Why Families of U.S. Hostages Overseas Are Growing Frustrated with Biden

13 minute read

On Oct. 16, Cristina and Veronica Vadell found themselves frantically following the dotted line of a plane’s path on a flight-tracking website from their homes in coastal Louisiana. The aircraft, which belonged to the U.S. Justice Department and was en route to Miami from Cape Verde, was rumored to be extraditing Alex Saab, a Colombian financier with close ties to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

It was the very scenario the two sisters had been dreading for months. Their father, Tomeu Vadell, is one of six U.S. men who have been imprisoned in Venezuela since November 2017 on what the U.S. government says are trumped-up corruption charges. The so-called “Citgo 6,” employees of the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, had been granted house arrest in April in what was widely seen as a goodwill gesture from Maduro to the new U.S. President Joe Biden. It had allowed their 62-year-old father a reprieve from the squalid conditions and COVID-19 risks in the crowded military prisons where he and his colleagues had been detained for years.

Cristina called her father in Caracas, using a code word they had agreed on to let him know what was happening. Soon after, he texted his wife: “They are here looking for us.” After that, he stopped responding. Just hours after Saab’s extradition, the Citgo 6—five of them American citizens and one a U.S. permanent resident—had been picked up by Venezuela’s intelligence service SEBIN and sent back to Maduro’s notorious Helicoide prison.

The development crushed family members back home in Texas and Louisiana, some of whom had been communicating their concerns over Saab’s extradition to State Department and National Security Council officials for months, begging for a contingency plan. “This is emotional torture for us, and mental and physical torture for our dad,” Veronica Vadell tells TIME. “And it’s not only the Venezuelan government that is doing this at this point, it’s the U.S. government too…back and forth for four years. Every time there is an opening the U.S. is either not listening or not prepared to respond. Now it’s directly putting their lives at risk.”

The U.S. decision to go ahead with Saab’s extradition, knowing Maduro might retaliate, has confirmed these families’ long-held fears that despite assurances, the Biden Administration is prioritizing broader foreign policy goals over securing the release of their loved ones. This had happened once before: after being granted house arrest in December 2019, the men were put back in jail two months later when Trump welcomed Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó to the White House. Some critics, including lawyers and former officials who work in hostage affairs, told TIME that Saab’s extradition was ill-timed, risking the recovery of the Citgo 6 and three other Americans detained in Venezuela for Saab’s facing money laundering charges in a U.S. court and potential domestic political gain.

Americans Imprisoned in Venezuela
People walk in front of a mural with the image of Alex Saab in Caracas, Venezuela, October 25, 2021.Rayner Pena—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Somebody made a political decision that talk of democracy in Venezuela, which is not going to happen anytime soon, is more important than rescuing American citizens,” says Jason Poblete, a Washington-based attorney who has represented U.S. citizens held hostage abroad, including members of the Citgo 6. U.S. officials were aware of the possible repercussions for the American hostages if they extradited Saab, he says, but “despite the Administration knowing that could happen, they went ahead with it anyhow, and the men were picked up.”

The Biden Administration is under increasing pressure not just from the families of the Citgo 6, but the families of other Americans being held hostage and wrongfully detained around the world. They, too, fear that their loved ones’ release could be sacrificed to political calculations, and have been questioning whether the Administration is doing enough to bring them home.

The same day the U.S. executives were put back in prison in Caracas, 16 American missionaries were kidnapped on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince by a Haitian gang, which is demanding a ransom of $1 million per person. While the White House says U.S. officials are working “around the clock” to help secure their release, the renewed attention on the issue has put a spotlight on the Biden Administration’s handling of less prominent cases around the globe. The White House did not respond to request for comment for this story.

“The U.S. can no longer continue to be bogged down in burdensome processes or policy debates that keep our loved ones from coming home and keep us uninformed of what you can and cannot do to help us,” the families of more than two dozen individuals detained in Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Venezuela wrote Biden in a letter on Monday. “We need to be shown that the promises of your administration to prioritize the return of our family members are not empty.”

Former President Donald Trump made a point of frequently and publicly highlighting U.S. efforts to retrieve Americans held hostage or being detained overseas as part of his “America First” foreign policy. Not long before leaving office, he touted his record of bringing home more than 50 Americans from detention in 22 countries, including Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor who had been held in Turkey; Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student held in Iran; and two Americans held by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Trump called for their release from the White House podium, met with family members, and even invited former U.S. detainees who had been freed under his administration to appear with him at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Despite Trump’s brazen capitalizing on those optics and his Administration’s unorthodox approaches—including a high-profile effort to free American rapper A$AP Rocky after he was accused of assault following a fight in Stockholm— the community of hostages’ families took this as a welcome signal that their loved ones’ cases were being prioritized at the highest levels.

That feeling has faded since Biden took office. While many said they felt optimistic after a call with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in February, there has been less direct engagement with families during the Biden Administration from the President or National Security Adviser level, advocates say.

Families feel that meetings and statements from top U.S. officials illustrate “the prioritization and the importance of their loved ones’ cases among all the competing policy concerns,” says Margaux Ewen, the executive director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks the cases of Americans being held abroad and advocates for their families. “The reality is that there are very few Americans who have returned from captivity in the past nine months, so we…are very concerned by that.”

