American citizens and brothers from Texas, Alirio Jose Zambrano and Jose Luis Zambrano have been wrongfully imprisoned in Venezuela for over 4 years now. They both work for US oil company, Citgo and were arrested in Caracas in November 2017 together with four of their American colleagues. Collectively, they are known as the Citgo 6.
The US government has publicly stated that the Citgo 6 are unlawfully detained. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and current US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both called for their unconditional release. Their families believe they are being held as bargaining chips to extract concessions from the United States. This would be hostage diplomacy.
On this episode, we have the honour of speaking to Alirio Jose Zambrano’s daughter, Alexandra Zambrano Forseth. She talks about what happened to her father and uncle as well as recent developments including one of the Citgo 6 members having a heart attack and the US Special Envoy For Hostage Affairs, Roger Carstens visiting the Citgo 6 in prison in Venezuela. She also talks about her father and uncle’s medical conditions, the toll this has taken on her family, what the US government, Congress and President Biden should be doing better to bring the Citgo 6 home as well as how journalists and the American public can help.
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Free The Zambranos, Americans held in Venezuela | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Alexandra Zambrano Forseth
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 honor 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. I'm Daren Nair. This past November marked four years since brothers Jose Luis Zambrano, and Alirio Jose Zambrano, both from Texas, both American citizens, both fathers and grandfathers, have been wrongfully imprisoned in Venezuela. They both work for US oil company, Citgo, and were arrested in Caracas in November 2017, together with four of their colleagues. Collectively, they're known as the Citgo 6. The US government has stated that 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 Jose Zambrano traveled 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 six 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. This was made clear when the Citgo 6, who were released on house arrest earlier in 2021, were all taken back to prison in October by Venezuelan authorities in what is believed to be retaliation for the extradition of Colombian businessman, Venezuelan envoy and close confidant of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Alex Saab. Alex Saab was extradited to the United States. He faces charges of money laundering in Florida, related to his activity as a government contractor in Venezuela, as well as money laundering and fraud charges in his native Colombia. Now, if you've listened to this podcast before, you'll be familiar with the Citgo 6. In September, we interviewed Veronica Vadell Weggeman, daughter of Tomeu Vadell, who is a colleague of Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Jose Zambrano. We interviewed Veronica again in October, on a breaking news pod episode, the day after her father and the rest of the Citgo 6 were taken back to prison from house arrest. Please do listen to those episodes if you can. Since the Citgo 6 were taken to prison in October, there have been a number of significant updates which we'll cover in this episode. Today, I'm joined by Alirio Jose Zambrano's eldest daughter, Alexandra Zambrano Forseth. Alexandra, I'm sorry for what you, your father, your uncle and your family are going through. We'll do everything we can to help. Thank you for joining us.
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 04:23
Daren Nair 04:24
For our listeners who aren't aware, can you please walk us through what happened to your father and uncle?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 04:32
Right, so this was the weekend before the Thanksgiving break in 2017. And I remember it was a Saturday evening, and my dad got a call to go on a trip, a business trip, to Caracas for an urgent meeting. And there weren't a lot of details given. but obviously my whole family's like texting on WhatsApp and just kind of... My mom's like, I don't know why he's being asked to do this. And he doesn't know either. And they actually got in an argument before he left because Mom really didn't want him to go. But he didn't think he could say no. So Sunday morning, he was picked up by a Citgo jet in Corpus Christi. He was the refinery manager of the plant in Corpus Christi, and then taken to Sugar Land, Texas, where the other executives were, and near Houston. And then they flew to Caracas. When he got there, the last picture I have of him is like a selfie at a hotel. And we were all, you know, kind of upset that he was there, but you know, trying to wish him luck. And then, Tuesday morning, I was at work. This was the 21st of November, and I was actually about to give a really big presentation. And I was getting all the like, PowerPoint up and everything. And I get, you know, several calls in a row from my family. And so I stepped out of the room and take a call from my sister, and she was like, Alexandra, Dad's been put in jail. And I was like, everything just stopped around me. And I just remember being in this very glossy, you know, exec, you know, corporate building, and I'm just sitting here like, in shock. And I said, okay, like, Do you know anything else? And she was like, No, we're trying to find everything out that we can. And all I can say is I think I just went into absolute shock. Somehow, like, deliver this presentation, I have no idea what happened. It was like a blur. And then I like immediately went to my boss's office right after he saw me give this presentation. I'm like, my dad's being held hostage. Or I immediately thought something was wrong, because obviously, there's no reason my dad should be put in jail. And we knew he was in Venezuela. And my boss just looked at me as many have across the past, you know, four years, not really in disbelief. And he was like, yeah, go home, do what you need to do. And, you know, I started getting on the phone, calling my family, trying to figure out what was wrong. And one of the first calls I made was actually to a lawyer in Houston called Sofia Adrogue, who had been a very big influence in the Hispanic Student Association