(CNN) — The top US State Department official on hostage and prisoner affairs made a quiet trip to Venezuela last month amid efforts to free and bring home Americans wrongfully detained in the South American country.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, visited the Venezuelan capital of Caracas just before Christmas, another official and relatives of the hostages told CNN.
According to the US official, the December 2022 trip – which has not yet been announced – will focus on checking the situation of Americans imprisoned in Venezuela. Carstens was accompanied by US diplomatic officials.
The United States does not have official diplomatic relations with the government of Nicolás Maduro and has no diplomats in the country, meaning access to Americans is very limited.
Currently, at least four Americans are being held in Venezuela: Luke Denman, Iron Perry, Ivin Hernandez, and Jerel Kenmore. The latter two have been wrongfully detained by the US State Department.
Kenmore’s sister, Jeana Tillery, told CNN that Carstens was able to meet with her brother and Hernandez for about 30 minutes. He brought them vitamins and Bibles at their request, and his family was able to send him tuna as a Christmas present.
“When he saw Tuna, who asked for a moment of silence, he was very happy,” Tillery told CNN, adding that he is allowed to speak with his brother several times a week.
Hernandez’s brother, Henry Martinez, said the Carstens family was able to provide some goodies, including vitamins, soap, honey and chocolate.
“They were able to say that they were working for his release and that they had not forgotten about him,” he added.
Martinez told CNN that he could only talk to Hernandez twice a week for about 5 to 10 minutes, and that he was worried his brother was starting to lose hope as the first anniversary of his detention approached in March of last year.
Carstens has made several trips to the Venezuelan capital to visit detained Americans, many of whom the Joe Biden administration promised last year would be released.
In March 2022, Carstens brought two citizens from Venezuela to the United States: “Citco 6”, Gustavo Cardenas, and Cuban-American dual national Jorge Alberto Fernandez. However, another expedition ended in June without any prisoners being released.
In early October, the Biden government managed to free seven Americans: José Pereira, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano and José Luis Zambrano, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan, in a prisoner exchange with the Maduro government.
In an exclusive interview with CNN late last November, Carstens said the United States is “continuing to have conversations with other parties.”
“Even though I have work, I feel confident,” he said.
Although the Biden government has negotiated with Maduro’s government over the prisoner issue, it has officially recognized Venezuela’s opposition, which recently ousted Juan Guaidó as its leader.
However, the United States eased some sanctions against Maduro’s government, announcing the easing of oil embargoes in November, resuming stalled talks between the opposition and the ruling party and reaching an agreement on humanitarian aid.