US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens is on a case which could lead to freeing Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab. Pressure is building on the Biden administration to swap Saab for some American citizens currently incarcerated in Venezuela.
By Roger D. Harris
Alex Saab targeted in the US economic war against Venezuela
Alex Saab, who has been confined for over two years, is a victim of the US economic war calculated to achieve regime-change in Venezuela. He has been targeted because of his role in helping circumvent the sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the US. These measures, really collective punishment, are intended to make conditions so onerous there that the people would renounce their elected government. Such unilateral coercive measures are illegal under international law.
Saab was on a humanitarian mission from Caracas to Tehran to procure food, fuel, and medicine in legal international trade but in contravention of the illegal US sanctions. When his plane made a fuel stop in Cabo Verde on June 12, 2020, he was seized and imprisoned on Washington’s behest. Although the regional ECOWAS Court and the UN Human Rights Committee ordered his release, Saab was held captive. Then in October 2021, the US extradited Saab and has imprisoned him ever since in Miami.
As Venezuela’s special envoy and a deputy ambassador to the African Union, Saab had diplomatic immunity from arrest and detention under the Vienna Convention. Although a signatory to the convention, the US has flouted this international law.
Hybrid war against Venezuela heats up
Starting in 2015 with US President Obama’s sanctions against Venezuela and ratcheted up by subsequent US presidents, the US has intensified its hybrid war against the socialist government of that South American country. One of the spoils of that war was CITGO. This US-based oil refiner and retailer was initially a subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA).
In July 2018, the US expelled the then CITGO president Asdrúbal Chávez. Then in January 2019, in a major blow against Venezuela, CITGO revenues were cut off.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had seized CITGO to hold “accountable those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline.” In fact, it was the US sanctions that were explicitly designed to cause the decline he hypocritically lamented.
In an incredible inversion of logic, Mnuchin claimed that the seizure was to “support” an opposition deputy in Venezuela’s National Assembly named Juan Guaidó “to restore their [Venezuela’s] democracy.” Mr. Guaidó had declared himself president of Venezuela on a street corner in Caracaras and was immediately recognized as legitimate by US President Trump. The 35-year-old US security asset had never even run for national office. His self-proclamation was unlawful and unconstitutional.
Besides handing control over CITGO to Guaidó, the US declared in March 2020 that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was a “narco-terrorist.” A $15 million bounty was put on his head. Adding to the farce, the Drug Enforcement Agency put up a wanted poster on its website.
More recently in May 2022, a US judge approved of the auctioning of the $8-billion-worth CITGO. However, the auction is contingent on the approval of the US Treasury’s OFAC, which currently opposes the auction because it is “inconsistent with US foreign policy goals” now that the asset is controlled by Guaidó. However, Guaidó has been complicit in mismanaging and giving away Venezuelan assets that the US has seized and handed over to him.
The purpose of the auction would be to pay claims by the Canadian mining company Crystallex and the US oil company ConocoPhillips against Caracas for nationalizing their properties in Venezuela. However, in another ironic twist, the US sanctions against Venezuela explicitly prevent the servicing of its debt.
The convoluted case of the CITGO Six
The case of the CITGO Six is playing out against this backdrop of hybrid warfare and international finance. The six – Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, and Jose Angel Pereira – are Venezuelan citizens and were executives at CITGO. All but one also hold dual US citizenship.
The head of PdVSA called the CITGO executives to Caracas in November 2017, where they were arrested for embezzlement in a $4 billion refinancing scheme. The group was granted house arrest in December 2019. But they were imprisoned again in February 2020 after President Trump received Juan Guaidó at the White House and House Speaker Pelosi also honored the pretend president.
After New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson made a visit to Caracaras in July 2020, two of the six – Cárdenas and Toledo – were released to humanitarian house arrest. The releases by Caracas were a goodwill gesture following US President Trump’s comment in June 2020 of possibly directly meeting with Venezuelan President Maduro. Later, Trump walked back on the opening, reiterating the US regime-change policy: “I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”
The remaining executives were again granted house arrest, only to be transferred back to prison in October 2021 after Alex Saab was extradited to the US.
