American citizen Jorge Toledo from Houston, Texas has been wrongfully imprisoned in Venezuela since November 2017. He works for US oil company, CITGO and was arrested in Caracas with 5 of his colleagues while they were there for a business meeting. Collectively, they are known as the CITGO 6. The US government has called for their immediate release.
On 8 March 2022, one of the CITGO 6, Gustavo Cardenas – was released. This is a positive step for the families of the 5 remaining members of the CITGO 6 as they are now hopeful their loved ones may come home soon.
This is our fifth episode on the CITGO 6. So far we have interviewed the daughter of Tomeu Vadell, Veronica Vadell Weggeman and the daughter and niece of Alirio Jose Zambrano and Jose Luis Zambrano, Alexandra Zambrano Forseth. Please do check out these episodes if you haven’t already.
On this episode, we have the honour of speaking to Jorge Toledo’s son – Carlos Anez. Carlos talks to us about the release of Gustavo Cardenas and his father’s serious health issues requiring urgent care. According to Carlos, Jorge has chronic bronchitis and his kidneys are not functioning properly. Every piece of information Jorge’s family is getting so far indicates that Jorge’s organs are on track for an eventual failure.
Carlos also talks about what happened to his father, his background, the conditions Jorge is being held in, the urgent need for medical care, the toll this has taken on his family, criticism of the Biden administration’s efforts to free Gustavo Cardenas by opposition party politicians and why the CITGO 6 families are pushing back on this criticism. We end the interview by discussing with Carlos what US President Joe Biden, Congress, State Department, journalists and the public can do to help free Jorge Toledo.
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Free Jorge Toledo, American held in Venezuela | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Carlos Anez
Daren Nair 00:05
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories every week, and let you know how you can help bring them home. I'm Daren Nair, and I've had the honour of campaigning with many of these families for years. These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us. People who have never given up hope, people who will never stop working to reunite their families. And we will be right there by their side until their loved ones are back home. Thank you for joining us. And now, let's meet this week's guest Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. It's been over four years since Jorge Toledo, an innocent American citizen, father and husband, from Houston, Texas, has been wrongfully imprisoned in Venezuela. Jorge works for US oil company, Citgo, and in November 2017, Jorge was arrested in Caracas while he was down there for a business meeting with five of his other colleagues. Collectively, they are known as the Citgo 6. The US government has stated they are unlawfully detained. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on the Venezuelan authorities to release the Citgo 6 unconditionally and return them to the United States. The US State Department released a statement on 21st November 2021, stating the following: "Today marks four years since US nationals, Jorge Toledo. Gustavo Cardenas, Jose Pereira, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, and Alirio Zambrano travelled to Venezuela for a Citgo Petroleum business meeting, and were not allowed to come home. After being invited to Venezuela, masked security agents detained all six men and imprisoned them on specious charges without due process or access to a fair trial. As a fifth Thanksgiving holiday approaches, we continue to seek the unconditional return and the release of all US nationals wrongfully detained overseas. Secretary Blinken will continue to relentlessly pursue the release of these individuals. To the Venezuelan authorities who have imprisoned them, we ask that they be allowed to return to the United States to reunite with their families." That was a statement from Ned Price, spokesperson for the US State Department. These innocent Americans are being held by the Venezuelan authorities to extract concessions from the United States government. This is state sponsored hostage-taking, also known as hostage diplomacy. I'm happy to say that there has been some good news recently. On 8th March 2022, one of the Citgo 6 members, Gustavo Cardenas, was released and is now back home in the United States with his family. Gustavo was released with another American citizen by the name of Jorge Fernandez. The following is a statement from President of the United States, Joe Biden, on their release. "Tonight, two Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela will be able to hug their families once more. We are bringing Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Fernandez home. Cardenas was arrested in 2017 as part of the so-called Citgo 6, and he has endured five years of hardship and imprisonment at the hands of an unjust system. Fernandez was arrested last year on spurious charges. These men are fathers who lost precious time with their children and everyone they love, and their families have suffered every day of their absence. I am grateful to Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Roger Carstens, and our entire diplomatic team for their tireless efforts to secure their release and reunite these families. Unjustly holding Americans captive is always unacceptable. And even as we celebrate the return of Cardenas and Fernandez, we also remember the names and the stories of every American who is being unjustly held against their will, in Venezuela, in Russia, in Afghanistan, Syria, China, Iran, and elsewhere around the world. My administration will keep fighting to bring them all home." Now, if you've listened to our podcast before, you'd know that this is our fifth episode on the Citgo 6. We've interviewed Tomeu Vadell's daughter, Veronica Vadell Weggaman three times, as well as Alirio Jose Zambrano's daughter and Jose Luis Zambrano's niece, Alexandra Zambrano Forseth. If you haven't listened to these episodes, please do check them out wherever you get your podcasts, or on our website, podhostagediplomacy.com. Today, I'm joined by Jorge Toledo's stepson, Carlos Anez. Carlos, I'm so sorry for what you, your stepfather and your family are going through. We'll do everything we can to help. Thank you for joining us.
Carlos Anez 04:52
Thank you, Daren, and thanks for having me.
Daren Nair 04:54
You're welcome. For our listeners who aren't aware, can you please walk us through what happened to your stepfather?
