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'It doesn't seem real': American freed from jail in Venezuela is home with his family

“I still cannot believe he is here," said María Elena Cárdenas, the wife of Gustavo Cárdenas, who was released and is back home in Texas.
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Gustavo Cárdenas, one of the Americans released from prison in Venezuela, arrived home in Katy, Texas, early Wednesday and his wife says seeing him in front of her did not seem real.

“We are so happy. We did not sleep all night,” María Elena Cárdenas said. “I still cannot believe he is here.”

María and her children had read news reports late Tuesday that her husband had been freed but did not receive official confirmation from the U.S. government until later in the night, Cárdenas was on a flight home. He arrived home early Wednesday.

She said that Cárdenas was checked by two doctors after being released and appeared to be in good health, though he is very thin after spending more than four years mostly in Caracas’ feared Helicoide prison.

María said their 21-year-old special needs son, Sergio, was elated to see his father and skipped school Wednesday.

Image: Gustavo Cárdenas, right, on vacation with his family in New York
Gustavo Cárdenas, right, on vacation with his family in New York.Family photo file

Cárdenas, who was vice president of shareholder relations at Citgo, was one of six executives from the company detained in November 2017 during a business trip and charged with corruption.

Another American, Jorge Fernández, who was arrested in February 2021 and accused of terrorism after allegedly using a drone, was also released Tuesday. The release of the Americans by Venezuela’s government is an effort to improve relations with the Biden administration.

The release came after a secret visit to Venezuela by senior Biden administration officials over the weekend during which they discussed the possibility of easing sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports, as well as the release of American prisoners. The Biden administration was weighing a ban on imports of Russian oil as it tries to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine. Venezuela is one of Russia’s strongest allies in the region.

“These men are fathers who lost precious time with their children and everyone they love, and their families have suffered every day of their absence,” a statement from President Joe Biden read. 

The corruption charges on which the Citgo executives were jailed in November 2017 stemmed from a never executed deal to refinance the company’s debt. Citgo, based in Houston, is the U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.

Five other Citgo executives remain in jail: Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano and José Pereira. They had been called for a last-minute meeting in Venezuela around Thanksgiving 2017. Once they were in the conference room at the PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, armed and masked security agents arrested them.

Beside the five Citgo executives, three other Americans remain imprisoned in Venezuela. Two of them are former U.S. Special Forces soldiers Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were sentenced to 20 years for their part in a failed beach attack aimed at overthrowing President Nicolás Maduro, according to Venezuelan prosecutors. The other is retired Marine Matthew Heath who was arrested and charged with terrorism in September 2020 for allegedly having an arsenal in his car.

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