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