Carlos Anez 05:00
Absolutely. On November 2017, on a Saturday night, my stepdad and my mom were kind of enjoying their last couple hours of the evening watching TV. And my stepdad got a... got an email saying that he had to travel to Venezuela tomorrow for an important meeting. This being, you know, a Sunday morning, so Saturday night, he had to pack a bag and had to get ready to leave on Sunday morning for a meeting that had to do with discussing the business plans of Citgo for the following year, two years, discussions on budget and planning, etc. So, he took off that... that Sunday morning. Based on... on his role at the company as VP of supply and marketing, going down to Venezuela on a semi-regular basis was nothing strange, right? That was that was part of his job. He was at the time handling a crude supply agreement of 300,000 barrels a day coming from PDVSA to Citgo. And seeing as they were, at the time, starting to navigate through sanctions, it seemed like a fair request to go down on such short notice and have to discuss these things. What he did find peculiar was that there were eight vice presidents on the same airplane going down to Venezuela at the same time. That... that was not common. So he... he showed up to Venezuela on Sunday. They went to the PDVSA headquarters. They sort of pre-planned what the presentation was going to be about. The next day. Monday, they went back to PDVSA where Jose Pereira led a presentation. And they were supposed to fly back that Monday. However, Monday evening, Jose Pereira received a request from Nelson Martinez, back then the president of PDVSA, saying, "hey, it's going to be important for you all to stay another night, show up to the closing statements tomorrow of the presentation, and then after that y'all can can go home." So, once again on Tuesday, with bags packed and ready to go the airport, my dad and the others showed up to the PDVSA headquarters. And during this presentation, the DGCIM armed forces went to the room and placed six of them under arrest. What, you know, most people don't know is what happened to the other two, because they were eight on the plane. One of them was immediately tipped off by Nelson Martinez. When the man showed up, Nelson Martinez told him to go right back to the US, just said, "no, we don't need you here. You need to go back to the US immediately." And this was at the time the VP of Legal at Citgo. The other person was, at the time, the Vice President of Finance, who happened to be at the meeting, but during the time of the arrest, they told him, "no, you're not under arrest, you can go." And so he... and he left, he left and he came back to the States and continued working for, I don't know, maybe six months or so. During which time there seemed to be a strong revaluation by the US government of who was in charge of Citgo. At the time, they were trying to get Asdrubal Chavez to run Citgo and some of these other folks and the US slowly kind of faced him out. So, this VP of Finance is now in Venezuela. He has very close ties to the Venezuelan government. Therefore, you know, he did not get arrested. So, at that point, my... my dad and the others were taken to the DGCIM where they spent 30 days completely incommunicated. During their arrest, one of the men brought up that he wanted to speak to a US representative, somebody from the US Embassy, because he was a US citizen. And that seemed to take the DGCIM by surprise. It seemed like they... they expected all the men to be Venezuelan. Not just Venezuelan, but PDVSA appointees to Citgo. So they asked, "well, who else is an American citizen?" And that's when they found out that five of the six were. For a period of about 30 days after that, they were completely incommunicated. We had no idea what their conditions were. They had no access to lawyers, they had no access to phone. And the authorities called this an adjustment period. This is when they spent their first 30 days inside that basement of the DGCIM. After 30 days, we got the first phone call from my dad and it, you know, it sounded... he sounded extremely desperate. He didn't know what was going on. And... and he was asking for... for food, for medicine, for water. He said he had been suffering from extremely bad headaches, due to dehydration, and a myriad of other issues. You know, we were... we didn't know what to expect. But, clearly, he was not being fed or taken care of in any way, shape or form down there. We had to provide everything from toothbrushes and toothpaste to toilet paper, food, water, you name it. Everything had to be supplied by us. And that's kinda when when this whole story started, and it's been it's been talked about before, but the first 10 months down there, my stepdad went from weighing 176 pounds. He was an avid marathon runner in great, great shape, down to about 120/125 pounds. Those... Those men, and including my stepdad, were... were practically being starved to death.
Daren Nair 11:11
So, you mentioned a few things that I just wanted to clarify. So, PDVSA is the parent company of Citgo. Correct?
Carlos Anez 11:19
That is correct. So PDVSA owns, if I'm not mistaken, 50.1% of Citgo, and the other 49.9% is owned by Russia.
Daren Nair 11:30
Right. Okay. And you said one of the VPs was tipped off by Nelson Martinez.
Carlos Anez 11:36
Correct. So, the VP of Legal, his name, Edeoardo Orsoni, he was just told to turn around immediately and come back to the States. We found out shortly after that he had resigned to his job very quickly after the arrests were made. And then he kind of disappeared for the next, I don't know, two years or so. And we found out later on that I believe he's been indicted, and he's having to work with the Department of Justice on whatever investigation they're conducting.
Daren Nair 12:10
So, who is Nelson Martinez?
Carlos Anez 12:12
Nelson Martinez was the President of PDVSA when the arrests were made. He was the one that originated the meeting request and who demanded that all the Venezuelan vice presidents made it down to Venezuela. When the list of VPs to travel was being assembled, he was clear that he only wanted the Venezuelans to go down, which created one strange omission and that is the Vice President of Compliance. At the time, with... with sanctions being put in place, it was becoming legally difficult for the company to navigate on how to conduct business properly. And so, sort of a team or a position was created, whose responsibility was to ensure that Citgo was in compliance legally, fiscally, environmentally, in order to conduct business properly. And that Vice President, Rick Esser, would have been key in going down to talk about the future operations of the company. But, because Martinez only wanted the Venezuelans there, he did not have to go.
Daren Nair 12:12
So, obviously, that was suspicious. Now, I've spoken to Veronica Vadell Weggaman. I've spoken to Alexandra Zambrano Forseth. They mentioned that your stepfather and the other members of the Citgo 6 were put on house arrest twice. Now, the nature of the house arrest varies. I know, for Tomeu Vadell, they needed... he needed to have, I mean, there were Venezuelan guards in the same house. Where else for the Zambranos, they didn't have guards in the house. They had to take these flight-risk photos every 12 hours, but they didn't have the guards in the house. So they had a bit more freedom. What was it like for your stepfather?