that I was in. She's a Rice alumni, and had a lot of connections in the community. And I was like, okay, if somebody knows how to get things done with the State Department, with the government in Houston, it's gonna be Sofia. So I immediately reached out to her and she actually, you know, called me back that night. And I feel like she was the one that really helped us get going that first night, but it was an absolute nightmare, and an adrenaline, you know, rollercoaster. So that night, I actually drove to Katy, Texas, where you know, some of the other families are from, but a lot of my dad and my uncle, and my Venezuelan side of my family live there. So, we all kind of drove in from everywhere. One of my aunts actually flew in from England, you know, to just like, kind of have this gathering of the minds. And that was where we started being able to piece together what was going on. We had only found all of this out from the news, and from family members and friends in Venezuela, kind of letting us know through WhatsApp. Hey, I think they're here. We actually had like a, very close acquaintance be able to kind of figure out where they are, and follow them to the courthouse, kind of follow where they were. It was a miracle that they were able to do that. But that was the only way we had any idea where they were. So, it wasn't until, you know, much later, we're talking about 12 plus hours later that we even really knew that they had gone into their last meeting. You know, they had their suitcases packed in a company vehicle. And they've gone in planning to leave right after that to head back to the States for Thanksgiving. And in the middle of this meeting, these guards come in, from the DGCIM, which Veronica Vadell has kind of gone through this part and explained a little bit about what all those letters mean, and all of that. But essentially, you had armed guards come in, put them under arrest, take all of their belongings away and send them into essentially a basement hole, and into essentially a place where they keep political prisoners and folks that they need to extract information from. So probably, one of the worst locations you could be at, as far as Venezuelan prisons go. Those first 24 to 48 hours were an absolute nightmare. I mean, the whole thing was a nightmare and is still a nightmare. But feeling completely adrift, didn't hear from Citgo until literally the next night. So, imagine your dad's on this business trip. He's been a loyal company employee for almost 30 years. And you're sitting there like, what is Citgo doing? Like, whose responsibility is it to get my dad in this situation? And I think that's one of the biggest things at this point that I'm 100% clear about the other hostage families should be is that at this point in how the United States handles hostages. The family has to own and drive and understand everything. You have full ownership over getting this person out. But at that point in the game, we didn't know. So, we're looking to the State Department, we're looking to the senators, we're looking to, you know, Citgo. We're thinking someone's going to unlock this SWAT team to get them out of there. And, of course, you know, four years later, that didn't happen. So, over the past couple years, they spent like the first two to three years in the DGCIM, which was that essentially torture prison, where it's been well documented that folks have died, because they were tortured. When they were put back in jail recently, in October, that was not the first time that the Venezuelan Government has shown that they are human pawns. The first time was in February of 2020, when former President Trump hosted Juan Guaido. The Venezuelan Government retaliated by putting the men back in jail from house arrest. That had been the first time they were on house arrest. And it was, even though it was only like two to three months, it was a huge, huge thing for our family to be able to see these guys. When they were in the DGCIM, it was almost impossible to talk or anything. So that was a roller coaster. And then it happening again here in 2020. You know, I think Veronica said it well, in your Breaking News episode. It, it's just enough is enough. And our families are not really interested in house arrest. Again, we don't we just want them to come home. And we're not really interested in compromises anymore. And so ever since being back in the Helicoide, which is a different prison, obviously, than the DGCIM. Very recently here in November, Ambassador Carstens was able to make a visit to Venezuela to meet with officials there as well as meet with the men. So, for all intents and purposes, this is their first consular visit, in the four years that they've been detained, wrongfully detained. And, as far as we know, from details that he shared, and some details that our families have shared, they were able to have a private meeting in the... in the prison. They were able to, you know, shake hands, even hug. You know, the Vadell family shared that there was a, you know, their dad felt like this huge burst of hope. I think he spoke for all of them. And... and he, he was even able to get like handwritten letters from our family members, to us and to the US government, you know, so the kind of proof that yes, all of this did happen. But I, you know, I, at the time, I was happy, but I was also feeling devastated for my dad and for my uncle, because I can only imagine after, you know, I'm sure they've been dreaming of this magical moment where the US government swoops in and gets them out of there. And can you imagine, like, you actually see that happen? And then they're like, oh, yeah, we're not here to take you home. We're just here to you know, check on you. I just can't imagine. I know how I felt. I think they were... they have a lot of grace. And I think they were happy anyway. But I can only imagine deep down they were like, you know, how much longer? How many more times does this carrot have to be dangled in front of my face? And so it was positive news, because it sounds like you know, Ambassador Carstens is being able to get the leverage from the US that he needs to even go down there and engage directly versus going through interlocutors like the Richardson Center, etc. At the same time, it's like, you know, how long is this? Essentially a dance gonna go on before, you know, these guys are on a plane back to the United States.
