World # 2 – American oil executives imprisoned in Venezuela

(Compiled from Houston Chronicle and NY Post) — Six Citgo executives held in Venezuela since 2017 were sentenced to more than eight years in prison after a judge found them guilty of corruption charges on Thanksgiving Day.

Maria Elena Cardenas — the wife of Gustavo Cardenas, one of the detained executives of the Houston refiner — had just finished Thanksgiving dinner with family at her Katy home when a defense attorney called her with the disheartening news. She couldn’t bear to tell her son, Sergio, who has special needs.

“I’m in shock,” Cardenas said Thursday night. “This is the Venezuelan government’s gift for Thanksgiving. I’m thankful my husband is still alive, but with this decision, they’re condemning not only him but our whole family. This is a nightmare.”

Citgo, which moved its headquarters to Houston about 15 years ago, is the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. Three years ago, Gustavo Cardenas and five other Citgo executives were lured to Venezuela for a business meeting and arrested by the government of President Nicolas Maduro on charges of corruption and embezzlement. Most of the so-called Citgo Six are U.S. citizens living in Texas and Louisiana.

Their arrests came amid a purge of PDVSA’s leadership by Maduro’s government as Venezuela’s economy collapsed and relations between Caracas and Washington fell apart.

Citgo, one of the Venezuelan government’s PDVSA’s most valuable assets, has played a leading role in the power struggle between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido… Citgo is controlled by a board appointed by Guaido, who is recognized by the United States and some 60 other countries as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.  …..

Cardenas and the five other Citgo executives were summoned to PDVSA’s headquarters for what they were told was a budget meeting on Nov. 21, 2017. A corporate jet shuttled them from Houston to Caracas, and they were told they would be home for Thanksgiving.

Instead, military intelligence officers swarmed into the boardroom and hauled them off to jail.

Their trial started four months ago, and closing arguments took place Thursday. The judge, who was expected to make her decision known within two weeks, immediately announced her verdict.

The men accused along with Cardenas are Tomeu Vadell, Jorge Toledo and brothers Jose Luis and Alirio Zambrano, all U.S. citizens. Jose Pereira, a U.S. permanent resident, received a longer sentence (thirteen years).

In addition to corruption, the men were also charged with embezzlement stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50 percent stake in the company as collateral. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason.”

They all pleaded innocent. News media and human rights groups were denied access to the hearings, held in an empty hallway of a downtown Caracas court.

The office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor told the Associated Press prior to Thursday’s verdict that investigators found “serious evidence” that corroborated financial crimes that could be potentially damaging to the state-run company.  …..

Defense attorney Jesus Loreno called the trial’s result “bad news” and told the AP…“They don’t have any evidence to hold these guys accountable for any wrongdoing. They ought to be released.”

Maria Cardenas, who has been waiting for her husband’s release for the past three years, said she is trying to keep her hopes up that further negotiations can help the Venezuelan government rethink its decision. But it’s difficult, she said. … Before his arrest, Gustavo was usually home in Katy on Thanksgiving, cooking his special dish of sweet potato topped with cheese.

“I just told him, ‘God bless you,’” Cardenas said. “Only a miracle can bring my husband home. We really want him back. This is torture for us.”

Jose Zambrano, the brother of Alirio Jose, 56 and Jose Luis, 54 said, “Last night, Thanksgiving night, at around six p.m. our lawyer called and gave us the bad news.”

Zambrano said of his brothers’ imprisonment in a military prison “known for torture and human rights violations” that “the first two years were really hell on earth.”

A year ago, they were briefly allowed out on house arrest, he said — but they were hauled into custody again in February, this time to a jail for political prisoners, where they remained at the time of Thursday’s conviction, he said.

“We really don’t know what they want,” Zambrano said of the regime of socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro.

“Obviously all the charges are made up,” he said. “None of the so-called evidence is connected to my brothers,” he said of the case, which accuses the six of corruption relating to a proposed debt refinancing deal for the oil giant that never even took place.

