Why Families of U.S. Hostages Overseas Are Growing Frustrated with Biden
On October 16, Cristina Vadell (Veronica Vadell) found themselves frantically following the dotted line of a plane’s path on a flight-tracking website from their homes in coastal Louisiana. The plane, owned by the U.S. Justice Department, was traveling to Miami via Cape Verde.
This was exactly the scenario that the sisters had been anticipating for many months. Tomeu Vadell their father is. Six U.S. citizens have been held in prisonVenezuela since November 2017. The U.S. government claims that the charges are corruption trumped up. The so-called “Citgo 6,” employees of the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, had been granted house arrest in April in what was widely seen as a goodwill gesture from Maduro to the new U.S. President Joe Biden. The house arrest had given their father (aged 62) a respite from the miserable conditions and COVID.He was exposed to a range of risks while in military prisons that were crowded, where he had been held for many years with his fellow detainees.
Cristina called her dad in Caracas to tell him what was happening. They had agreed on a code word. Soon after, he texted his wife: “They are here looking for us.” After that, he stopped responding. Just hours after Saab’s extradition, the Citgo 6—five of them American citizens and one a U.S. permanent resident—had been picked up by Venezuela’s intelligence service SEBIN and sent back to Maduro’s notorious Helicoide prison.
The development crushed family members back home in Texas and Louisiana, some of whom had been communicating their concerns over Saab’s extradition to State Department and National Security Council officials for months, begging for a contingency plan. “This is emotional torture for us, and mental and physical torture for our dad,” Veronica Vadell tells TIME. “And it’s not only the Venezuelan government that is doing this at this point, it’s the U.S. government too…back and forth for four years. Each time an opportunity presents itself, the U.S. either doesn’t pay attention or isn’t prepared to answer. Now it’s directly putting their lives at risk.”
The U.S. decision to go ahead with Saab’s extradition, knowing Maduro might retaliate, has confirmed these families’ long-held fears that despite assurances, the Biden Administration is prioritizing broader foreign policy goals over securing the release of their loved ones. This had happened once before: after being granted house arrest in December 2019, the men were put back in jail two months later when Trump welcomed Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó to the White House. Some critics, including lawyers and former officials who work in hostage affairs, told TIME that Saab’s extradition was ill-timed, risking the recovery of the Citgo 6 and three other Americans detained in Venezuela for Saab’s facing money laundering charges in a U.S. court and potential domestic political gain.
“Somebody made a political decision that talk of democracy in Venezuela, which is not going to happen anytime soon, is more important than rescuing American citizens,” says Jason Poblete, a Washington-based attorney who has represented U.S. citizens held hostage abroad, including members of the Citgo 6. U.S. officials were aware of the possible repercussions for the American hostages if they extradited Saab, he says, but “despite the Administration knowing that could happen, they went ahead with it anyhow, and the men were picked up.”
Biden’s Administration faces increasing pressure from not only the Citgo 6 family, but also the families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained all over the world. They, too, fear that their loved ones’ release could be sacrificed to political calculations, and have been questioning whether the Administration is doing enough to bring them home.
On the same day that the U.S. executive was returned to Caracas prison, sixteen American missionaries were abducted by a Haitian gang on the outskirts Port-au-Prince. They are demanding $1 million per head. While the White House says U.S. officials are working “around the clock” to help secure their release, the renewed attention on the issue has put a spotlight on the Biden Administration’s handling of less prominent cases around the globe. For this story, the White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“The U.S. can no longer continue to be bogged down in burdensome processes or policy debates that keep our loved ones from coming home and keep us uninformed of what you can and cannot do to help us,” the families of more than two dozen individuals detained in Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Venezuela wrote Biden in a letter on Monday. “We need to be shown that the promises of your administration to prioritize the return of our family members are not empty.”
Donald Trump, Former PresidentIt was a matter of frequently and publicly highlighting U.S. efforts to retrieve Americans held hostage or being detained overseas as part of his “America First” foreign policy. He praised the “America First” foreign policy not long after he left office. His recordMore than 50 Americans were released from detention in 22 different countries. This included Andrew Brunson (an evangelical pastor) who was held in Turkey, Xiyue Zhang, a Princeton graduate student, and two Americans being held in Iran by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Trump demanded their release and met with relatives. He also invited two former U.S. prisoners who were released under his administration, to join him at 2020 Republican National Convention.
Despite Trump’s brazen capitalizing on those optics and his Administration’s unorthodox approaches—including a high-profile effort to free American rapper A$AP Rocky after he was accused of assault following a fight in Stockholm— the community of hostages’ families took this as a welcome signal that their loved ones’ cases were being prioritized at the highest levels.
This feeling has lessened since Biden was elected. Many people felt positive after speaking to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Advocates say that there was less engagement from the President and National Security Adviser levels with their families under the Biden Administration.
Families feel that meetings and statements from top U.S. officials illustrate “the prioritization and the importance of their loved ones’ cases among all the competing policy concerns,” Margaux Ewen (executive director) of the thThe James W. Foley Legacy Foundation tracks cases of Americans who are being detained abroad and supports their families. “The reality is that there are very few Americans who have returned from captivity in the past nine months, so we…are very concerned by that.”