Daren Nair 14:56
Can you talk to us about your father and uncle's backgrounds? So I know they're from Texas. I know that your dad has worked for Citgo for almost 30 years. Can you just give us an idea of their background? And perhaps, maybe why these six men were targeted,
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 15:14
Right. So my dad is the oldest of six children. And really, like most Venezuelan families, the oil industry is kind of where, where there's most, a lot of careers and a lot of opportunity. So my dad was the first one of his family to come to the United States to get his college education. So he actually went to LSU - "Go Tigers." He went to LSU when he was like 17, and he met my mom who's from Mississippi in college. And you know, they got married and actually went back to Venezuela where he went to work for PDVSA for a while. My uncle, my Tio Jose Luis is a couple years younger than my dad, but my dad kind of forged this path for his brothers and sisters to also get their education in United States. So. my Tio Luis actually did, essentially, he actually finished high school in Gonzalez, Louisiana, which is just a little bit outside of Baton Rouge. And then he also went to LSU. They both got engineering degrees. Dad got a mechanical engineering degree. My uncle is an industrial engineer. And then they both returned to Venezuela to begin their careers in the oil and gas industry. My mom and dad had me and my sister while they were in Venezuela, and when I was about seven, they... my dad was selected with actually the group that included Mr. Vadell and a few others to go ahead and get transferred to Citgo in the United States. I think it was a means really, of of being able to integrate, you know, Venezuelan folks into the culture at Citgo since it is a Venezuelan owned American company, which is a very confusing relationship. But that that was part of the reason and... and to essentially groom and train potential future managers at that company. So, it was pretty much top performers that were asked to go. That was about 1999. My dad and mom moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where one of Citgo's largest refineries are and he kind of started just like everybody else does, kind of the bottom of the totem pole. He was a project manager, and then he slowly started working his way up. My dad's actually, my dad's like, always been this overachiever, very hard worker. It wasn't enough just to be a mechanical engineer, he decided that he was going to go back to school and become a chemical engineer, because he thought he would have more opportunities. Like you told me who does that I wouldn't. I'm a chemical engineer, I don't know if I could go back and get another engineering degree. So he, with three kids at this point, my... my baby sister had been born in 2000. He goes back to school while working, gets his chemical engineering degree. And then that's really when his career took off. He started having more supervisory roles. And when I was in high school about like, 2010, you know, that that's whenever he really was able to do more several supervisory roles and was getting positioned to be one of the top managers in the refinery. Mr. Vadell, for example, actually worked at the same refinery that my dad did, and was actually his supervisor for a really long time. So we... the Vadell family is probably one of the only families that we actually knew before this whole thing happened. And it was really devastating for us to feel like, you know, knowing each other for so long, and knowing how much integrity our parents have, and like how much they've tried to be part of the community, local community, you know, how proud they were when they were natural, became naturalized citizens. And just, you know, in disbelief, that... that something like this could happen to these men that are so well known in the community. So, then when I graduated from college in about 2014, my dad was offered essentially a top three executive-ish role at the Corpus Christi refinery, and kind of from then, eventually landed in the highest position, which is the vice president of the refinery. And that was the position he was in when he when he was asked to go on this trip. My uncle, on the other hand, kind of the shorter version is he eventually came over to the US through Citgo Asphalt, which is a different part of the company that no longer exists. But he came up through the procurement chain, and that was kind of the highest position he was in was the essentially VP of procurement and human resources. As far as, you know, what does this all have to do with why they were down there. So eight people actually got called down. And as you can see only six, the Citgo 6, have been in jail. One of them sort of got tipped off. The other one, we have no idea, kind of ran off into the ether. But the only thing that these people have in common is that they worked for Citgo, and that they were Venezuelan, and that they had VP in their title. And I think Veronica Vadell Weggeman also mentioned this, but many of them had only been put in their VP quote unquote, executive position within two months of being taken. What was also very strange is that they were, you know, asked on this trip out of nowhere. This combination of people would usually not have gone really anywhere together as far as traveling goes. So, it was a very strange, very strange that dad, for example, they have two other refineries. They have one in Chicago area, and then another one, like Charles. Dad was the only refinery manager that was asked to go on this trip. So, it begs the question. Where were all the other American VPs? There's more VPs than just the ones that went on this trip. Right? So it was obviously targeted to Venezuelan executives at Citgo. And they claimed...
Daren Nair 21:38
Sorry to interrupt, but... sorry to interrupt, but when you say it was targeted at Venezuelan executives, we're talking about the executives that have both American and Venezuelan citizenship, because the reason why your father, uncle and the rest of the Citgo 6 are being used as pawns is because they are Americans as well. If they were just Venezuelans, they're less likely to be used as pawns. They're being used to extract concessions from the United States, because they have American citizenship as well. Right?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 22:09
So, that is what one would think, looking backwards. Is that okay, the Venezuelan government knew that many of these men have dual citizenship, and they were going to get all of these, you know, benefits from taking them hostage? What my family believes, at least is that they may have not known that some of these men were... men were naturalized citizens. And at the time, you know, politically, in Venezuela, what we can't leave out, which is so important is that this didn't happen in a vacuum. Maduro and his team were trying to progress a quote unquote, anti-corruption movement, ahead of elections coming up in 2018. And so, they specifically, you know, got imprisoned tons of folks in PDVSA, and then wanted to almost make a show of look, we also, quote unquote, are getting corruption out of Citgo, which we own. So, for us, that we think that it was more of a short term grab, a consolidation of power, that then once they realize that some of these men were naturalized citizens, they saw the opportunity to capitalize on and really drive home using them as pawns. The allegation is that these men were part of trying to refinance Citgo's debt, without the authority of the board, and trying to potentially embezzle money and spy for the United States and all kinds of crazy allegations. And I mean, it's, the allegations are really baseless. And in addition, there's been many reports published that show that yes, you know, the CEO was investigating refinancing Citgo's debt, but that was at the request of the PDVSA board. And there's been many, many documents of meeting minutes with signatures from the PDVSA board requesting, you know, these activities. And frankly, most of the other men that were imprisoned here, the Citgo 6, had nothing to do had no knowledge of this potential refinancing. So it's really when you get into the details of the allegation, it's like any other hostage