Carlos Anez 14:12
It was a bit different. So the... my stepdad had been on... put on house arrest actually three times. So, there was one point in which only him and Gustavo were put on house arrest while the others remained... remained jailed. But the first time, we we didn't know what to expect with house arrest. So, his best friend offered to have him stay with him at his apartment. And that's where we put him up. Now, we did not know that the guards were going to be inside the apartment 24/7, that they needed to have a copy of the house key to go in and out as they pleased, which caused a lot of stress for... for my dad's friend. It caused a lot of stress for the neighbours in the building, because they are not used to seeing armed forces, you know, patrolling their hallways, stairwells, elevators, etc. So yeah, every... it wasn't every 12 hours, I want to say it was maybe four to five times a day that they had to take a picture of my dad to send back to headquarters as... as proof that he was still there. There was one point in time during that first house arrest period where a raid was conducted of his friend's apartment, under the reasoning that they had picked up intelligence that somebody was trying to flee. And so, we're talking about several masked, armed men storming a residential building with long weapons to conduct a search on my friend's apartment. That created a lot of issues for my dad staying there. It...it scared my... my dad's friend. It just... it wasn't... it wasn't a very comfortable or easy stay. It wasn't what most people hear or think house arrest is like, on top of having guards with him 24/7, he had an ankle... ankle brace on the entire time, with... with GPS, satellite positioning and that kind of thing. After a period of... after the first period of house arrest, Guaido came to the States and he met with the Trump Administration. And in retaliation, the men were sent back to prison, except this time, they did not go back to the DGCIM, but they went to the SEBIN, to the big Helicoide facility in Caracas where they spent, you know, many months now under very different conditions. And where they continue to remain. The second time that my dad and Gustavo were put on house arrest, it was unknown to us why he was only them two and not... not... not the others. And then the third time, of course, they... they took everybody back out on house arrest and they were taken back to the Helicoide when Alex Saab was extradited from Cape Verde. In each of these instances, though, it's... it's clear that Venezuela was trying to create a window, maybe, of communication with the US. And the gesture of putting the men on house arrest was not in any way reciprocated. I believe that they put the men on house arrest in order to make something happen. And when that window of time closed, or when the US acted in a way that they did not agree with, such as having Guaido, you know, meet with President Trump, then they would retaliate and put the men back in prison. So that's... that's been a recurring theme and a problem for... for the past four years is that we feel that gestures have been made, and no... no positive responses come from the US in time to actually do something about it.
Daren Nair 18:12
Again, I'm sorry that your stepdad and the rest of the Citgo 6 are going through this, as well as yourselves, obviously. You mentioned this briefly when you explained what happened to your father. But can you talk to us about his background?
Carlos Anez 18:29
Yeah, my dad studied mechanical engineering at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas. From very early in his career, he worked with Exxon, and at some point at the end of 1996, must have been the end of 1996 when he received a job offer from Citgo, because we moved to the United States in January of 1997. And he had been with Citgo ever since. He... he... he has been my father figure. So, sorry, sometimes I say Stepdad. Sometimes I say, Dad. I like to refer to him as Dad because that's... that's who he's been for me. He's been in my life since I was four years old. So we, you know, we go back a long way and calling him Stepdad just feels a little like a disservice. But um, when... when... when he was detained, one of the first things I thought was, surely, Citgo will... will figure this out. He's been working for Citgo for 20 years, almost 21 years, very, very loyally. Surely, with their network, with their experience working in Venezuela, they'll figure this out, and they'll bring him back. And I couldn't have been more disappointed with how Citgo reacted to the situation. He... he has been a huge influence on me. I am an engineer, and I am in oil and gas because of him. I love music because of him. And we just miss... I miss him and want him back.
Daren Nair 20:16
There's only so many times I can say I'm sorry. Yeah. What are the conditions of the prison your father is currently being held in?
Carlos Anez 20:29
Currently, he... I know he was recently moved into a different cell that has a window. I think this is one of the very few times that he's been in a cell with a window. And...and the reason is he... he seems to be suffering from chronic bronchitis, something that... that he developed during his four years there. One of the first things that he started complaining about way back when he was at the DGCIM were... were breathing issues. He was also moved into that cell because, on his most recent return to the facility, he was having again trouble breathing. He was found a couple of times lying on the floor, just trying to get air from underneath the... the gate to... to their cell. And upon being examined by the doctor at the prison, the doctor suggested that he'd be moved somewhere where he would have fresh air. So that's... that's why he's there right now. And they've had to make modifications to their cell because there was no utility water in it. So, they've had to have a water tank installed, which I don't know the exact details, I think it's on the outside of the cell. And it... it provides them with their water to bathe you know, flush clean, that kind of thing. And they are completely responsible for, you know, their... their food and...and medical care, all of their toiletries and consumables, we have to supply all that. And of course, when the guards feel like punishing them, for whatever reason, the easiest thing to go for is their water supply, which will get shut off as a form of punishment. The... the cell when they first got put in the Helicoide was in absolutely terrible conditions. They said that the... the... the stench and... the stench coming out of the cell was enough to keep the guards out. And they really worked hard to try to keep the area clean, just to avoid themselves getting sick. So, it's been in, you know, there's there's no AC in there or anything. So it's super, super hot. But at the SEBIN, he has described the treatment in general and the conditions in general to be far better than what they were at the DGCIM. The DGCIM, for those that don't know, it stands for the Director General of Military Counterintelligence. Okay? It's a facility that basically processes spies or people who seem to be conspiring against the government. It's a really, really bad place to be in. They... they suffered a lot in there. They spent many hours completely in the dark as forms of punishment. They spent their days with bright lights, kind of like office lights turned on 24/7 The... the treatment from the guards was absolutely inhumane. And that's where they were starved for 10 months before they finally allowed us to start bringing them food. He was at that point where he kind of started gaining... gaining his weight back and starting to feel a little bit better, but they are far better where they are now than where they were before, if, you know, that's any consolation to us. But anyway, he deserves to be home. They all deserve to be home at this point. And, you know, I just hope something happens soon enough.