“My brother Alirio was a refinery manager,” Zambrano said.  “My other brother was head of HR (Human Resources) and information technology,” he said. “They put a man that is running a refining facility and an HR director on trial for a financial deal they had nothing to do with.”

The family will pursue an appeal of Thursday’s conviction and sentencing, but fears that only a diplomatic solution will free the brothers.

“What we assume is that the regime may want something in return for them,” he said of the six oil executives.  “But definitely, it has nothing to do with justice. It is all to do with some political game. It’s just really heartbreaking.”

The first man to make any public comment was Tomeu Vadell. In a letter written in a Caracas jail and provided exclusively to The Associated Press before the verdict Vadell wrote that he had hopes for a fair trial so he could walk free with his name cleared and go home to his family in the United States.

“During the trial, the truth has proven undeniable,” Vadell said in the four-page hand-written letter. “It proves that I am innocent.”

Vadell’s daughter, Cristina Vadell, said in a phone interview from Lake Charles that her father isn’t the kind of person who seeks attention. Rather, he prefers to focus on work and his family.

During his 35-year career with PDVSA and Citgo, Vadell ended up running a refinery in Lake Charles and then became vice president of refining. The letter attempts to expose this side of his life, she said.

“I think he was willing to take some risks and open some hearts to allow him to come home,” she said. “I think he’s still wondering ‘What happened?’ He went to a work meeting and never came home.”

Compiled from articles by Paul Takahashi, Houston Chronicle and by Laura Italiano, New York Post. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission.


NOTE: Before answering the following questions watch the videos under “Resources” below.

1. List the who, what, where and when of the news report.

2. How is Citgo affiliated with the Venezuelan government?

3. How did the Maduro regime get the American Citgo executives to go to Venezuela a few days before Thanksgiving in 2017?

4. What charges were brought against the six Americans?

5. Read the “Background” and watch the videos under “Resources.” Then re-read paragraph 12. What does this tell you about the legitimacy of the charges and the trial against the men?


  • Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013, promoted a controversial policy of “democratic socialism.”
  • Venezuela was once the richest, most stable, democracy in Latin America.  Under the presidency of Hugo Chávez, the country saw sweeping and radical shifts in social policy, moving away from the government officially embracing a free market economy and towards quasi-socialist income redistribution and social welfare programs. (from wikipedia)
  • Hugo Chávez promoted what he called 21st-century socialism, which included the nationalization of hundreds of companies, the seizure of large land holdings, price controls and currency regulations. He ruled Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013.
  • In speeches blaming capitalism for society’s ills, Mr. Chavez said his policies had made Venezuela a more prosperous country, independent of U.S. meddling and influence.
  • But throughout his presidency, Venezuela’s economy was plagued by blackouts, food shortages and a lack of investment, as government interventions, from price controls to the seizures of land and companies, squelched private enterprise.
  • Though his government was blessed by historically high oil prices, with a barrel hitting $150 in 2008, the economy in Venezuela expanded by about 3 percent a year through his presidency, while much of Latin America boomed. (from washingtonpost)
  • In June 2012, Hugo Chavez banned private ownership of guns in Venezuela, making it much easier to control the population. Unfortunately, criminals did not comply with the government ban.
  • Chavez died in 2013. Nicholas Maduro, a bus driver, was Chavez’s hand-picked successor. He has presided over hyper-inflation, mass shortages and on-going misery. Oil prices tanked in 2016 and Venezuela has no other source of revenue. (from CIA World FactBook, Wikipedia and Washington Post)

From wikipedia: CITGO is a United States-based refiner, transporter and marketer of transportation fuels, lubricants, petrochemicals and other industrial products. Headquartered in the Energy Corridor area of Houston, it is majority-owned by PDVSA, a state-owned company of the Venezuelan government. However, due to U.S. sanctions place on the company in 2019, the Venezuelan government no longer economically benefits from Citgo.

Read about the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company PDVSA (Petroleum of Venezuela) at wikipedia.

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