diplomacy situation where, you know, you find this little crumb of something that you could misconstrue into a crime and then you blame people for it, and you really don't ever have to prove it. Or, you know, even deal with the fact that you made it up, or that it was wrong. So, the allegations aren't really where we've focused. We have, thankfully, been able to give all and any information that we have to the US government and to the NGOs to convince them of these men's innocence. And that took a little while, you know, when when you're a hostage, you have to really sit there and prove, hey, my dad's innocent. I literally sent packets to the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, I mean, you name it, I sent whole packages, with, like, all my dad's personal information, as if they didn't already have it. But, you know, asking them, like, please, please look into this. My dad did nothing wrong. I mean, that is how, you know, convinced we are that this is a sham. And it got to the point where we were like, if he did do something wrong, please tell us so that we could actually, you know, do something about it. And frankly, maybe that's a way to extradite him back to the United States, if he did anything wrong in the United States, which he did it, you know, so thankfully, you know, we were able to get that cleared out of the way pretty quickly, you know, within six months of them getting taken. But, you know, this whole time, we have had to deal with the typical patterns of a developing country's court system, which is that there is little to no due process. And the machinations of due process are 100% levers for the government to send messages. So for example, you know, from 2017 to 2019, their preliminary audience where they could even set a trial date, for example, was delayed over 15 times. So, these men would get taken to court, they'd sit there all day with every single time they go to court, we have no idea what's going to happen. So huge emotional roller coaster, no media is allowed in, you know, it's a disaster and... and, you know, then they just send them back to the prison. Oh, it's delayed to this next date, delayed to this next date. Every single time this is happening, in addition, you know, we're having to figure out how to pay legal fees. You know, we don't know where the case is gonna go. It's a disaster. And it wasn't actually until like, mid 2019, that they even had a trial date set. Then after that trial date was set in the Venezuelan legal system, they don't actually have to put a date ever. They don't actually have to honor it. So, they just said, yes, you're going to go to trial. It wasn't until November of 2020, over a year later, that they were actually quote unquote, sentenced, and, quote unquote, found guilty, which I don't know if I believe that the Venezuelan Government's coordinated enough for this to be true, but we got that sentencing over the Thanksgiving break. So, every Thanksgiving for us is kind of a nightmare. But especially in 2020, it was like, okay, really, like after delaying and not setting a date, you randomly decide my dad's guilty, you know, three years after... after he was taken hostage away for me. So, that was kind of... kind of brutal. Yeah. And so even... even in, you know, 2020, we kept fighting. And then, you know, in April out of nowhere, the men were... were put back on house arrest. And we can only imagine that that may have had something to do with a change in the administration, from former President Trump to now President Biden, with maybe the Venezuelan government trying to send a message. That was a really long period from April to October that they were on house arrest. And the men had completely varying experiences, you know. My dad and my uncle, they didn't have to have the guards in the apartment. They were able to have, you know, I think it was like 12 hour shifts between pictures that they you know, we're not a flight risk, etc. Other families, they had very, very different and worse situations. But it wasn't until after the men were taken back to the Helicoide here in October that all the families, were able to work through the Foley Foundation and write a very public letter to President Biden. Because really, we'd had enough. We told them about Saab and the potential extradition. We told them, we were worried about it. We were worried about retaliation, and nothing was done, as Veronica mentioned. And I think we just had enough, and we were tired of playing nice. It's always a balance with everyone you're working with in a hostage situation, that you're trying to keep relationships going. You're trying to keep that trust. But at this point, it wasn't getting us anywhere. And thankfully, I think that letter lit a fire under the administration to enable SPEHA to do more. And that's actually I think, what got Roger the... sorry... Ambassador Carstens, the available opportunity to go to Venezuela at all. So, yeah, it's a lot of lessons learned, for sure.
Daren Nair 30:16
So what are the conditions of the prison? Your father, your uncle and the rest of the Citgo 6 are currently being held in? Obviously, when they were on house arrest, you could have a video chat with them. But what is it? What are the conditions the're currently being held in? And how often are you communicating with your father?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 30:38
So right now, all six men are in the same cell. I don't think it's any larger than a small room. I don't have the exact dimensions. Veronica mentioned that they have to share a toilet. It's an open space. They do what they can to keep things clean. Right now, we actually, my family, the Zambranos, have hired someone to deliver food every couple days. They... they don't... they don't really have the ability to talk to us. They can call us maybe like a couple times a week, for two to three minutes, depending on what they... they can negotiate with other prisoners, or maybe the guards. And sometimes we're able to get letters to them. And they can have visitors, too, all of this at the whim of the guards. But you know, it's really about depending on people's personalities at the time, whoever the guard is, and then seeing if family members can get them letters. So, I feel like I'm living in the 1800s or something, where, you know, my dad gets news about things like two to three weeks after it's happened. And then I hear from him. And we actually have a structure to our letters where it's like, okay, this is what's happened. These are the answers to your previous questions. Here's what's next. You know, it's, it was a big shift back after we've been in more easy communication. While he was on house arrest, he had Wi Fi, we were able to celebrate our first Father's Day with him and our first birthday with him that we had since he was taken. And it was so emotional. I mean, he was able to have a real birthday party with friends at the apartment from Venezuela. He actually ran a virtual 5K with me while he was on house arrest, so he could run like in the parking lot in front of his apartment. The guards would let him do that. And so he ran a 5K, and it was so cool, you know, to be able to do that at the same time with him. We like timed it. And then, you know, once I got back and I could call him on WiFi. I was like Dad, like, you know, what was your time? And you know, it's embarrassing. He actually beat me. He actually did better than me. So, it's kind of like that's, that's not okay. You know, the old man still got it. But yeah, I guess, you know, what I'm trying to say is when he was under house arrest, and my uncle, too, it wasn't perfect. But, you know, we could begin to heal. We could... we could really chat and... and work through things that needed to be worked through just emotionally, you know, like, we've changed, he's changed. And probably most importantly, my sister has two girls, Iris and Olivia. And he was able to really like get to know Iris, the oldest over the phone. And she calls him Poppy. And so she would seem and go Poppy, Poppy. And it's just like, you know, you just, that's the stuff that just hurts so bad, is the little stuff. And so that's... that's what makes it so hard that they're back in Alequade and kept from these simple moments that make life worth it.