Daren Nair 24:30
I absolutely agree they deserve to be home. Now, you said your father's suffering from bronchitis. He contracted COVID-19 recently, right?
Carlos Anez 24:38
He did. He did go through COVID. And more worrying right now are test results that are indicating that his kidneys are not functioning properly. His creatinine levels are way above normal, and we're trying to get him to a specialist that can better assess what's going on with his kidneys. But everything that we're getting so far, indicates that... that... that his... his organs are on track for an eventual failure. And we're... we're extremely concerned about that. I don't know what it is that we can do down there because medical treatment is very... it's... it's completely lacking. A lot of times they... they... they see him, and they'll give him, you know, they give you antibiotics for anything in Venezuela, that's... you know. So, they tell him to take some pills and go back to the cell. And that's it. Nothing ever gets done until it is an absolute emergency. And so we're trying to get him help, before it's too late, or get him home before it's too late. One of the two. But yeah, he... he... he had COVID. He got through it. Luckily, he was vaccinated sometime before he contracted it, so maybe, you know, maybe that helped. But I know he was in... in... he was in bad shape because of his breathing issues. But he, you know, he seems okay, now. At least he's... he's gotten over that.
Daren Nair 26:16
Can you talk about the trial and sentence from the perspective of your father. Now I've spoken to Veronica Vadell Weggamon, Tomeu's daughter, Alexandra Zambrano Forseth, Alirio Jose's daughter, as well. And what I understand is, it was an unfair trial. So can you just talk more about that, please?
Carlos Anez 26:37
Yeah, absolutely. Well, beginning with sort of a shortened version of the timeline. From their moment of detention, they have to go through what's called a preliminary hearing, at which point the judge has to decide whether there is enough evidence to even go to trial. That preliminary hearing was delayed for... for years, for numerous reasons. And they could be anything from, well, "the prosecution didn't show up today. So we have to cancel the preliminary hearing, or the plaintiff didn't show up today. So we have to cancel the hearing." Or the men would not get picked up from the prison and taken to the courthouse, so they would have to cancel. During the time that Nelson Martinez, so the former president of PDVSA, he was very ill and he eventually passed away in... in detention at the DGCIM. When he was unable to make the trial due to his illness, they would cancel the trial because one of the defendants was missing. After he passed away, they would cancel the trial because he failed to show up. And when the attorney said, "well, how can you expect him to show up, if the man has passed away?" the judge will say, "well, I don't have a death certificate. So, I can't legally count that. So, since he's not present, we have to cancel meeting." So, they... they would grab on to any excuse to... to delay the preliminary hearing. Once it finally happened, of course, the judge sent the... the case to trial. And once the trial started is when their first period of house arrest also... also began. That trial had no... that trial was conducted behind closed doors. The evidence aside... aside... no. And I have... have hundreds, maybe thousands of court documents at this point that I've gone through, I would say 80/85% of them have absolutely nothing to do with the accusations. And then the papers that have anything to do with the refinancing agreement, none of them mentioned my dad's name. My dad's role in the company was one of operations, he was not one of finance. And so, he had absolutely nothing to do with trying to refinance the company's debt, nor was he aware that that was even occurring at the time. So, the... the trial went on, and the prosecutor kept making the same accusations that my dad and the others knew about this deal, that they were going to benefit financially from it, that they were taking advantage of their positions as public servants to benefit from this, that it would endanger the... the, you know, the country itself if this deal were to go through. And even without any evidence to back that up, the judge ruled in the... in the prosecution's favour and on Thanksgiving night of 2020, they were all convicted.
Daren Nair 29:52
The sentences vary by individual, right? So, what sentence... how many years did your father get?
Carlos Anez 30:00
Sentence was eight years and some odd months. I forgot exactly what... what it was. And I don't... I don't care too much for the sentencing because it really doesn't matter to me if he were sentenced to eight years or 20, because this has absolutely nothing to do with the law. Here, what Venezuela want is something in return. and until that happens, my stepdad will probably not be able to leave, even if his sentence is up. So, you know, the number it might hit my mind is completely irrelevant. But it's the same sentence that him and all the others got with the exception of Jose Pereira. His sentence was longer. But yeah, so a little over eight years, counting of course, the... the three years or so that they had already been in prison during the trial.
Daren Nair 30:58
Carlos, I was so happy when I found out that Gustavo Cardenas has been released. He was the guy who was with your dad when they were both in house arrest. I'm so happy for him and his family. What was your reaction when you found out?
Carlos Anez 31:12
So at first, it was a bit of a panic, because it seems these days Twitter is faster than anything. But, of course, everything on Twitter starts with... with a rumour. And so, it was at first trying to confirm that Gustavo was in fact being released. And then there were reports saying that two people were being released. There were reports maybe three people were being released, and they were trying to verify the identities of the other two. So, it was a bit of a panic to really find out what was going on. And then, once it was confirmed that it was Gustavo, and this other detainee, I finally just felt some... some relief that I knew what was going on. And I was really happy that Gustavo was coming back. I know his wife, Maria Elena, their son, Sergio, and, man, if there... if there's anybody that's going to be benefiting from having his dad back. it's going to be Sergio. He's... He's such a great kid. So, I was... I was really happy for him. And hoping, of course, that this was just one step into soon, hopefully soon, getting the rest of them back home.
