Citgo 6

Heights resident Alexandra Forseth, whose father and uncle are among the Citgo executives who have been imprisoned in Venezuela since 2017, speaks during a community rally in honor of the Citgo 6 at Candlelight Park in 2019. (File photo by Adam Zuvanich)

Heights resident Alexandra Forseth was not expecting to hear any good news from Venezuela, where her father and uncle have been imprisoned since November 2017 by the regime of Nicolas Maduro. She said things seemed to be at a standstill since November 2020, when her two relatives and four other men were convicted on corruption charges by a Venezuelan court.

Then last Friday, April 30, Forseth said she found out the so-called Citgo 6 were being released from a Caracas prison and placed under house arrest. Her father, Alirio Zambrano, and uncle, Jose Luis Zambrano, are staying together in a guarded apartment, which is still a continent away from their family in the Houston area but at least one step closer.

“It’s certainly a better situation than being in this jail where I can’t ever talk to him at all,” Forseth said of her father. “He can see outside the apartment window. He seems in good spirits.”

Forseth said she views the development as a “gesture of good will” by the Maduro regime to U.S. President Joe Biden, who had recently been elected when the Citgo 6 were convicted by a Venezuelan judge. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the proceeding a “kangaroo court” and said the convictions were “wrongful,” while the men’s families have described them as political hostages.

Citgo is a subsidiary of PDVSA, an oil and gas company run by the Venezuelan government, and the six U.S.-based executives were called to a meeting in Caracas shortly before Thanksgiving 2017, arrested and accused of trying to make a deal that would financially inhibit PDVSA. The Zambrano brothers and three of the other men – Katy resident Gustavo Cardenas, Sugar Land resident Jorge Toledo and Tomeu Vadell – are dual citizens. Katy resident Jose Pereira is a legal U.S. resident.

“It’s far past time they be safely reunited with their families in the United States,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas wrote Monday on Twitter.

Forseth, who has kept in regular contact with U.S. Department of State, said she is cautiously optimistic. She also said she’s appreciative of the efforts of former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a diplomat who has tried to secure the men’s release from Venezuela, and support groups such as the nonprofit Hostage US as well as the Office of the Special Presidential Enjoy for Hostage Affairs.

Because there has been some continuity in that office between the administrations of Biden and former U.S. President Donald Trump, Forseth said there seems to be a commitment to freeing the Citgo 6.

“I’ve sensed that the Biden administration is taking it seriously to get them home, just as the Trump administration did,” she said.

Forseth said she also gets the impression that releasing the men from prison to house arrest is a signal from Maduro that he wants something in return and is willing to negotiate with the U.S., which placed sanctions on Venezuela during the administrations of Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Whether the Biden administration can secure the men’s release back to America remains to be seen, but having them released from a Caracas prison was encouraging to Forseth.

“We’re really thankful for it,” she said. “We hope it’s a step in the next direction, which is having them come home.”

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