Continue reading: The American Hostages Left Behind for Trump’s Taliban Peace Deal
According to Foley Foundation there are currently 66 U.S. hostage cases and wrongful detention cases that have been publicly reported. This includes the 16 Haitian missionaries who were kidnapped. This is a dramatic situation. Maintaining this page. This stand-off has brought attention around the world and prompted high-profile responses by the Administration. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says he personally briefs Biden on the situation every day, and told reporters on Oct. 26 that the President has a “deep interest in making sure every single one of those Americans gets home safely.” Although they have provided few details, White House officials have insisted that the FBI and the State Department are working in a “coordinated U.S. government effort” to help free the American missionaries.
There has been bipartisan support to overhaul U.S. hostage policies since 2015 when President Barack Obama issued an executive order stating publicly that the U.S. government can negotiate or communicate with hostage-takers. These reforms have been codified in recent legislation. Also, by creatingThe interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell is located at the FBI, and assists in the Haiti case.
The Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, passed by Congress in December 2020 and signed by Trump before he left office, is meant to streamline the U.S. government’s response to these cases. Named after an ex-FBI agent, who was abducted and died in Iranian custody in 2009, the law also makes permanent positions at the National Security Council for a special representative for hostage affairs, as well as a group for responding to hostage situations.
“The United States will use every appropriate resource to gain the safe return of U.S. nationals who are held hostage,” the legislation says. It also states clearly that U.S. policy does “not preclude engaging in communications with hostage-takers… the U.S. Government may itself communicate with hostage-takers, their intermediaries, interested governments, and local communities to attempt to secure the safe recovery of the hostage.”
The following are theFamilies of Citgo 6 The limits have been evident in the last four years of the U.S. government’s willingness to follow through with these pledges in a case caught between Washington and Caracas’ ongoing political and economic battle.
Saab was a Colombian businessman who is close to Maduro. In 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned him and that he had been wanted by the Justice Department for money laundering. U.S. prosecutors allege that he was behind a corrupt bribery scheme that allowed Maduro and his allies to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from a government-subsidized food program. While U.S. officials undoubtedly hope his potential cooperation will shed light on the Maduro regime’s financial ties and how some of its leaders evade U.S. sanctions, this is likely to be a long, drawn-out legal process.
“The Venezuela [case] is just one illustration of policy considerations being put before the individual cases,” says Ewen. “It’s really important that the U.S. government not sit idly by, and not prioritize bilateral issues that are about broad policy versus figuring out the impact that decisions like extraditing Alex Saab have on six individual human beings who should have been home long ago.”
They are entering their fifth year in captivity. After being lured into Caracas to attend a business meeting, they were captured by unidentified security personnel in November 2017. The two were accused of embezzlement in connection with a not-executed proposition. Their lawyers, relatives, and U.S. officials claim that these charges amount to contrived. They were sentenced last year to lengthy imprisonment terms.
Continue reading: Six Americans held prisoner in Venezuela are hoping that COVID-19 will bring them home
“To be very clear, these are wrongful detainees,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Oct. 18,After they had been taken to prison. “The regime continues to detain them to gain political leverage….a Venezuelan court convicted these individuals after a sham trial without any evidence.”
According to their family, some of these men developed severe health problems over the years. The men had already received one dose COVID-19 vaccination while they were under house arrest and would receive their second once they return to prison. The military jail where they’re being held has been under scrutiny by Venezuelan NGOs for recent COVID-19 outbreaks and the subsequent deaths of high-profile prisoners. One week after the Citgo 6 were brought back to prison, the COVID-19-infected Citgo 6 was killed by a former Venezuelan defense ministry.
Family members of the Americans imprisoned in Venezuela tell TIME that there appears to be little political will to free their loved ones if it involves engaging with Maduro’s government. While they appreciate the efforts of many career officials that have been working on their case, they have been frustrated by both the Trump and the Biden Administrations’ insistence on tying any future Take hostage negotiations to the outcome of Maduro’s talks with opposition leaders, which they say seems to dismiss the urgency of their situation.
“We need communication between the U.S. government and Venezuela, otherwise I may never see my dad again,” says Carlos Añez, whose stepfather Jorge Toledo is one of the imprisoned Americans. “But it’s more important for them to bring one person to justice than to free six innocent people. That’s how I see it.”
According to the families, if Maduro’s opposition made progress at recent Mexican talks, the U.S. may engage with Maduro directly in order to free the Venezuelan government. Now, in retaliation for Saab’s extradition, Maduro has suspended those negotiations.
“Mr. President, we are frustrated by the lack of action by your Administration,” the families of the Citgo 6, as well as those of three other Americans being held in Venezuela, wrote in a letter to Biden on Oct. 18. “We refuse to accept that the U.S. government is holding back direct negotiations regarding the lives of Americans as leverage to get progress in an internal Venezuelan political dialogue…Our loved ones are already being played as pawns in Venezuela, it is unacceptable for our own government—your Administration—to do the same.”
Families of Americans held in Venezuela are unable to send anything but food, water and mattresses to their six brothers. They have returned to being kept together in one cell that is so tiny they must take it in turns to exercise. Phone calls have been sporadic again and relatives are left to peruse news stories, official statements and social media reports from both countries for any clues about the future.
“It’s like a horrible déjà vu that never ends,” says Denysse Vadell, the wife of one of the imprisoned Americans. “It’s too much for us. It’s just too much, going back to having our heart in our throat every day.” Her daughter Cristina added “These are peoples’ lives. This has to end.”