Daren Nair 32:22
Yes, absolutely. So, it seems like a step in the right direction. So, I know you're dad was left behind. But, as I said, it's a step in the right direction. So, what do you think this means for your father?
Carlos Anez 32:36
Yeah, I don't think it... it mattered at this point who was brought home as long as somebody was brought home, because like you said, it just signifies it's a step in the right direction. You know, I hope that the efforts don't stop. I hope that the US government continues to engage Venezuela, because that's... that's the only thing that's going to get these men out, you know, this... this time that Roger Carstens went down. It was only his second time going down to Venezuela, which is one of the things that is the most disappointing is that it took almost four years for the US government to take its first trip down there. But it's finally happening. I encourage the US to continue going down there, continue the dialogue, and help bring the men back. My stepdad and, you know, the others were ecstatic to see Gustavo go home. I think they would have been happy to see anybody go home. And they kind of renewed their hopes. And, you know, that they just... they hope that... that this is the beginning of something that's going to happen this year, that they're all going to come home,
Daren Nair 33:46
I noticed there was some pushback from Senators and Congressmen on President Biden's efforts to bring members of the Citgo 6 home. And the families of the Citgo 6 have kind of pushed back and have written articles in the media about this, supporting President Biden's efforts to bring the Citgo 6 home. Are you able to talk... tell us more about that?
Carlos Anez 34:11
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I was very worried about that happening. I imagined that there was going to be a lot of blowback. And what I was concerned with was that the administration was going to change directions because of the blowback. And, if you've been reading the media, that's exactly what seems to be happening right now. What was appalling and disappointing to me was that that reaction was completely focused on the negative. You know, why is the administration going down to Venezuela? Why is the administration trying to supposedly make oil deals, you know, this and that, as opposed to saying, hey, they brought back two people? They brought back two people, one of whom had been held by the Venezuelan government for four years. That's what I didn't quite understand. You know, I think they should be... I think they should be commended for having retrieved two people and for having taken an interest in what I considered saving those people's lives, because the path that they're heading down is one of which we may never get to see them again. So, that was a bit surprising. There was, you know, I saw Senator Rubio, put, you know, a picture of Juan Gonzales on a plane and, you know, made fun of him for going down to Venezuela and posting this picture, as opposed to commending the guy on having gone down there and recovered two American citizens. So I, you know, that... that, to me, simply shows that we are not a nation that rallies behind the recovery of unjustly detained people abroad or of hostages held abroad. You know, to... to most, it's a matter of policy, of agenda, of optics as opposed to lives. And that's what worries me, and it's what tells me it's sort of the explanation as to why it takes so long to recover anyone who's ever held abroad.
Daren Nair 36:27
You're the tenth American family I've interviewed on this podcast, and they all say something similar. The others were held in Russia, Syria, China, and unfortunately, it's the same thing. Government... The pushback from the opposition, always makes it harder to bring Americans home. And I interviewed Diane Foley, founder and president of the James W Foley Legacy Foundation. She knows very well what's the consequence of not being able to bring American hostages home. And she said, the US government must prioritise the return of Americans held overseas. disincentivising the practice comes after. I believe it was Roger Carstens, Ambassador Carstens, who said this, it was someone else quoting him, saying hostage-taking has been going on for centuries. And no one has found an effective way to disincentivise this practice to date. So, it's great that they're thinking about disincentivising this practice, but the Americans currently being held like your father with medical conditions, can't wait for people to figure this out, when it hasn't been figured out for centuries.
Carlos Anez 37:47
Absolutely. And I listened to that podcast and I thought it was amazing. Diane just hit on so many good points that I was thinking, well, I don't think I'm going to have anything to talk about when... when I join you because she really hit the nail on the head with with everything that she said. Roger Carstens: he's... he's a fantastic individual. I really believe in him and his team. But he is not the sole decision maker. He needs the backing of the US government. And when their priorities are not aligned, it's really hard to get that. You know, I absolutely agree with Diane in what she said that when... when hostages are taken, we need to do everything we can to get them back. I know that one of the main arguments for not... not negotiating with hostage-takers. And I'm just generalising the term hostage here because you... She explained the distinction, right, between a hostage and someone who's wrongfully detained in that a hostage is being held by sort of a rogue organisation where someone was wrongfully detained is being held by a government organisation. So, we can... Let's get into that a little bit, because that's important. I did not know the distinction between a hostage and someone who was wrongfully detained until about three years into this situation, which is pretty unacceptable, because when you're trying to find the adequate resources to bring your loved one home, and you don't understand that distinction, it can be very frustrating. So, it's important to understand the difference between hostage and wrongfully detained. I think wrongfully detained is putting it very politely and it's kind of misleading because everybody asked me the same question. Wrongfully detained just sounds like it was a mistake. You know, he was held in there by mistake. And, you know, it sounds like somebody who was wrongfully detained should be released in a week because it was a mistake. Unjustly detained to me sounds a little bit better. But at the end of the day, both classifications of people are being held because somebody wants something in return. It has nothing to do with the law. And so they quote, or they... they... they claim that they don't want to negotiate with hostage-takers, because it would incentivise hostage-taking in the first place. If they start to make, you know, modifications to sanctions, if they start opening the doors for deals that host... American hostages are going to start being taken left and right. But as Diane pointed out, and I've talked to Cynthia Loertscher of the Foley foundation is there's really no... no data to support that. And while it may look badly for the government to do something that may somehow benefit the hostage-taker in order to get an innocent person back, the government has time and opportunities to fix those optics. Whereas these people are losing their lives, because the US is not getting them back in time. And that has me question why they said that is more important. Is it lives or is it politics? And it seems like politics is the driving factor.