Daren Nair 33:39
I'm genuinely sorry, your family are going through this. And I know after... after being so close to being free for that six months under house arrest, now going back to what it was like previously, where you can't speak to him as often as you'd like, you can't see him anymore, can be heartbreaking. So, I'm truly sorry for that. Does your father or your uncle have any health issues that require medical care? And if so, is this provided?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 34:09
Yes. Man, it's just hard a little bit to talk about. I mean, you know, my dad's just getting older, like everybody does. He's always had high cholesterol, high blood pressure. He wears a... like a CPAP when he goes to sleep, And he has... he magically, out of all the things we've been able to send over there, my mom was able to get him his CPAP and the parts and thankfully he was like, he's been able to plug it into the wall and wear it. I think the thing that breaks my heart the most is the untreated high blood pressure has actually led to him losing his eyesight a lot due to glaucoma, him and my uncle. And it's just kind of like the tip of the iceberg of like, what's been lost, what's been taken from him. I think the biggest elephant in the room is his PTSD. I mean, he has PTSD. I don't think a lot of people talk about this. But, you know, he's written to me before about nightmares. He has nightmares. He, you know, has... he has little, like panic attacks sometimes. And I think a lot of the men do, but they don't talk about it. And I mean, that's the biggest thing that I... I think he handles as best he can, is that he's a prisoner, and he has mental health issues on top of literal, physical health issues. And, you know, thankfully, he's been able to stay strong, but anybody would be going through serious mental health issues. And I just... I just pray and pray everyday that he stays spiritually strong, and... and all of them and continue to stay strong. But yeah, Venezuelan Government doesn't do anything to help with that. They don't, you know, the only time that you could get a medical assistance of any kind is like, what happened to Mr. Pereira, where he literally almost died in that prison. And, you know, had had some sort of emergency situation. The men literally had to, like, carry him out of there, get him into an ambulance, and it was only at the hospital that he was able to somehow magically be revived. But, you know, the Pereira family went through an incredible trauma. And then you know, what's taboo, he gets no special treatment for that. He's back in the cell with all of them. And they all had the trauma of seeing, you know, someone they've had to go through this together with first, you know, the past four years almost die right in front of their eyes. So, you know, just that kind of stuff happens all the time. When they were in the DGCIM, they were absolutely tortured there. They were all put in a closet at one time with like, no clothes, for hours. They had to listen to people get tortured with batteries. You know, they dealt with like mob fighting situations. Because if you recall, you know, in 2018-2019, a lot of big protests were happening in Venezuela, a lot of uprisings were happening. And a lot of the, you know, military personnel that were allegedly part of these things were being put in the DGCIM. And the Venezuelan government was absolutely trying to send a message by. you know, torturing these folks. And, you know, many, many people have died in these prisons, not just due to the... the conditions that they're in, which are filthy, but just due to the complete lack of medical care. So, by the time something happens, it's an emergency and it's too late. And yeah, we worry about that all the time.
Daren Nair 38:07
So, for our listeners, Jose Pereira, one of the Citgo 6, he had a heart attack, right?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 38:12
Daren Nair 38:13
You've already covered this. But how have you and your family been coping these last four years? Because it's not just your father and your uncle that has been held hostage? You, your family have basically been held hostage as well, these last four years. So how have you guys been coping?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 38:34
It has been a journey. The way we have been coping is by having... by developing really clear roles and responsibilities, which Elisabeth Whelan talked a little bit about in her podcast, another, you know, family of a hostage. Developing clear roles and responsibilities, trying to have boundaries with this horrible trauma that we're living, how, you know, trying to have a normal life and support each other and having a quote unquote, normal life. And, honestly, I would say the other two big things is like going to therapy, individually and as a family has really helped. Because, like, for me, personally, I've always tried to be like, positive and proactive and like, I've got it, and I'm the oldest sibling. And you know, it wasn't until about a year in that I was like, gosh, I'm so tired. Like, no matter what I do, and you know, what's happening to me, and I would like get an email with like, a small critique at work, like, Hey, could you change this slide? I think it could, you know, and I'd start crying at my desk. And, you know, I talked to my husband about it and he was like, Alexandra, maybe you should go see someone this isn't really like you. We'll come to find out, you know, I of course had situational anxiety and depression. Duh, you know, but it took me really being emotionally just drained and torn up to actually get the help I needed. And like, get medication, everything. And, you know, thankfully, I've been able to encourage my family to do the same. And that's really helped us stay resilient and be able to, like, have the energy to keep fighting and, you know, not just fall into a pit of despair. And I think, you know, lastly, I think a lot of us have tried to find spiritual solace, in all of this. Whenever something like this happens, you want to be angry at the universe, like, why... why is this happening to my dad? He's innocent. You know, why does the US government not care more? Why would the regime. like, do this to us? We're not special people. And, you know, I think you either... you can kind of pick your three ways, you can just kind of not care, you can be angry at God, or whatever you call it, or you can try to see, have some faith, that this is for some sort of reason and, and really try to build a spiritual relationship that makes sense for you with your higher power. And I think that's something we've all tried to do. That's kind of helped us stay positive as well.
