Jose Pereira, the American executive in the oil sector, lost about 45 kg of weight, had a heart attack and contracted the Corona virus before his release from a Venezuelan prison where he spent about five years.
Pereira, the CEO of Houston Oil, says the Maduro regime used him as leverage after he was arrested after being summoned to Caracas along with five other oil executives.
Pereira, according to the Wall Street Journal, spent long periods in isolation in an underground cell, deprived of medicine and surviving on leftover chicken and rice.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pereira said he had lost 45 kg and had survived two episodes of Covid-19 and a heart attack when he was released earlier this month, following high-level talks between the Biden administration and the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.
Pereira’s experience provided a rare window into the treatment of foreign prisoners accused of political crimes in Venezuela, who the United States says are tried in sham courts and used as bargaining chips in negotiations with Washington.
Pereira, a permanent resident of the United States, was released along with six American citizens in a prisoner exchange deal as part of talks that could lead to the easing of US sanctions on Chevron Corp. to allow oil to be pumped in Venezuela, if Maduro agrees to negotiate with the political opposition.
In exchange for the detained Americans, the United States returned two nephews of Maduro’s wife, who were convicted in the United States of drug trafficking.
US officials said several other Americans remain in Venezuelan custody, including two former Green Berets accused of taking part in a raid to oust the Maduro regime in 2020.
Foro Pinal, a non-profit group representing people imprisoned in Venezuela, says there are 240 political prisoners in the country, many of them Venezuelan political figures and former military officers accused of plotting against the government .
A UN panel said in a report last month that it had found enough evidence that the Venezuelan government had committed serious crimes against humanity to suppress political dissent, detailing how Maduro and his top aides had personally participated in ordering the arrests and torture of their opponents.
Pereira said he was not beaten. But he said he faced psychological problems, including keeping his cell lights on 24 hours a day.
He recalled at the beginning of his detention that he was only allowed out of the cell once every three months.
The Venezuelan government did not respond to requests for comment from the Wall Street Journal.
The release of the Americans has sparked a debate among US officials and lawmakers about how the country should deal with countries that arbitrarily detain US citizens.
Among the most prominent Americans held in foreign prisons is women’s basketball star Britney Greiner, who has been held in Russia since before its invasion of Ukraine.
Pereira said his prison sentence was so hard on his family that he didn’t care how the United States secured his freedom.
He said that his daughter had to receive treatment for depression and that the family was facing financial difficulties.
Beginning of the story
Pereira received a call that summoned him to Caracas on Thanksgiving Day in 2017.
He said he thought it would be a quick and routine business trip when he and five fellow executives from Houston-based refiner Citgo Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, traveled to Venezuela for the budget meeting.
Soon after, Military Intelligence officers arrested the group and sent them to prison on corruption charges. On state television, President Maduro described the men as “traitors and thieves”.
A Venezuelan judge convicted the two men in 2021 of embezzlement and money laundering related to a proposed $4 billion financing deal that never went through.
Mr. Pereira, who was president of Citgo, was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison, and lost his job during the ordeal.
The group was detained before the United States imposed broad sanctions against Venezuela.
After the sanctions, the United States transferred the management of Citgo, which refines oil for domestic use in the United States, to Venezuelan opposition figures.
Pereira and the United States said the accusations were false.
He also said that it soon became clear that the Venezuelan government planned to use the men in prison as bargaining chips with Washington.
“We were not politicians, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
For the first 10 months, Pereira slept on the floor in an underground cell that the inmates called “the submarine” because it had no windows or fresh air.
He said Citgo executives had virtually no contact with their families or an attorney.
When food had to be served to them, the guards often gave them the neck of a chicken or canned pork.
At the end of 2019, Citgo employees were placed under house arrest in Caracas.
But two months later they were sent back to prison. At the time, Maduro faced a serious challenge to his rule from the US-backed opposition.
In early 2020, opposition leader Juan Guaido attended former US President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in Washington.
Later, the staff was moved to Helicoide, a former 1950s-era hillside shopping center in Caracas now used as a detention center by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service.
Pereira and a State Department spokeswoman said Roger Carstens, the US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, traveled to Venezuela in December 2021 to meet the two men for the first time.
Earlier this month, the men were sleeping when a guard asked them to get dressed, Pereira said.
He said the guards handcuffed them and were taken in an armored car to Caracas airport, where a plane was waiting for them.
Pereira said after he returned to his home in Texas, he attended church with his wife. He devoured a large burger and a pile of onion rings – the food I missed.