Daren Nair 41:30
I absolutely agree with you, and it's not just the US government. I live in Britain. Last week, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an innocent mother from London, who was held hostage in Iran for almost six years, finally came back home. She was being held hostage because the Iranians wanted to force Britain to pay a 40-year-old 400 million pound debt. And after six years, after so much public pressure from her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who launched an amazing campaign, the Free Nazanin campaign, the British government finally agreed to pay this debt. And even though both governments, the Iranians and the British, said the payment of this debt is not related to Nazanin being held by the Iranians, unsurprisingly, once the debt was paid, she was released within a few days.
Carlos Anez 42:26
And you're talking about a debt, something that is actually owed. We're not talking about anything special in return here.
Daren Nair 42:33
Right, absolutely. So my point is, it's not just the US, other governments, even the British government, do the same thing. Now, what level of support have you received from the US government so far?
Carlos Anez 42:46
It's... it's hard to say in detail because we are not involved in the planning. We're not really like, for example, these two trips to Venezuela, we didn't know about them until after they happened. Okay? But we know that there have been third party facilitators that the US government has used... has tried to try to establish some sort of dialogue. You know, there's all of the... the public statements released by various Cngressmen, Senators, you know, the Secretary of State, SPEHA, and so on, and so forth. So, in terms of concrete support, all that I can say is that I know... I know that they're working. I know that they're trying their best. I feel like step number one, however, was delayed by four years, which was establishing a direct line of communications. There's something that I wish had been done sooner, but it's... it's happening now. And that's, you know, that's the most important thing. So, I know that they're working. But in terms of what exactly have they done, you know, aside from finally establishing dialogue, I'm not... not entirely sure. I guess it hasn't produced any results until now. And those results seem to have been due to establishing a direct line of communication. So hopefully, we're... we're in the homestretch with that. So, what should the US government be doing better? Well, if we're going to talk about disincentivising hostage... hostage-taking, that's definitely something that can be improved upon. You know, I think it all starts with education, okay, knowing where you're travelling, knowing what the relationship is between the US and that country. That's important to know, and... and those resources are... are available online. But in order for... for a leader of a nation, of a group to not want to take an American hostage, they have to be facing a risk. They have to understand that there's a high possibility of being arrested, processed and ultimately jailed for their actions. And as far as I know, the track record of successfully prosecuting a hostage-taker, by the US, especially when it's somebody in a foreign government is zero. So, if you can imagine, my dad and the others being held at the DGCIM throughout a world pandemic that was killing people. And they were willing to take that risk, over losing whatever leverage they had over the US by freeing them. That says something, because they don't seem to be concerned at all with the consequences of doing what they're doing. And if you want to disincentivise hostage-taking, you have to make sure that the parties who are doing this are successfully prosecuted. So, I understand it's very difficult, and it's not something that can be done quickly. But I think it's something that has to be worked on. Because I think that's how we're going to get there. If you, you know, if you put sanctions in place, if you make things difficult for other nations, of course, this is going to happen. And it's going to continue to happen. So, I think that's what the US government really needs to focus on is, number one, like Diane said, when this happens, they need to focus on getting people back and... and then dealing with the aftermath. And number two is coming up with a more creative approach to... to disincentivising nations from taking American hostages.
Daren Nair 46:40
I agree with you. Now, what can Congress do better? And like I said before, I've interviewed the families of other Americans held overseas, specifically, the parents of American and former US Marine, Trevor Read, currently held in Russia, as well as Paul Whelan, also a former US Marine, held in Russia. And a bipartisan resolution has been passed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, calling for the release of Trevor Reed and, I believe, Paul Whelan as well. Or for Paul Whelan, it may have been just... just the Senate. But my point is, Congress has passed bipartisan resolutions, calling for Americans held overseas to be released and to be brought back home to the US. Should Congress put forward a resolution for the Citgo 6?
Carlos Anez 47:35
You know, I'll have to look into that. I don't think it hurts anything. If that happens, I understand that it'll... it will show the family's support within the government. But the resolution in and of itself, to me, doesn't mean anything, if nobody is in the background, pressuring the US government to actually get the people back. You know, it's like Twitter statements. You know, I don't... I don't care for those anymore. We want... we want... we want results. We want somebody back there actually putting in the work to get the men back. You know, statements to governments that take Americans hostage mean absolutely nothing. So, there has to be... there has to be communication, there has to be somebody trying to actually bring them back.
Daren Nair 48:22
On that note, what should the State Department and SPEHA office be doing better (SPEHA being the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs)?
Carlos Anez 48:32
Using every tool at their disposal, be it a government organisation or not, continuing to establish that direct line of communication and keeping it open with Venezuela, continuing to advocate for the release of the men, pushing for the US to do whatever is necessary to bring them back as opposed to only doing the bare minimum that they can live with to bring them back. That's what... that's what they need to keep doing. You know, the Richardson Center has done a tremendous job, going down to Venezuela originally, and... and getting that line of communication open. I'm entirely sure that they've had a lot of influence over the... the outcome of things, including the releases to house arrest and such. So, State Department needs to continue to keep those relationships alive in the hopes of eventually finding a way to bring the men back.
Daren Nair 49:25
What should President of the United States, Joe Biden, be doing better?
Carlos Anez 49:28
You know, if... if he's going to lead from the top, he needs to establish hostage recovery as a priority in the United States government. If he doesn't do that, then things will never change. Or until a president does that, things are never going to change. It's always going to be about politics and optics and not about saving lives. So, he... he... he needs to give the word that this is going to be a priority for anybody who is involved in foreign affairs.
Daren Nair 49:56
So, I understand to date, he has not mentioned the names of all members of the Citgo 6 publicly. He did mention Gustavo Cardenas when he was freed, but he hasn't mentioned the remaining five members of the Citgo 6. Is this because if he does, it... it raises the price of the hostage?
