Exclusive: Inside America’s secret efforts to free US hostages

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to get Eyvin back within the next four or five or six weeks,” the envoy said as we took the dark, winding road back to the landing site. “And honestly, I probably wouldn’t have said that five or six hours ago.” He emphasized the importance of personal interaction. “In every negotiation there is a point of tension when senior leadership demands this, that, the other – and the people at the negotiating table have to trust each other, have to understand each other and have to be ready. in a way, not only investing in each other but actually fighting to achieve the negotiating points they were aiming for. And that won’t happen unless you meet face to face.”

He then continued: “The people I talked to, most of them did not go to Harvard or the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. They come in harsh environments. Some stole elections. Some have killed their way to the top. Part of my job is to establish empathy.” Before each meeting, he says, “We’re going to actually come up with a strategy. But ultimately when we sit across from someone, especially someone from a pretty difficult country, an enemy, a dictatorship, you have to start relying on intuition.”

WCarstens hat cannot The intuition is the fact that Rodríguez was, in diplomatic parlance, channel-surfing — talking to other US officials, promising different things in different conversations, and essentially playing the anti-hero agenda. midway. A week before we arrived in Canouan, Rodríguez, whose movements were restricted by US sanctions, went to Doha for a secret meeting. His interlocutor on the American side was Juan Gonzalez, senior director of NSC for the Western Hemisphere. A Colombian veteran of the Obama era, he has spent more than a decade focusing on the Andean region, and his views on Maduro and his henchmen resonated with Biden and Sullivan.

“What we want is to do this secretly for a while until we really know where it’s going,” Gonzalez told me as we huddled in an attic-like room. on the top floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “Qatar, just as they have been helping us in other ways, has helped facilitate some of those exchanges.”

At the direction of Sullivan and his deputy, Jon Finer, Gonzalez is attempting to reorient U.S. policy toward Venezuela away from Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which, among other things, involves to the recognition of an anti-regime figure, Juan Guaido, as the country’s legitimate leader. More than 50 countries have joined gambit. But in April 2023, things became untenable: Guaidó was kicked to the curb by the opposition. The Biden administration sensed an opportunity and, with the support of the opposition’s chief negotiator, Gerardo Blyde, began direct negotiations with the Maduro regime.

Gonzalez notes that the first sessions were filled with the ritual of “voicing grievances.” Although trained as a psychiatrist, Rodríguez clearly would not be able to restrain his disdain for America. “The interesting thing about Jorge is that his father was tortured and killed by the previous government,” Gonzalez explains further. “So, in my view, he has a deep hatred for America as an imperialist-aligned government. These people feel they are on a mission to bring about a better Venezuela and we are the ones hindering their ability to create this socialist or communist utopia.”

“We will tell them, ‘You don’t want to be in the same club as countries like North Korea. We should focus on negotiating and resolving things amicably,'” he recalled. Some issues were resolved quickly, such as the repatriation of untold numbers of people who illegally crossed the southern US border to Venezuela. But Maduro’s representatives remained firm on the issue of American hostages, whom Gonzalez lamented treating like currency.

The’s a hostage filled with false starts, shifting dynamics, moments of euphoric promise and dead ends. It was all on full display last June when I landed at Simón Bolívar International Airport near Caracas. Rodríguez sent word that his president was ready to contact Carstens, who would arrive on a government plane. And Maduro seemed to have agreed to give me a rare press interview, but I was told he wanted to take my measure first. Not sure what that would entail, but I was in Venezuela with my blue passport, which no one asked to see, let alone the stamp. I learned that Rodríguez had arranged everything so that our group flying in our own small plane never encountered immigration officials.

I was led off the plane and into a bulletproof car with several burly bodyguards. We waited on the plane until a matte gray G-III appeared. Carstens rushed down the steps, got into the car and our armored convoy drove away.

However, as we entered the capital, anonymous plane spotters – who had tracked the tail number of Carstens’ jet – posted on social media allegations that the envoy had arrived on a CIA plane and an impending hostage takeover or recovery. The reports are not accurate. The plane belonged to a State Department contractor, and Carstens was there to meet with Maduro in hopes that he could hand over an American as a gesture of goodwill while continuing to seek a big deal. than with the US – a deal could include possible sanctions relief. help the oil-rich country reopen its taps. For my part, I was there to see if Maduro would talk about his reasons for holding the Americans hostage and the prospects for their release. Our shared hope is that separate diplomatic and journalistic breakthroughs can help revive Eyvin Hernandez.

The next morning, as we passed through Caracas, I glanced at Carstens, who was staring intently at the card he had taken from his wallet. When I asked him to explain, he said that when he begins negotiations with “an opponent about trying to release an American,” he tends to refer to a Bible verse. “I will just read, meditate and pray to God.” The verse that day was Matthew 10:16, which he summarized as: “Make me wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove, and give me the words You want me to offer. up at that time”. In essence, he is calling out to the Almighty: “I may not be smart enough to think of great words to say. So, Lord, if You can help me by giving me the most effective words, here I am.”

We arrived at Rodríguez’s heavily guarded compound in a leafy part of town. He invited me to his meeting with Carstens. Though some things go unrecorded, the two men — over espressos and local pastries — shared an easy rapport. Consistent with his authority, Carstens seeks the immediate return of wrongfully detained Americans. However, Rodríguez has his own requirements and Saab is the number one priority. He casually boasted that he was talking to other US parties, conferring with Gonzalez at the NSC about the broader US-Venezuela relationship. However, the host said that Maduro wanted to meet us at Miraflores, the presidential palace, at 7 p.m.

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