Brothers Alirio and Jose Luis Zambrano were not among the detained Citgo executives who were transferred from a Venezuelan prison to house arrest last week. Only Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Toledo were allowed to leave El Helicoide in Caracas, where the four men and two other colleagues have spent most of the last three years, and their Houston-area relatives are not sure why.
But the Zambrano family, which includes Oak Forest resident Alexandra Forseth, is encouraged nonetheless.
Forseth’s sister, Gabriela Zambrano Hill, talked to their father, Alirio, on the night of Thursday, July 30, when Cardenas and Toledo were put under house arrest. Hill said she could hear the optimism in the voice of her father, who was allowed a brief phone call.
“It’s been so difficult for them,” she said. “They’re trying to keep themselves safe during the pandemic, and there’s been times when trying to keep themselves isolated is incredibly hard for them mentally and spiritually. Having something that looks like a step forward has filled my dad with energy and hope. It makes us at home really hopeful that we’ll see them again soon.”
The “Citgo 6,” which also includes Jose Pereira and Tomeu Vadell, were called to a November 2017 meeting in Venezuela, the home of Citgo’s state-run parent company. They were then arrested by the regime of Nicolas Maduro, who accused the men of treason, but they have yet to stand trial.
Some of the men’s relatives said the transfer to house arrest for Cardenas and Toledo, who have homes in Fort Bend County, is a sign that Maduro could be warming up to the idea of altogether releasing their loved ones, five of whom are dual citizens. The transfer followed a recent visit to Venezuela by Bill Richardson, the U.S. diplomat and former New Mexico governor who met with Maduro on behalf of the “Citgo 6” families.
U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, who represents some of the men and has called for their release, said he is “thrilled” about the recent progress but said he won’t be satisfied until all six of them are back home with their families.
“Maybe there’s a crack in that cold, cold heart to let the people go,” Olson said of Maduro. “He knows they did nothing illegal, nothing wrong. It’s all the politics of power.”
Olson, Hill, Cardenas’ wife, Maria Elena, and Toledo’s stepson, Carlos Anez, said they do not know why only two of the six men were granted house arrest. They all said they see it as a step in the right direction, but they remain cautiously optimistic.
All six men were moved from prison to house arrest last December, but they were rounded up and returned to prison in February after U.S. President Donald Trump met in Washington with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.
“I try not to get my hopes up, because of what happened last time,” Anez said. “But I’m thankful that Venezuelan authorities decided to do this and, of course, very thankful for the effort that Bill Richardson has put into making this happen. Hopefully it’s one step in the right direction.”
That sentiment was echoed by Maria Elena Cardenas, who said this is the first time in nearly three years that “we feel like something is happening.” So she’s hopeful that after her husband was placed under house arrest, it will not be long before he can leave Venezuela and return to their home in Katy.
Their youngest son, Sergio Cardenas, has a terminal genetic disorder called mucolipidosis, which has led to other medical issues and left him confined to a wheelchair. His mother said doctors have told the family it is a “miracle he’s still alive,” because Sergio was in hospice care the last time he saw his father in 2017.
Sergio Cardenas, whose condition improved after his father went to Venezuela, was 17 years old at the time. Last week, he turned 20.
“It is hard,” Maria Elena Cardenas said. “But the only thing we can do is keep our prayers and our faith that this nightmare will end soon.”