By Matt Spetalnick and Vivian Sequera
WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) -A U.S. delegation led by President Joe Biden’s chief hostage negotiator ended a visit to Venezuela on Thursday after failing to secure the release of any of the Americans detained there, U.S. officials said.
Hostage affairs envoy Roger Carstens was part of a group that met Venezuelan officials this week to press for the handover of prisoners.
“The trip focused on discussions about the welfare and safety of wrongfully detained U.S. nationals in Venezuela and to press for their release,” a State Department spokesperson said, adding that Carstens saw detainees to “assess their well-being.”
The visit also sought to coax President Nicolas Maduro’s government to restart stalled negotiations with the country’s opposition, according to people familiar with the matter.
Carstens and U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela James Story were especially focused on the case of Matthew Heath, a U.S. Marine veteran hospitalized following what his family said was a suicide attempt last week after nearly two years of imprisonment.
The U.S. officials were allowed to visit Heath in a Venezuela military hospital, the sources said.
Heath is one of at least eight Americans known to be held in Venezuela. Others include five executives of Citgo Petroleum, a U.S.-based unit of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.
Though the visit did not lead to releases, it was a fresh sign of tenuous re-engagement after years of hostilities between the United States and OPEC member Venezuela and comes as Russia’s war against Ukraine has hit global oil supplies.
Talks this week with Maduro’s Socialist government did not include Venezuela’s oil sector, under U.S. sanctions since 2019, according to the sources.
The delegation did meet opposition leader Juan Guaido. Washington recognizes him as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president, having rejected Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham, but the Socialist leader remains in power, backed by the military as well as Russia, Cuba, China and Iran.
A statement issued on behalf of Heath’s family said despite Carstens’ “best efforts,” the U.S. delegation “was not able to secure an emergency medical evacuation.”
“We believe that Matthew’s physical and mental health both continue to be at risk and are fearful he may attempt suicide again,” the statement said.
Heath was arrested in 2020 on terrorism charges, which he denies. U.S. officials said Heath was not sent by Washington and have accused Venezuela of holding him on trumped-up charges.
In March, a White House-led delegation, including Carstens, met Maduro, and a potential easing of U.S. sanctions was among the topics discussed.
Venezuela soon freed two Americans – a former Citgo executive and a Cuban American – and promised to resume talks in Mexico with the opposition. But Maduro has yet to agree on a date.
Republican lawmakers and some of Biden’s fellow Democrats have criticized the U.S. approach as too conciliatory toward Maduro.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Richard Pullin and Rosalba O’Brien)