U.S. hostage envoy visits Venezuela in bid to free jailed Americans-sources

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FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro meets Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in Tehran

By Vivian Sequera and Matt Spetalnick

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s chief hostage negotiator led a U.S. delegation on a visit to Caracas on Monday in the latest bid to secure the release of Americans detained in Venezuela, according to a U.S. official and other sources familiar with the matter.

A previous trip in March by Roger Carstens, U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs, and other senior U.S. officials led to the freeing of two jailed Americans. But at least eight U.S. prisoners remain.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro disclosed Monday’s visit during televised remarks, saying U.S. officials met with the head of the government-controlled congress, Jorge Rodriguez, to continue talks that began in March. He did not provide details.

Sources familiar with the matter said the agenda for Monday’s talks was limited to humanitarian issues and did not include the OPEC nation’s oil sector, which has been under U.S. sanctions since 2019. The meetings included Ambassador James Story, head of the U.S. government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit based in neighboring Colombia.

In March, a high-level delegation from the United States met with Maduro, and easing U.S. sanctions was among the topics discussed, although no agreement was reached at the time.

That visit marked the highest-level U.S. talks with Caracas in years, and Venezuela soon freed a former executive of Citgo Petroleum, a U.S.-based unit of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, and a Cuban American and also promised to resume talks in Mexico with the Venezuelan opposition.

Maduro has yet to agree on a date to return to the negotiating table.

Five other Citgo executives are still held in Venezuela.

Also in custody is Matthew Heath, a Marine veteran arrested in 2020 on charges of terrorism and arms trafficking. Heath, who has denied the charges, remains in a Venezuelan hospital after what his lawyer said was an attempted suicide by cutting his own arm last week.

“After he attempted suicide, Matthew’s family made a plea to Presidents Biden and Maduro to act decisively to arrange an emergency medical evacuation to the United States so that Matthew can get the specialized care he needs,” Jonathan Franks, spokesperson for Heath’s family, said in a statement.

He called Carstens’ reported trip “an encouraging sign.”

U.S. officials said Heath was not sent by Washington and have accused Venezuelan authorities of holding him illegally.

Two other Americans still detained are former U.S. special forces members, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the latest Caracas visit was “for discussions about the welfare and safety of U.S. nationals in Venezuela.”

A U.S. government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the main objective was to seek further prisoner releases.

The State Department official did not immediately respond to a query on whether any Americans were expected to be freed during the visit.

The U.S. delegation also met with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. Washington recognizes him as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president, having rejected Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham.

March’s delegation was led by Biden’s top Latin America adviser Juan Gonzalez, and also included Carstens and Story, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela who is based in Bogota.

That meeting took place at a time when Washington was looking to fill the void that would soon be left by a U.S. ban on Russia’s energy imports over its invasion of Ukraine.

Since the March visit, the Biden administration has taken a few steps to slightly soften its Venezuela policy.

Republican lawmakers and some of Biden’s fellow Democrats have criticized the U.S. approach to Venezuela as too conciliatory toward Maduro and his Socialist government.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Matt Spetalnick, additional reporting by Carolina Pulice in Mexico City and Marianna Parraga in Houston; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Carolina Pulice; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Richard Pullin)

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