Read more: The American Hostages Left Behind for Trump’s Taliban Peace Deal

At present, there are 66 publicly disclosed U.S. hostage and wrongful detention cases, according to the Foley Foundation, including the 16 missionaries kidnapped in Haiti. That dramatic and ongoing stand-off, which has made headlines around the world, has garnered high-profile responses from the Administration. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says he personally briefs Biden on the situation every day, and told reporters on Oct. 26 that the President has a “deep interest in making sure every single one of those Americans gets home safely.” Although they have provided few details, White House officials have insisted that the FBI and the State Department are working in a “coordinated U.S. government effort” to help free the American missionaries.

Since 2015, when President Barack Obama signed an executive order that publicly stated for the first time that the U.S. government could communicate or negotiate with hostage-takers, there has been strong bipartisan support for overhauling U.S. hostage policy. Recent legislation has codified these reforms, including by creating the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which is headquartered at the FBI and assisting in the Haiti case.

The Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, passed by Congress in December 2020 and signed by Trump before he left office, is meant to streamline the U.S. government’s response to these cases. The law, named after a former FBI agent who died in Iranian custody after being abducted in 2009, also made permanent the positions for a special envoy for hostage affairs and a hostage response group at the National Security Council.

“The United States will use every appropriate resource to gain the safe return of U.S. nationals who are held hostage,” the legislation says. It also states clearly that U.S. policy does “not preclude engaging in communications with hostage-takers… the U.S. Government may itself communicate with hostage-takers, their intermediaries, interested governments, and local communities to attempt to secure the safe recovery of the hostage.”

For the families of the Citgo 6, the past four years have shown the limits of the U.S. government’s willingness to follow through with these pledges in a case caught between Washington and Caracas’ ongoing political and economic battle.

Saab, a Colombian businessman close to Maduro, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2019 and had been sought by the Justice Department over money laundering charges. U.S. prosecutors allege that he was behind a corrupt bribery scheme that allowed Maduro and his allies to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from a government-subsidized food program. While U.S. officials undoubtedly hope his potential cooperation will shed light on the Maduro regime’s financial ties and how some of its leaders evade U.S. sanctions, this is likely to be a long, drawn-out legal process.

“The Venezuela [case] is just one illustration of policy considerations being put before the individual cases,” says Ewen. “It’s really important that the U.S. government not sit idly by, and not prioritize bilateral issues that are about broad policy versus figuring out the impact that decisions like extraditing Alex Saab have on six individual human beings who should have been home long ago.”

The six American executives are about to enter their fifth year of captivity. They were arrested by masked security agents in November 2017 after being lured to Caracas for a business meeting. They were charged with embezzlement for a never-executed proposal, which their lawyers, family members and U.S. officials say amount to contrived charges, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms last year.

Read more: 6 Americans Imprisoned in Venezuela Are Hoping COVID-19 Brings Them Home

“To be very clear, these are wrongful detainees,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Oct. 18, after they were taken back to prison. “The regime continues to detain them to gain political leverage….a Venezuelan court convicted these individuals after a sham trial without any evidence.”

Americans Imprisoned in Venezuela
This undated file photo posted on Twitter on June 18, 2020 by Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, shows CITGO oil executives Jose Angel Pereira, from left to right, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano, standing outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, in Caracas, Venezuela. The oil executives were jailed in Venezuela more than three years ago on corruption charges.Jorge Arreaza—Venezuela's Foreign Ministry/AP

Some of the men have developed serious health conditions over the course of their years of imprisonment, according to their families. They had received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while under house arrest, and were due to get their second when they were taken back to prison. The military jail where they’re being held has been under scrutiny by Venezuelan NGOs for recent COVID-19 outbreaks and the subsequent deaths of high-profile prisoners. The same week the Citgo 6 were returned to the prison, a jailed former Venezuelan defense minister being held there died of COVID-19.

Family members of the Americans imprisoned in Venezuela tell TIME that there appears to be little political will to free their loved ones if it involves engaging with Maduro’s government. While they appreciate the efforts of many career officials that have been working on their case, they have been frustrated by both the Trump and the Biden Administrations’ insistence on tying any future hostage negotiations to the outcome of Maduro’s talks with opposition leaders, which they say seems to dismiss the urgency of their situation.

“We need communication between the U.S. government and Venezuela, otherwise I may never see my dad again,” says Carlos Añez, whose stepfather Jorge Toledo is one of the imprisoned Americans. “But it’s more important for them to bring one person to justice than to free six innocent people. That’s how I see it.”

The families had been told that if there was progress during recent talks held in Mexico between Maduro and his opposition the U.S. might engage directly with the Venezuelan government to secure the release of the imprisoned Americans. Now, in retaliation for Saab’s extradition, Maduro has suspended those negotiations.

“Mr. President, we are frustrated by the lack of action by your Administration,” the families of the Citgo 6, as well as those of three other Americans being held in Venezuela, wrote in a letter to Biden on Oct. 18. “We refuse to accept that the U.S. government is holding back direct negotiations regarding the lives of Americans as leverage to get progress in an internal Venezuelan political dialogue…Our loved ones are already being played as pawns in Venezuela, it is unacceptable for our own government—your Administration—to do the same.”

For now, families of the Americans being held in Venezuela have been able to do little but send food, water, mattresses and cleaning supplies to the six men, who are back to being held together in a single cell so small that they have to take turns to exercise one at a time. Once again, phone calls are sporadic and family members are forced to comb through news reports, official statements and social media rumors from both countries to glean any information about what could happen next.

“It’s like a horrible déjà vu that never ends,” says Denysse Vadell, the wife of one of the imprisoned Americans. “It’s too much for us. It’s just too much, going back to having our heart in our throat every day.” Her daughter Cristina added “These are peoples’ lives. This has to end.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com