Fate of American Citgo executives held in Venezuela up in the air as Maduro’s regime plunges deeper into crisis

The fate of six Citgo executives being held in captivity in Venezuela on what their families say are trumped-up corruption charges could become more clear Wednesday if a preliminary hearing – which has been postponed a dozen times before – actually takes place.

The executives, five of whom are Americans, are dubbed the ‘Citgo 6’ and were detained by Venezuelan officials around Thanksgiving 2017. Their families, in subsequent interviews with the Associated Press, are accusing the regime of disputed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of holding them hostage in inhumane conditions and refusing to let them get fresh air or sunlight for weeks at a time.

"The situation, as volatile as it is now, brings more uncertainty," said Cristina Vadell, one of the daughters of Tomeu Vadell, Citgo’s vice president of refining.

"We can't predict the future. We don't know what's going to happen,” she added. “But I do know my father is staying strong for us and we aren't going to give up until we bring him home."

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As the U.S. government continues with its effort to unseat Maduro, the fate of Vadell and American citizens with deep roots in Louisiana and Texas lies in the balance. As does that of the American company they worked for, Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-run oil giant PDVSA, and a major prize in the power struggle between Maduro and a rival the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela's rightful leader: Juan Guaido.

Citgo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A preliminary hearing on their plight has been postponed 12 times for little apparent reason, leaving the families to question whether their loved ones are being held as pawns in a high-stakes political negotiation. The next hearing date is Wednesday.

The saga began in late 2017 when Vadell and the other executives got a call from Nelson Martinez, then head of PDVSA, asking that they travel to Caracas for a last-minute budget meeting.

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The group flew out on a corporate jet. They included Vadell, vice president of refining; Gustavo Cardenas, head of strategic shareholder relations as well as government and public affairs; Jorge Toledo, vice president of supply and marketing; Alirio Zambrano, vice president and general manager of Citgo's Corpus Christi refinery; Jose Luis Zambrano, vice president of shared services; and Jose Angel Pereira, the president of Citgo.

During the meeting, though, a group of armed and masked security agents rushed into a PDVSA conference room and arrested all six executives. Hours later, Maduro's attorney general appeared on state TV announcing charges of embezzlement stemming from a proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering up a 50 percent stake in the company as collateral.

"On Monday he left and he was supposed to come back Tuesday," Vadell's wife, Dennysse, told the Associated Press. "He went into a meeting and never came back."

Then Maduro himself accused the executives of "treason," though they have not been charged with that crime, the Associated Press says.

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The arrests kicked off a purge inside Venezuela's oil industry that a few days later saw Martinez, the PDVSA head, and a former oil minister among dozens others jailed. In Martinez's place, Asdrubal Chavez, a cousin of the late President Hugo Chavez and close ally of Maduro, was named Citgo president. In December, Martinez died in state custody, further alarming the families of the Citgo employees.

Citgo, which controls about 4 percent of the U.S.' refining capacity, has provided almost no support to the jailed executives despite an indemnity agreement that obligates it to act on the men's behalf, according to a current Citgo employee speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being punished by the company. In the ensuing months, Citgo also terminated their pay, the employee said.

"The only communication I had with Citgo when this happened was they called to tell me not to go to the media and that they were going to every house to pick up the company cars," said Maria Elena Cardenas, whose husband is among those jailed.

A battle is now raging at Citgo headquarters, the employee said, as a result of U.S. sanctions on PDVSA last month that effectively block American companies from buying Venezuelan oil, diverting any payments into an escrow account controlled by Guaido, who the U.S. and dozens of other countries recognize as Venezuela's interim president. Most of the employees loyal to Maduro have left, while any reference to PDVSA has been scrubbed from the company's facilities.

Maduro has vowed to defend Citgo from seizure, saying it belongs to the Venezuelan people. His attorney general last week filed criminal charges against the new PDVSA and Citgo boards appointed by Guaido.

The U.S. is keeping a tight lid on whatever efforts it has undertaken to help the men.

Sergio Cardenas holds a picture of himself with his father Gustavo as he sits on the lap of his mother Maria Elena Cardena, Gustavo's wife, at their home in Katy, Texas, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Gustavo, a Citgo executive, has been held in detention by the Venezuelan government along with five other Citgo employees since November of 2017, but their preliminary hearing has been postponed 12 times, leaving the families to question whether their loved ones are being held as pawns in a high-stakes political negotiation.

Sergio Cardenas holds a picture of himself with his father Gustavo as he sits on the lap of his mother Maria Elena Cardena, Gustavo's wife, at their home in Katy, Texas, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Gustavo, a Citgo executive, has been held in detention by the Venezuelan government along with five other Citgo employees since November of 2017, but their preliminary hearing has been postponed 12 times, leaving the families to question whether their loved ones are being held as pawns in a high-stakes political negotiation. (AP)

But some family members told the Associated Press they wonder if America could be doing more.

"We are grateful for the people who continue to help us, but we're not convinced the U.S. government is taking these Americans into account when making policy toward Venezuela," said Veronica Vadell.

Vadell's family says Tomeu has lost more than 60 pounds due to malnutrition. In a photo snapped clandestinely with a cellphone last month and provided to The Associated Press, he looks like a prisoner of war with sunken eyes and cheeks, a green army jumpsuit hanging from his gaunt frame.

Other families have said the men are living in overcrowded basement cells built for 22 people with nearly four times that number of inmates, sometimes having to sleep on the floor.

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For Maria Elena Cardenas, time is running out.

Her 18-year-old son, Sergio, suffers from a rare metabolic disease that has stunted his physical growth. Since his father's arrest, he has been having panic attacks and screaming at night. The two traveled to Caracas recently at great risk to Sergio's health for a two-hour jailhouse visit to calm the teen's nerves.

"He shouldn't be in jail. He should be home with his us, his family," the younger Cardenas said, his voice quivering with emotion. "He's the bravest person I've ever known. He's the greatest father in the world."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.