Daren Nair 41:16
I think as people would say, this is not something that happened because of you, this is something that happened to you. And it's not your fault, and you're doing the best you can, and we'll do everything we can to help out. So, stay strong and know you're not alone in this. It's been four years now, since your father and uncle have basically been held hostage by the Venezuelan authorities. I know you've been campaigning publicly. So, what kind of approach have you been taking to campaigning and advocacy. So, when I spoke to Veronica Vadell Weggeman, Tomeu Vadell's daughter, she told me that her family didn't go public straightaway. They waited to see if this could be resolved quietly behind the scenes And, after not seeing any progress, they then went public. I asked her if she had to do this, again, would she go straight to the media on day one. And she said, "yes." So, your family's in the same situation. What are your thoughts?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 42:19
Right. So, I completely agree with Veronica that the biggest thing that I can say is get to the highest level of the government, of NGOs and private citizens as fast as you can. And the fastest way is through the media. And the best, the highest, like, press providers. So yes, it's good to start at the local and like talk to people in your city or state, but you want to get on the major providers. You want to get on Fox. You want to get on CNN, New York Times, etc. A big thing that maybe isn't clear to people from the outside is, you know, unlike other hostage cases, we were six families, like thrown on a safety boat, right, together. And it was really challenging to try and respect each other's, you know, right to do what's right for your family. But still knowing that anything you do could affect me, right, could affect my family. So a lot of that first year, you know, people had different thoughts, feelings. We should go to the media, but a lot of folks, just even if they really wanted to, felt like, what if I go to the media, and their dad gets hurt? You know, that's on me. And so that was part of the fear, too. Not just the fact that we were like, well, something could happen to my dad. But I think, you know, in late 2018, so almost a year after they had been taken, you know, most of the men had lost over 50 pounds. I mean, they were literally starving, We could not take food there. They were barely able to talk to us. I mean, it was absolutely terrifying. I thought my dad was gonna die of starvation. And it was like very soon after that, that there were violent, violent protests going on in the prison. And we said, we have to say something. I got a voicemail from my dad. It was definitely in February. And he was basically saying, "hey, if I don't talk to you again, I want you to know I love you. I'm really scared about what's going on." And I just, I know, for me personally, and my family is like, I don't think I'll be able to live with myself if he dies because I was scared. And so I actually was able to get on Fox News national news. Never been on national news before and like, was able to tell the country, you know, what was going on. And that kind of started a cascade of events where... where we were really not scared of it anymore. But yeah, absolutely. And then the second thing that I think the Vadells have also done a really great job of is that they have mastered the demanding tone. You know, it is hard to sit there and demand things from people that you need something from, because they... you feel like, okay, they could ignore you. You know, they don't have to listen to you. They don't have to work with you. And I definitely have the style of, like, tiptoeing and you know, buttering up. And I would say that at this point in the game, being the loudest in the room is definitely the strategy, even if it's not super comfortable for you. And so, that was kind of the first thing was like going to the Media, writing op eds and things like that, keeping our Twitter account super active and building a vast network through Twitter. But the one thing that I think I... I'll say I did myself and kind of got people to rally around was I really wanted to have kind of a one-stop shop for the case. And it was fine if people wanted to have their own website for their own family member. But I wanted to have a place that if someone just Googled Citgo 6, you know, what pops up isn't these random articles, I wanted there to be some sort of website where people could go to and understand what was going on. Because not everybody is well versed with Venezuela and the politics. Now everybody knows what all has happened with this case. It's very convoluted. What can they do? And so my thought was: hey, let's have a one-stop shop and do everything from there. And we even would send out, like, not as much right now. But we would send out like every three months an update to the coalition, the Citgo 6 coalition members, of, hey, this is what's going on with the case. Because, as you know, when there's not a lot of updates, this can get put into the back burner. And we definitely wanted to keep it fresh. The last thing that we did before the pandemic hit was a big march in Houston. So, we actually got, you know, folks to come. We had several hundred people. We all had shirts, and we got the media out there. And I think that really did a lot to show, hey, there's people behind these guys. There's human faces behind these guys. And these aren't even the only people that support them. These were just the people that were able to make it to Houston. So really keeping that pressure on the government is... is huge. And then the advocacy part that I think we've also tried to... to manage is to build relationships with NGOs. Right? Like the Richardson Center, Hostage US. Believe it or not, in a lot of cases, they do more than the US government does, not just for advocating for your family to the literal hostage-takers, but also helping you deal with the aftermath of this person being gone. Like Hostage US helped my sister, you know, get special financial aid packages at University of Houston. They helped my mom and my aunt figure out what to do with their mortgages, because they don't have power of attorney. I mean, there's just a lot of aftermath that happens when someone is ripped from the face of the planet, you know. So. these nonprofits are incredibly helpful to us. And there's many more on that list.
