 50% interest. In the ensuing years, the company’s headquarters moved from Tulsa, OK to Houston amid burgeoning expansion and the launch of a charitable-giving program.
Today, the company profile states, “With the support of 3,500 employees, CITGO owns and operates three highly sophisticated crude refineries located in Lake Charles, La. (425,000 barrels-per-day [bpd]), Lemont, Ill., (167,000-bpd) and Corpus Christi, (157,000 bpd). Our refineries process approximately 200,000 BPD of Venezuelan crude, including high-quality and environmentally-resourced supplies from the Orinoco Oil Belt. The combined aggregate crude oil refining capacity of 749,000-bpd positions CITGO as one of the best-branded supplier companies in the industry.”
“First, it has now been two years that the Maduro regime has kept six Citgo employees in a Venezuelan military prison in deplorable conditions and without due process,” Abrams said at the top of Wednesday’s press briefing. “The employees are scheduled to have a hearing next week on December 2nd, and the United States will be closely following that. This should not be another pro forma step. Seventeen hearings have been canceled to date. These six men face cumulative health problems given their lack of consistent access to food, sunlight, and exercise. Their detention should end.”
Venezuela has undergone nearly two years of political and economic upheaval which has seen the United States, Canada and other Western nations recognize Maduro’s challenger, Juan Guaidó, as interim president since January. Maduro, however, retains power over the government apparatus and has the support of China, Turkey, Cuba, Bolivia and Russia.
Food shortages and other hardships have ensued since 2008, The Guardian reported in 2013, with hyperinflation and a limitation of imports more recently enacted by Maduro. “Deaths from malnutrition are on the rise, and buying staples such as flour, milk, or rice has become a choice between waiting in supermarket lines that can stretch for whole city blocks or paying exorbitant prices,” The New Yorker reported in February of this year.
In January, PDVSA, the parent company of Citgo, expressed support for Maduro’s continued reign, which has continued the country’s socialist policies ushered in by former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. According to CNN in January:
Through nearly a decade of mismanagement, Venezuela has squandered its profound oil wealth, leaving its economy in tatters and Latin America reeling from an unprecedented mass exodus of migrants in search of food and medicine.
The UN estimates as many as 3 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014.
They are fleeing shortages of medicine, food and staples such as milk, flour and toilet paper — along with rolling blackouts, rising unemployment and soaring violent crime.
Over the years, Maduro continued the huge social welfare programs and price-control policies of Chavez, who was seen by many as a champion of the poor as he steered the country toward socialism.
In July, the U.S. State Department called upon the Maduro regime to release the Citgo 6 in a bulletin titled, “Concerns for Wrongfully Detained U.S. Persons (CITGO 6) in Venezuela.” Diplomatic relations between the two nations have deteriorated since January, when the U.S. declared its recognition of Guaidó as interim leader, and Abrams on Wednesday announced planned “coordinated regional travel restrictions and visa denials against several dozen Maduro regime officials.”
Of the Venezuelan people’s plight and Maduro’s energy interests, Abrams told reporters Wednesday, “The Venezuelan people have never benefited from oil revenues under the Maduro regime, which has used Venezuelan crude to pay for tools to repress its own people and siphon billions of dollars to provide for regime members’ bank accounts. In the course of this year as an example, it has signed contracts for $209 million in military purchases from Russia: Sukhoi fighter jets, military helicopters, and other things.”
On April 2, family members of the Citgo 6 met with Vice President Mike Pence during which Pence asked as to their knowledge of their loved ones’ location and living conditions. To a reporter’s question concerning any contemplated actions by the Trump administration on behalf of the prisoners, Pence said:
The United States is going to continue to take strong action not only to isolate Venezuela, but also we’re looking at strong action against Cuba, which continues to provide personnel and support to the dictatorship in Venezuela and enables the oppression of the people of Venezuela.
At this point, this President is looking at a broad range of options. There’s a great deal more we can do, and we’re prepared to do it. But we call today on the regime to immediately release these five Americans and one legal permanent resident. They’re being held illegally. But this regime should release all political prisoners. But to accomplish that, the rule of law has to be restored, democracy has to be restored, and Nicolás Maduro must go. It’s time for a new day for Venezuela.
On October 11, Houston’s Channel 2 reported that the families of the six imprisoned men — Gustavo Cardenas; José Pereira, formerly president of Citgo; Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, and brothers Alirio Zambrano and José Luis Zambrano — continue to work to bring awareness to their imprisoned relatives’ dire circumstances.
On October 13, a march was held in Houston to heighten the public’s attention of the six detainees, organized by Alirio Zambrano’s eldest daughter, Alexandra Z. Forseth, through the website citgo6coalition.org. The site contains the biographies of five of those imprisoned as well as family photos and respective statements from the men’s wives.
In the “About” section of the website, Forseth wrote, in part, “My dad and uncle are two of the most inspiring leaders I’ve ever met met. They know how to make you feel like you can accomplish your goals, no matter what. From getting engineering degrees in their second language to being unjustly separated from their families, there is no challenge they have not met with the utmost grit, perseverance, and grace. It is because of their faith that we are able to keep pushing forward.”
Of the march, Forseth reported more than 250 participants, including Rep. Pete Olson and members of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Sen. John Cornyn sent a hand-signed letter stating his commitment to the men’s safe return to the U.S. and their families.
Last month Forseth told Channel 2 that she and the other family members are purchasing items which the Maduro jailers will not provide to their loved ones. “All the basic materials, like a mattress, these special sweat pants, you name it, they don’t provide any of that,” she was quoted as having said. “We buy their food every day and have it delivered, we’ve had to hire someone to do that now.”
On the website, Forseth wrote under the heading, “August 2019 to present”:
The location of the men has been confirmed to still be in the basement of the DGCIM. We continue to provide them food and basic supplies when they are accepted. Visits from lawyers and direct family members are subject to frequent cancellations. We are not allowed calls. We are continuing to build bridges with the U.S. and international community to gain their immediate release and return home.
On Wednesday evening, The Post & Email was able to obtain the following statement on the Citgo 6 from a company spokesman:
We pray for the safety of our employees, and for their families. As a company, CITGO believes all human rights must be respected. We have met with and continue to provide support to each of the families of those who are detained by Maduro’s regime, including legal expenses,