Carlos Anez 50:16
Yes. And it's the same reason why we did not go to the media for a year or so after the men were detained. We were always advised to keep things quiet, because we didn't want to raise the price, we didn't wanna make them high profile. The problem is, when you don't put public pressure on the government, you end up feeling forgotten. You know, you don't see any progress being made. And you have to... it feels like you have to start making some noise. Now, like I said, it's optics matter a lot. So, when it is becoming a public thing, that the US is not doing anything to free American hostages, then they start acting. With... with regards to the President, you know, if... if that's gonna raise the price of the hostages, then so be it. I mean, are you trying to say that my dad's life is not worth that price? You know, it's like I said before, your priority needs to be bringing the men back. And then you have time to... to figure out how to reflect on those steps or... or go back to implementing the policy that you had originally put forth in the first place.
Daren Nair 51:31
So, on this point, right, I mentioned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British citizen who was held hostage in Iran for almost six years. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, launched his very public campaign. He was initially told by the Foreign Office to stay quiet because the public campaign would make it harder to bring her home. He didn't listen. And he was right. And yes, it did, in a way, kind of raise her profile, kind of increase the price. Well, I mean, there's no data to confirm that. I can't tell you how the Iranian authorities were thinking. But one thing we know for sure, because she had such a high public profile, her case was known worldwide, she was probably one of the most protected hostages in Iran's Evin Prison. I mean, I'm not saying they treated her well. But she definitely was treated better than the other prisoners and hostages because she was worth a lot more to the Iranian authorities. So, she was released with another hostage last week. She was... she was on house arrest. The other hostage, Anoosheh Ashoori, wasn't. And yes, you could say that her sentence was shorter. But if you look at the way they were treated, because one case was much more high profile, Nazanin was treated better. And... and like you said, your father needs medical treatment. So, if... if President Biden does make the Citgo 6 more well known, the Venezuelans are more likely to take better care of your father and the other members of the remaining Citgo. 6, give them the health care they need. So yes, there is a positive and a negative here about raising their profiles.
Carlos Anez 53:30
Yeah, that's... that's a really interesting point. You're going back to there being a, you know, a lack of concern to what happens to the Venezuelan authorities with... with the situation is that Mr. Pereira, as you know, suffered a stroke or a heart attack. He... he barely made it back alive. And as soon as he was in good enough shape to go back to his cell, they put and right back in his cell. So, you know, the Venezuelans are risking a lot here by being so close to losing any one of them through a pandemic and losing one of them recently. So, I don't know. It may... it may not matter how important they are here in the US. Venezuela just wants to get whatever it is they want to get.
Daren Nair 54:23
So, I've spoken to many families, it's not just your father who's being held hostage by the Venezuelans, the families being held hostage as well. So, how has this injustice, this trauma affected you and your family? And how have you been coping?
Carlos Anez 54:42
Oh Man, I'm sorry, just as you're asking that question now. This is... this is the toughest part because it's... it's affected... it affected my relationship with my wife and with my kids a lot, especially the first two years, because I was 110% committed to bringing my dad back. I obsessed over the case. I read every piece of documentation. I spent countless hours with... with lawyers, with members of Congress, with the government, doing interviews and things like that. And after two years, I had to... had to take, to take a big step back, to try to fix my relationship with my wife and my kids, because it was becoming increasingly harder to maintain. So yeah, so the past two years, I've really just been trying to be more of a father and a husband, and accept the fact that this is completely out of my hands, that all I can do is press and advocate. But I can't bring him back myself. So I've had to take, or I have to let the US government, the Richardson Center, and them just kind of take the lead on the case, and I've had to take a backseat, otherwise, it was gonna, you know, cost me more than just my dad's freedom. So...
Daren Nair 56:22
I'm so sorry to hear that. And, I mean, you're not alone. So, there is a community of hostage families out there, willing to help each other out. Because the one thing, as you know, is not many people in the world actually... actually very few know what you're going through. And it can feel quite lonely. So, but the key thing is to remember that you're not... you're not alone. And, I mean, I wouldn't say that it's positive that there are six of you, the six members of the Citgo 6, but, I mean, positive would not be the right word. I think the silver lining is, at least, you're not going through this alone. There are other... another five families with you going through the same thing. Your father is not on his own, he has his five colleagues, and now four colleagues to lean on, and you lean on each other. So, there is some... there's a brotherhood, there's solidarity, and you know that they'll take care of each other, they'll watch each other's back. So, I mean, at least that's a silver lining, right?
Carlos Anez 57:32
Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, after... after all this, I know... I know, some of us are gonna... are gonna continue to talk and be friends and see each other outside of this situation. You know, I know some, like, you know, some cope by going to therapy and... and talking about this. And, to me, sort of my... my coping, the only thing that gets this off my head for... for a little while is just spending time with my kids. I have an eight-year-old and a six-year-old daughter. And it's just spending time with them that kind of clears things up for me and makes me feel like a dad again.
Daren Nair 58:13
Well, that's good. So, it's been what now...? You're in your fifth year working to free your father. And you kept quiet initially. What approach have you been taking to campaigning and advocacy? When I looked you up, I saw a photo of you sitting next to former Vice President Mike Pence. So, you obviously did some advocacy work. Can you just talk to us more about that?