Other US citizens imprisoned in Venezuela – US mercenaries or innocents abroad
The US maintains that the CITGO Six are wrongfully imprisoned, although noting that “PdVSA has long been a vehicle for corruption.”
An even harder case for asserting innocence is that of two former Green Berets arrested in May 2020 in connection with a plan to kidnap President Maduro. Luke Denman and Airan Berry were leaders of Operation Gideón. Derisively dubbed the “Bay of Piglets,” their amphibious assault failed.
Then in September 2020, ex-Marine Matthew Heath was apprehended near an oil refinery and accused of terrorism and spying. At the time of Heath’s capture, he possessed a grenade launcher, a sub-machine gun, C4 explosives, and a satellite phone along with bricks of $20 bills. Not your typical tourist, even the Washington Post suggested Heath was tied to the CIA.
The case of Eyvin Hernandez is perhaps the least known. The former Los Angeles public defender was detained earlier this year when he was caught illegally crossing the border from Colombia into Venezuela without proper papers.
US-Venezuela prisoner swap negotiations
Last February, family members of the imprisoned CITGO Six met with Department of Justice officials and urged them of accept a prisoner exchange to free their relatives. The Associated Press reported the families “vented” against the extradition of Alex Saab by the US. The Venezuelan government’s goodwill gesture of moving their loved ones from prison to house arrest had been reversed after Washington perversely reciprocated by extraditing Saab.
The Biden administration was also pressured by Representative Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He complained: “These Americans deserve a whole of government effort to getting them home, and Congress equally shares the responsibility and desire to get this mission accomplished.”
While a prisoner swap may be considered, the US also claims the authority to conduct military operations and impose sanctions against states holding illegally detained Americans. But, then again, Washington routinely takes such actions with even weaker excuses.
Swap rumors circulated in March 2022. Without advance publicity and veiled in secrecy, an unprecedented high-level US delegation visited Venezuelan President Maduro. The delegation was led by National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez and was accompanied by hostage affairs envoy Roger Carstens. Carstens had previously traveled to Caracas in December of last year to meet with the CITGO Six, Matthew Heath, and the two former Green Berets.
Afterward, Venezuela released former CITGO executive Gustavo Cardenas and Cuban-US naturalized citizen Jorge Fernandez. The latter had been arrested on terrorism charges for flying a drone on the Colombian border with Venezuela.
Venezuela’s latest goodwill gesture has not been reciprocated by the US, although it is widely believed that the two countries are continuing prisoner swap negotiations through confidential back channels.
Precedent of the Cuban Five’s release
The US is reluctant to engage in prisoner swaps on the grounds that such magnanimity encourages hostage taking. Nevertheless, that reluctance can be overcome as it was in the case of the Cuban Five.
The Cuban government, cooperating with their US counterparts in the “war on terrorism,” supplied Washington with information on terrorists plotting against Cuba from the US. Instead of arresting the terrorists in September 1998, the US imprisoned five Cuban undercover intelligence officers who had infiltrated US-based terrorist organizations to protect their homeland.
Two of the five Cuban heroes, as they were known back home, were released after basically serving their sentences. The remaining three were released in December 2014 in a prisoner swap, ostensibly for US spy Rolando Trujillo, but really for alleged US agent Alan Gross.
Gross’s well-connected family had launched an aggressive drive for his release. More significantly, a massive international solidarity campaign to free the Cuban Five proved to have been decisive. Cuban President Fidel Castro promised that the five would be freed, and he kept his promise. Venezuelan President Maduro, meanwhile, is demanding Alex Saab’s repatriation.
Roger D. Harris is with the human rights organization Task Force on the Americas, founded in 1985, and on the #FreeAlexSaab campaign. He visited Cabo Verde in June 2021 in an effort to free the diplomat.