Daren Nair 47:48
So, you mentioned the NGOs are doing a better job than the US government. And I agree. Many... I've spoken to many families. They have so many positive things to say about these NGOs, Richardson Center, Hostage US, and James W Foley Legacy Foundation. So, you said you wanted to keep pressure on the US government? What should the US government be doing better?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 48:12
As far as our case specifically goes? We need results. Right? I mean, I am a professional. I work in a corporate environment. And, you know, if I just keep having meetings with my clients, and I'm not actually getting things done, I'm gonna get taken off that... that project. I'm gonna get taken off that case, I might even get fired. So, you know, I sometimes, with the State Department, I see a lot of... a lot of meetings, a lot of emails, a lot of updates, but not a lot of results. And I hate to sound ungrateful, because their team is really gracious with us, and really kind. And I do think that their hearts are in the right places. But, you know, I think this is a big difference between the government working for you, and, you know, maybe a private entity or what have you, because, you know, they're not really beholden actually to get anything done. They're just beholden to. oh well, I had a meeting with the family. Oh, I sent them an email. Oh, I updated them. You know, it's like, well, when you look at measurable results, have the conditions improved for my dad, as a result of your actions? Is my dad any closer to freedom? Does my dad have any of his human rights restored? Are we able to communicate with him? What about his medical? You know, I mean, they're very tangible objectives that you could be measuring. And I don't... I don't feel like the, like, the US government holds themselves accountable to that. So, in short, we're getting results. I think on a larger scale, I think the executive branch and the legislative branch could do a better job of keeping hostage cases in the forefront of their statements and foreign policy, like making sure that that is a clear priority, consistent between the two branches. So, like, if you have a constituent, and you're a senator, you know, every single day you should be knowing about how's that. How is that hostage doing and making sure that you're actually following up with the executive branch on what results are we getting? What can the legislative branch be doing to support the executive branch, whether that be passing resolutions, bringing it up in the Foreign Relations Committee, what have you? You know, these are taxpayers, and they are citizens. So, the two branches working together more smoothly and and really sending the message that this is a, like, number one priority could make a big difference. And I think, from a SPEHA perspective, the hostage affairs unit in the State Department, I think they're developing this, and they've recently gotten a lot of funding, but there absolutely needs to be like a guide book, a comprehensive guide book that's given to your family, whenever this happens. I feel like every single one of our families have had to just, like, reinvent the wheel every time and educate yourself. And they're just best practices that are not difficult to write in a Word document, NGOs that... with contact information. It's just like, you literally have to make this up yourself. And God forbid you don't have access to the internet, or you're in a low income situation where you're working multiple jobs. I mean, if it wasn't for the privilege that my family has, and the resources and just numbers that we have, I don't know that we could have gotten this far. With the resourcing that the... that the US government has on it right now, as far as guiding a path. And lastly, I would say that I really wish that President Biden would actually make a statement about this or tweet about it. Secretary Blinken has been fantastic. I think he's been a big advocate for the release of our families since literally like February, right after, you know, the election. But I haven't seen the same commitment from President Biden, and I really expected more. And I think that his... his support would grease the wheels way more to minimize interdepartmental churn for the State Department. And really give... send a message to the Venezuelan Government that this is a priority and we're not joking around. And, I mean, those are just the short and sweet details, you know. Could go on for a long time. But that's the short and sweet.
Daren Nair 52:24
Thank you for that. They're good recommendations. So, you mentioned President Biden; you mentioned the executive branch. When I spoke to Veronica In September, she mentioned that President Trump and President Biden have never mentioned the Citgo 6. So, you state that he needs to make... he needs to say something. He needs to make a statement about them. Right?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 52:49
I mean, let me put it this way. The President has time to, like, pardon a turkey or, like, light a Christmas tree, but he doesn't have time to, like, mention that several of his citizens are languishing in horrible boxes called prisons, that their human rights are being detained, you know, taken from them. Like, what's the point of being American? What's the point of this great country if your human rights don't actually matter? Optics are more important. And I really call on President Biden and his administration as well as our senators to stand for more.
Daren Nair 53:26
No, I absolutely agree with you. So, speaking about the Senate. Now, I've spoken to the family of Trevor Reed, an American from Texas and former US Marine, held in Russia. I interviewed his parents, Joey and Paula, in September. So, a bipartisan resolution has been passed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives calling for the release of Trevor Reed, who is currently being held in Russia for over two years. Now, should Congress put forward a similar resolution for the Citgo 6 who've been held for twice that amount of time?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 54:06
Yeah. You know, this is embarrassing, but I didn't even know about that until you and I spoke for the first time. You know, and I've been doing this for four years. And I thought I knew a lot. But this is exactly what I'm talking about. The State Department's not coming to us with ideas. Our own senators aren't coming to us with ideas, right? It's 100% on the families to push for this kind of stuff. So, after we spoke, I actually got my brother-in-law, who helps with a lot of research. I said: hey, look into this, who was involved? What does it enable? What does it do that's different than what we have? So, I mean, if we look into it and see that we should push for it, we absolutely will. But this is just another great example of like, you know, why do you need a bipartisan resolution for people to give a hoot about Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan? I mean, this is ridiculous. There's actual policy goals that need to be implemented and worked out by the legislative branch, but they're having to pass resolutions just to get basic things done in the executive branch, my opinion. But regardless, neither here nor there, I... we're looking into it. And we're looking to see what we could do in that regard for the Citgo 6.
Daren Nair 55:15
So, what should journalists and the media be doing better to help? Don't get me wrong? They have given you significant coverage to date. And everyone's grateful for that.
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 55:25
Daren Nair 55:25
But is there anything else they can be doing further to help?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 55:29
Yeah, there's some key correspondents that have been great and super professional, as far as you know, always staying up to date on the case, always tweeting and seeing the bigger picture, giving fair and balanced, you know, reporting. I think what I would ask is that... is that some of the media would dig a little deeper, to try and understand some of the questions that we have around, like, why isn't the US government doing more? What... what is really the labyrinth here? For the support of wrongfully detained and other Americans held hostage? How are we different from other countries? And you know, Daren, when you and I had spoken earlier, we talked about the book by Joel Simon, I think is his name, about we should negotiate. He has all kinds of data and information there about how different countries handle hostages, and wrongfully detained citizens and advocating for them. And I can tell you right now that the US, and Britain as well, are outliers on the world stage. And that the data doesn't show that the lack of advocacy from our countries does us any good, as far as you know, less Americans and British folks being taken hostage, etc. So, I think that if the media could dig deeper on how we handle hostages and wrongfully detained folks and, you know, bring that awareness broader to the American people, that would help with holding the government accountable versus, you know, focusing on just each of these cases seeming so strange and like such outliers. There's a lot of sensation there, but what it's... what we're really missing is what are... what are the gaps that the US government needs to be held accountable for? And can the media help clarify those?