Carlos Anez 58:40
So, for you know, for some families, it's been about being very vocal, you know, the Vadell family have done an amazing job at staying out there with the situation. For me in particular, especially because of what I just spoke about the past couple of years and trying to focus more on my family, I've taken more of a targeted approach, where I want to try to support the efforts of the US government by staying quiet when we need to stay quiet, and raising the issue back up when we feel that nothing has been done. So... and that that includes, you know, whether it's media interviews, or whether it's contact with the State Department or members of Congress, members of the Senate, you know, we'll just touch base every now and then and say, "Hey, what's... what's going on? Things feel stagnant. You know, can you... can you... can you assist here in any way? What are you doing to assist? Are you keeping in touch with the State... you know, the State Department? Are you helping them out? Are you giving them what they need?" So, it's a... it's a... it's a targeted approach, depending on how we feel the case is progressing at the time.
Daren Nair 59:49
Now the Citgo 6 have, fortunately, received some decent amount of media coverage. What can the journalists and news media do more to help?
Carlos Anez 59:59
Yeah, we... We have been lucky that we received good media coverage with... with our case. You know, Trish Regan at Fox, CNN, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald and The New York Times, Reuters, they... they've all published something on... on the Citgo 6 and many others have, Univision, NBC, I mean, they've all done... they've all done pieces on... on the issue. It's normally when something important happens, when it becomes sort of the hot thing to talk about. And then you're quickly forgotten over another issue that comes up. So, we we lost a lot of track during the entire year that COVID was running rampant, you know, because that was the thing to cover. So, I definitely think the media could focus not just on the story of the Citgo 6, in... in... in a way that they can continue to put pressure on the administration, but also cover the unbelievable amount of time that it takes an administration to bring somebody back. Because, you know, I touched on... on... on this a little bit earlier that I thought working for Citgo would mean that we would have the backing of a company that was going to help us solve this issue. And on the other side of that is having that American passport, I thought was going to help us solve this issue. You know, at that time, I... I knew about Justin Foley, I knew about Joshua Holt who had been held there. And I never expected to be sort of put on the backburner for so long. So, I definitely think the media have a good opportunity to bring that to light because I think people will be very, very upset to know that if they are unjustly detained somewhere that they are potentially looking at years before they come home again.
Daren Nair 1:02:06
What can the public do to help bring your father and the rest of the Citgo 6 back home?
Carlos Anez 1:02:14
If they want to take a few minutes to write to their representative to express their concern over the issue, that will go a long way. You know, that's... that's kind of where we started. We started with a representative of my mom and dad's district. Back then it was Pete Olson. And we were helped by an attorney named Sofia Adrogue who Alexandra had a connection with. And she, I mean, she's the reason why we made it as far as we made it in such a small period of time. Because, you know, it's been mentioned in... on a previous podcast, there's no... no playbook for us to follow when... when your loved one is detained. And Sofia, who knew Congressman Olson, set up a meeting. And that's when we first spoke about it. And she... she helped us go from there. So her aid was absolutely invaluable. So... and where I was going with that is that...that Congress was sort of our first step. And so, if people want to take a minute to write to their representative and express their concern not just for the Citgo 6, but for Americans detained abroad in general, and question your representative. "What are you doing to help these people come back?" You know, express that you would not want to be somebody who travels abroad only to be detained and forgotten about. That... that's going to raise... that's going to raise some eyebrows. It's going to make people go to work on that. So, you know, if if someone really wants to work, or if someone really wants to help, if you can take a few minutes and do that. And we would... we're glad... we would really appreciate it.
Daren Nair 1:03:57
So, if I'm a member of the public, I'm living in the United States, let's say a different state, New York, I want to write to my representative. What are the key bullet points you want me to cover in my message to my representatives?
Carlos Anez 1:04:16
Okay. So if you're, you know, a member of the public, and you're writing to your... your your Congressman, it doesn't have to be a long drawn out note. It just has to be something that says, "I just found out about this case, it's been going on for far too long. What is it that takes so long to bring Americans home? And what are you doing to improve on that? We're very concerned for these people." That's... that's all you have to say. In... in numbers, those emails really become important for these offices.
Daren Nair 1:04:53
Okay, that's good. And how can members of the public keep up to date with the campaign to free the Citgo 6?
Carlos Anez 1:05:00
So, in a previous podcast, you mentioned the Citgo 6 Coalition. So, a website that was started by Alexandra Zambrano a while back, and you know, her purpose was... was to keep people up to date with the case. And I know they send out emails every now and then when there are updates. So, that's one way that you can do it is go to the Citgo 6 Coalition page and you'll sign up for the... for the newsletter. You know, don't... don't be alarmed if you don't get updates for months because the situation just drags on for very long sometimes, and nothing's happening. But... but that is how you can keep in touch with... with the situation. Aside from, of course, the... the media articles and everything that we try to put out on on a semi-regular basis.
Daren Nair 1:05:49
Carlos, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
Carlos Anez 1:05:53
Thanks, Daren. No, you know, just... I just want the US government to keep on trying to keep those lines of communication open. And I want to thank you for having me here today. And I want to thank the Richardson Center, the James Foley Foundation, the Luminate Group, and everyone who's been involved so far in... in trying to get my dad and the others home. You gotta... we gotta keep fighting. We have to try the... we have to do whatever it takes now to bring them home, and then figure out how we prevent people from being taken in the first place.
Daren Nair 1:06:35
You're welcome, Carlos. It's an honour to help. And I said this before, I'll say it again. We'll be right here by your side until your father comes back home. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us.
Carlos Anez 1:06:46
Thank you, Daren.
Daren Nair 1:06:53
Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We're not just a podcast, we're a community. If you're on Twitter, and would like to post a message of solidarity to the families or have any questions for us, please tweet it using the hashtag #PodHostageDiplomacy, and we will get back to you. If you like what we're trying to do, please do consider supporting the show financially. You can do this using the support the show link in the description of this podcast episode. We're grateful for any contributions, no matter how small. Thanks again for listening. And we'll be back next week. Take care.