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US envoy fails to secure release of Americans detained in Venezuela

  • 30 Jun 2022

America's chief hostage negotiator Roger Carstens, in a visit to Caracas, fails to secure freedom of at least eight Americans detained in Venezuela over terrorism and other charges, US officials say.

Though Roger Carstens's visit did not lead to releases, it was the latest sign of tenuous re-engagement after years of hostilities between US and OPEC member Venezuela. ( US State Department )

A US delegation led by President Joe Biden's chief hostage negotiator has ended a visit to Venezuela after failing to secure the release of any of the Americans detained there, US officials said.

Hostage affairs envoy Roger Carstens was part of a group that met Venezuelan officials this week to press for the handover of prisoners and coax President Nicolas Maduro's government to restart stalled negotiations with the country's opposition, according to people familiar with the matter.

Carstens and US Ambassador to Venezuela James Story were especially focused on the case of Matthew Heath, a US Marine veteran hospitalised following what his family said was a suicide attempt last week after nearly two years of imprisonment.

The US officials were allowed to visit Heath in a Venezuela military hospital, the sources said.

Heath is one of at least eight Americans known to be held in Venezuela, including five executives of Citgo Petroleum, a US-based unit of Venezuela's state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela.

Though the visit did not lead to releases, it was the latest sign of tenuous re-engagement after years of hostilities between the United States and OPEC member Venezuela, amid Russia's conflict against Ukraine that has hit global oil supplies.

READ MORE: US delegation arrives in Venezuela amid gas price rise

US softening Venezuela policy?

Talks this week did not include Venezuela's oil sector, under US sanctions since 2019, according to sources familiar with the matter.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed Carstens and Story's departure. 

"The trip focused on discussions about the welfare and safety of wrongfully detained US nationals in Venezuela and to press for their release," the spokesperson said, adding Carstens saw detainees to "assess their well-being."

A statement issued by Heath's aunt, Trudy Rutherford, on behalf of his family said that despite Carstens' "best efforts," the US delegation "was not able to secure an emergency medical evacuation for Matthew."

Heath was arrested in 2020 on terrorism charges, which he denied. US officials said Heath was not sent by Washington and accused Venezuela of holding him on trumped-up charges.

In March, a White House-led delegation, including Carstens, met Venezuelan President Maduro, and a potential easing of US sanctions was among the topics discussed.

Venezuela soon freed two Americans – a former Citgo executive and a Cuban American – and promised to resume talks in Mexico with the opposition. Maduro has yet to agree on a date to return to the negotiating table.

But since the March visit, the Biden administration has taken a few steps to slightly soften its Venezuela policy.

Republican lawmakers and some of Biden's fellow Democrats have criticised the US approach as too conciliatory toward Maduro.

READ MORE: Venezuela reportedly frees two jailed Americans after talks with US

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