US official quietly traveled to Venezuela to visit detained Americans
(CNN) — A senior US State Department official for hostage and detainee affairs quietly traveled to Venezuela last month amid attempts to free and bring home Americans unjustly detained in the South American country.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, visited the Venezuelan capital of Caracas shortly before Christmas, another official and relatives of the detainees told CNN.
According to the US official, the December 2022 trip — which had not been reported until now — focused on verifying the situation of the Americans who are imprisoned in Venezuela. Carstens was accompanied by US consular officials.
The United States does not have official diplomatic relations with the government of Nicolás Maduro and does not have any diplomats stationed in the country, which means that access to Americans there is extremely limited.
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Currently, there are at least four Americans detained in Venezuela: Luke Denman, Airan Berry, Eyvin Hernandez and Jerrel Kenemore. The latter two were designated by the US State Department as wrongfully detained.
Kenemore’s sister, Jeana Tillery, told CNN that Carstens managed to visit her brother and Hernandez for about 30 minutes. She brought them vitamins and bibles at their request, and her family was able to send her tuna for Christmas.
“When he saw the tuna he asked for a moment of silence, he was very happy,” said Tillery, who told CNN that he is allowed to speak to his brother several times a week.
Hernandez’s brother, Henry Martinez, said Carstens was able to deliver some goodies from the family, including vitamins, soap, honey and chocolate.
“They were able to tell him that they are working on his release and that they have not forgotten about him,” he added.
Martinez told CNN that he is able to talk to Hernandez about twice a week for about five to 10 minutes, and that he is concerned that his brother is starting to lose hope as his first anniversary of detention approaches, in March of last year.
Carstens traveled several times to the Venezuelan capital to see the detained Americans, many of whom the Joe Biden government assured last year that they would be released.
In March 2022, Carstens brought two citizens to the US from Venezuela: one of the “Citgo 6”, Gustavo Cárdenas, and the Cuban-American dual national Jorge Alberto Fernández. However, another trip in June ended without the release of any prisoners.
In early October, the Biden government was able to free seven Americans: José Pereira, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano and José Luis Zambrano, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan, in a prisoner exchange with the Maduro government.
Carstens told CNN in an exclusive interview late last November that the United States has “an ongoing conversation with the other party.”
“So even though we have work to do, I feel optimistic,” he said then.
Although the Biden government has had talks with Maduro’s on the issue of prisoners, it continues to officially recognize Venezuela’s opposition, which recently ousted Juan Guaidó as its leader.
However, the US relaxed some sanctions intended against the Maduro government, announcing an easing of oil sanctions in November after the opposition and the ruling party resumed stalled talks and reached an agreement on humanitarian aid.