The top US State Department official for hostage and detention issues quietly traveled to Venezuela last month as efforts to bring home Americans wrongfully detained there continue.
Roger Carstens, the presidential special envoy for hostage cases, visited the Venezuelan capital of Caracas shortly before Christmas, a US official and detainee relatives told CNN.
According to the US official, the December 2022 trip – which has not been previously reported – was aimed at checking the Americans still imprisoned in Venezuela. Carstens was accompanied by American consular officials.
The United States no longer has official relations with the government of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and has no diplomats stationed in the country, making entry for Americans extremely limited there.
At least four Americans are currently incarcerated there: Luke Denman, Airan Berry, Eyvin Hernandez and Jerrel Kenemore. The latter two have been classified as wrongfully detained by the US State Department.
Kenemore’s sister Jeana Tillery told CNN that Carstens was able to visit her brother and Hernandez for about 30 minutes. They brought him vitamins and Bibles at his request, and his family was able to send him tuna as a Christmas present.
“When he first saw the tuna, he asked for a moment of silence, he was so happy,” says Tillery, who told CNN she can speak to her brother a few times a week.
Hernandez’s brother, Henry Martinez, said Carstens was able to deliver some of the family’s goodies, such as vitamins, soap, honey and chocolate.
“They could tell him they’re working on his release and they haven’t forgotten about him,” Martinez said.
Martinez told CNN that he is able to talk to Hernandez for about five to 10 minutes about twice a week, and he fears his brother is starting to lose hope as he approaches a year of detention in March.
Carstens has traveled to the Venezuelan capital several times to see Americans held there — many of whom were released by the Biden administration last year.
In March 2022, Carstens brought two Americans from Venezuela – one of the “Citgo 6”, Gustavo Cárdenas, as well as Cuban-American dual national Jorge Alberto Fernandez. However, another trip in June ended without a prisoner being released.
In early October, the government was able to free seven Americans – Jose Pereira, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano and Jose Luis Zambrano, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan – in a prisoner exchange with the Maduro government.
Carstens told CNN in an exclusive interview late November last year that the US has “an ongoing conversation with the other side.”
“So while we have work to do, I remain optimistic,” he said at the time.
Although the Biden administration has been in contact with Maduro’s administration on the prisoner issue, it still officially recognizes the opposition in Venezuela, which recently ousted Juan Guaido as leader. The US has eased some sanctions against Maduro’s government, but announced an easing of oil sanctions in November after the opposition and Maduro’s government resumed stalled talks and reached an agreement on humanitarian aid.