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Louisiana man jailed again as ‘CITGO 6′ hostage amid political crossfire in Venezuela, family says

A New Orleans woman whose father has been held hostage in Venezuela for four years panics after hearing her dad has been thrown in jail... again.
Published: Oct. 18, 2021 at 10:26 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 18, 2021 at 10:44 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A Louisiana man is still at the mercy of a foreign government while stuck in place amid the political crossfire.

Families of the men known as the CITGO 6 are once again crying out that their loved ones are being used as political pawns in Venezuela.

Four years ago, six American CITGO executives went to Venezuela for a meeting. That meeting was ambushed by masked officers who arrested the men. The executives-- known as the CITGO 6-- were captured after the Venezuelan government accused them of corruption.

Since April 2021, the men have been on house arrest, but something changed and now they’re back in prison.

“On Saturday afternoon, my mom got a text and it just said they’re here and they’re coming for us,” said Veronica Weggeman, who lives in New Orleans and is the daughter of one of the CITGO 6 captives Tomeu Vadell. “So we started panicking thinking this was potential retaliation and they were gonna be taken somewhere we still didn’t know the location.”

Weggeman said her father and the others are just pawns in Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s political chess game.

“The Venezuelan government is just toying with our lives at this point. He’s playing with my dad’s life and the five other Americans down there. It’s a tug-of-war. The U.S. does this my father gets the repercussion. The U.S. does that, my father gets the repercussion,” she said.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Justice extradited Alex Saab-- a businessman working for Maduro who is facing charges of money laundering after serving as a government contractor in Venezuela. According to the DOJ, Saab is accused of transferring approximately $350 million out of Venezuela through the United States to overseas accounts.

“This is in the context of sanctions in which many companies cannot work with the Venezuelan government. So he’s a guy that goes out and finds companies that will and brokers deals,” said David Smilde, sociology professor at Tulane University.

Smilde said U.S. sanctions in place impede the Venezuelan economy and it’s possible Saab’s extradition worries Maduro’s government.

“Well it seriously complicates things,” said Smilde. “What is happening is that they are afraid of the information Alex Saab has... He probably has quite a bit of info on their finances and different activities that could complicate them on their future.”

Smilde said when Saab was extradited over the weekend, the Venezuelan government immediately pulled out of negotiations and took other measures, such as jailing the CITGO 6.

According to a CNN report, following his extradition, the Venezuelan government accused the U.S. of “kidnapping” a Venezuelan “diplomat,” according to a statement by the Venezuelan government. Last month, Saab was named a member of the Venezuelan government negotiating team for talks in Mexico with the country’s opposition. As a result of the extradition, the negotiation process was suspended.

“The Venezuelan government and its opposition have been in a process of negotiation in Mexico and the U.S. is very important to that because the U.S. supports the Venezuelan opposition and really holds the cards in this game because the U.S. has sanctions on Venezuela,” said Smilde. “Which is one of the reasons Alex Saab was in business in the first place. These sanctions really impede the Venezuelan economy.”

Weggeman said her family and the other families wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to bring back the Americans known as the CITGO 6.

“We’re frustrated with the U.S. government because we understand they’re doing everything they can but are they communicating to the DOJ, which is the entity that decided to extradite Alex Saab to the U.S.? Did they communicate that there are Americans down there and there are repercussions? I don’t think so or the DOJ does not care for human lives,” she said.

Weggeman of course wants to see her father released and return home. But she believes his example is part of a bigger problem:

“What is the point of being an American citizen? What is the point of our passport? What is the point? This is a very important issue for the community to know that are we protected as U.S. citizens when we travel abroad? What is gonna happen to us if we get taken?” she said.

For now, she’s hoping President Biden receives the letter and acts upon it. But the families have yet to hear from the White House.

“We’re extremely concerned that nobody is making a statement on what has happened and this is an issue,” she said. “This is a problem and they’ve put American lives at risk.”

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