White House

Pence promises to ‘use all means’ for detained Citgo executives in Venezuela

Vice President Mike Pence told the family of six Citgo executives who have been detained in Venezuela for 16 months that the United States would “use all means at our disposal” to secure their release.

The vice president read the names of all six men, including five U.S. citizens, slowly as their families bowed heads.

“We are with you, we are going to stand with you until your loved ones are free — until Venezuela is free,” Pence told them.

The invitation — their first from the White House — to meet with Pence and later State Department officials are the latest move by the Trump administration to keep up pressure on the Caracas regime as the U.S. government seeks the fall of Venezeulan leader Nicolás Maduro.

The six Citgo executives were enticed to come to Caracas under the auspices of an emergency meeting. Then on Nov. 21, 2017, authorities arrested Tomeu Vadell, Jose Angel Pereira, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano and Gustavo Cardenas and charged them with embezzlement, contract malfeasance and money laundering. They are being held at a Caracas detention center run by the Venezuelan Military Counterintelligence Division, according to the U.S. government.

“The Maduro regime has denied repeated efforts by these families to meet with their loved ones,” Pence said. “They’ve canceled 16 separate court hearings.”

Pence signaled to the families sitting around a table in his ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, near the White House, and said they were a testament to the “brutality” of Maduro’s leadership.

Pence then turned to Veronica Vadell Weggemaan who described the terrible conditions that she says her father and the other men have been held under for nearly 500 days.

She told Pence the men are kept in cells in the basement, with no light and little access to fresh air. They haven’t had any contact with family in four weeks, she said.

“It’s been hard,” Vadell said. “ We’re concerned for their health and safety as Venezuela’s situation continues to deteriorate. And we need all the help that we can get to bring them home.”

Carlos Anez, whose stepfather, Jorge Toledo, has worked for Citgo for over two decades, said he was encouraged by the Trump administration’s focus on their case and cited its track record securing the release of hostages held abroad.

“We just want them home as soon as possible,” Anez said. He added “we are confident that, soon, you’ll be able to extend the same warm welcome to them.”

Pence stopped short of calling the men hostages and referred questions about whether Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O’Brien is involved to the State Department.

“I can assure you that we’re going to use all means at our disposal to secure their release,” Pence said.

But he also acknowledged he expected “that none of that will happen” as long as Maduro is in power.

Pence promised the families that the United States would continue to put diplomatic and economic pressure on Venezuela until Maduro leaves and democracy is restored.

“At this point, the president is looking at a broad range of options,” Pence said. “There is a great deal more that we can do. And we’re prepared to do it.”

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.