Daren Nair 57:17
I agree with you. That's definitely a great place to look into and... and hostage diplomacy in general. Your father, your uncle and rest of the Citgo 6 are basically hostages. And I know that Jason Rezaian and Kate Woodsome from the Washington Post are working on raising more awareness of state sponsored hostage-taking. Jason Rezaian knows this well because he was a former hostage in Iran. And it's important for people to acknowledge state sponsored hostage-taking and that people like your father are not wrongfully imprisoned. I mean, they are wrongfully imprisoned, but they are also hostages. On this point, I understand there is a difference in State Department designation and the tools available if an American is classified as wrongfully detained or as a hostage. So if you are a hostage, for instance, like Austin Tice and Majd Kamalmaz, held in Syria, the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell works on your case as well, in addition to the SPEHA Office, and the SPEHA stands for Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. But, if you are wrongfully imprisoned, it's my understanding based on the families I've interviewed to date, only the SPEHA Office helps you. What are your thoughts on that?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 58:47
Yeah, I mean, it's... you're actually picking up on something I missed earlier, which is, you know, what can the USA do better. Another one is explaining that there even is a difference between being a hostage and being wrongfully detained. And, as just a normal citizen, like, especially someone who didn't study political science or anything like that, I mean, all of this is new. So, and then the worst part is that you don't even know what these different things enable. So, you don't even know what it means. Like, what's the difference? Like how could I convince someone that my dad is a hostage instead of wrongfully detained? I would have to go into the labyrinth of the policy and find a connection that would help explain it to me, or maybe a lawyer. You know, for me to even be able to have access to these resources that I should have as a taxpayer, or at least the ability to have them clarified, but the US government isn't forthcoming with that information. So, for right now, we're wrongfully detained whatever that means, but there's so much inconsistency. And, you know, there was a long time there where the US government didn't recognize Maduro as the president of Venezuela, right, and they were advocating for interim president, Juan Guaido. And, at that time, we were really confused. We were, like, well, if the regime isn't what you see as the government of Venezuela, then does that mean that they're hostages now, because they're not being held by a government? You know, I mean, talk about the gray. So it's... it's disheartening, because we don't really know how to push on that in any specific way. But they are designated as wrongfully detained whatever that means.
Daren Nair 1:00:34
So what can members of the public do to help?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 1:00:38
Following us on Twitter, Citgo 6 Coalition, is probably the easiest thing. And the most helpful when folks retweet because it helps show key stakeholders and... and participants that people care about this. The other thing is, we do have links on our website to, you know, be able to write to Texas senators, Louisiana senators, even the White House. Believe it or not, these letters do get traction. If like four or five people even write to a senator about one thing at the staffing in a day, it'll come up, you know. So, we... we've had that happen multiple times, where there'll be a surge of... of interest, and and we will get a little more help from a legislative office, which is great. You can even, like, tag people in your in your retweets, and that helps as well. But, I think from a bigger perspective, folks can just realize that being an American citizen doesn't really protect you from anything when you are in a foreign country. Just because you, you know, go to some other country, and you have that beautiful Navy passport doesn't mean that if something happens to you, the US is going to send a CIA team down and rescue you. It is going to be a very long and drawn out process, and you may never get out. So, having your ducks in a row in the United States, having power of attorney, having, you know, stuff set up for your family, just as if you were like to prepare to pass away, if you're going to travel to to, you know, potentially a dangerous place. That is a huge burden that you can take away from your family. And then also just continuing to stay educated and aware of... of how is our government really treating its citizens? And how much is it valuing human rights versus optics and holding our elected officials accountable to the most basic things that matter in life, which is protecting your citizens. So that's how folks can help us out.
Daren Nair 1:02:49
Can you just repeat, your social media handles, which platforms they're on, as well as your website address?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 1:02:56
Yep, we pretty much have two main platforms. We have our Twitter account, which is @Citgo6C. And then we have our website, citgo6coalition.org. And on the website, you'll find bios of each of the men. And we have a Case 101 summary that even includes some information about Venezuela if you're like completely new to this whole thing. And we have links for you to, you know, write to elected officials, etc. And you can also join the coalition if you want to stay up to date on this case in a longer format. We send updates every once in a while on how they're doing. And we're always happy to make a connection. So, if you have any resources or ideas, we also have a place on the website for you to connect with us there. So yeah, thanks.
Daren Nair 1:03:44
Alexandra, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 1:03:49
Um, I think I would just like to say that I wish that the US government was better equipped to serve its citizens in this area. And that for now, if you're going through this, educate yourself, know all the levers that you can pull, and continue to build your network so that you can learn about more levers and know that nobody else is going to get your family member home other than you pushing. So never stop and never give up.
Daren Nair 1:04:27
I absolutely agree. So Alexandra, I said this before, and I'll say it again. We will be right here by your side until your father and uncle come back home. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us.
Alexandra Zambrano Forseth 1:04:40
Thank you, Daren.
Daren Nair 1:04:47
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'll 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.