The family of a California man is demanding his release after they say he was wrongly arrested in Venezuela and held for tens of thousands of dollars in ransom just days after the Biden administration eased crippling oil sanctions on the socialist-run government.
The October 24 arrest of Savoy-Wright, which had not previously been reported, has become the latest flashpoint in the fragile relationship between the United States and the government of Nicolás Maduro that critics say should lead to a return to sanctions.
But all the Wright family wants is for the 38-year-old businessman to return home. They know little about the circumstances of his detention. No criminal charges have been brought against him, he has not been allowed to see a lawyer, and the Venezuelan government has not said where he is being held.
“It’s a nightmare. It’s like you’re watching a horror movie but you’re in it,” his mother, Erin Stewart, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Oakland.
Wright joins at least seven other U.S. citizens who remain Imprisoned in Venezuela. But his arrest stands out because it followed a politically risky move by President Joe Biden – Retreat from the stifling oil sanctions Against the OPEC member state in conjunction with the October 17 agreement in Barbados between the Maduro government and its opponents to hold elections next year.
Almost immediately, Maduro appeared to renounce the deal when the country’s Supreme Court, packed with loyalists, suspended the results of an opposition-run primary won by Maria Corina Machado, a former pro-US lawmaker.
The Biden administration has said it is prepared to reimpose sanctions if Maduro backs down on his commitments, which include repealing the ban barring Machado and others from holding office, and beginning the release of political prisoners and unjustly detained US citizens by the end of November.
The US State Department confirmed this position on Friday in response to questions about Wright’s arrest.
White House spokesman Matthew Miller said: “Failure to adhere to the terms of this arrangement will prompt the United States to reverse the steps it has taken.”
The administration of former President Donald Trump and escalation of sanctions Venezuela in 2019 after accusing Maduro of remaining in power through rigged elections, then instead recognized democratically elected opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.
Some former Trump administration officials say Wright’s arrest is just the latest example of Maduro acting in bad faith.
“Maduro playing games with the lives of Americans is unacceptable,” said Kimberly Breyer, a former senior US diplomat in Latin America and the architect of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Maduro. “There will be bipartisan agreement in Washington in the coming days that the Barbados Agreement, which is only a month old, has expired.”
“Maduro challenges Biden’s bluff,” added Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela.
The State Department has repeatedly warned American citizens against traveling to Venezuela due to the risk of kidnapping and extortion. Sophisticated criminal groups, which sometimes cooperate with government security forces, target unsuspecting men online or in neighboring Colombia with romantic offers.
Wright appears to be the second American citizen to be arrested since Venezuela last year Five oil executives from Houston-based Citgo have been released and other Americans in exchange for the US government’s release of two of Maduro’s nephews who were imprisoned on drug charges.
The 6-foot-10-inch (208 cm) Berkeley, Calif., native and graduate of Loyola Marymount University split his time for more than a decade between Oakland, Miami and South America while working remotely as a mortgage officer, his family said.
“He loved the nomadic lifestyle,” said Stewart, who did not know her son was in Venezuela until she learned of his arrest. “Everywhere he went, he was seen as a gentle giant, and he was very likable.”
Stewart says she has spoken to her son only once since he started, after family and friends rushed to pay a huge ransom to his kidnappers that they could barely afford. Wright told how he was stopped by police while in a park with a woman he was using drugs with. His family suspects it was part of a plot. Later, once police ruled out any criminal wrongdoing by Wright, they determined he did not have a stamp on his passport and turned him over to immigration authorities for deportation, Stewart says.
It is unclear what happened next. But other prisoners told his family that Wright was being held in a former textile factory turned detention center run by military counterintelligence in Venezuela. Dozens of former political prisoners have reported being subjected to torture and ill-treatment in the basement of the facility, which guards menacingly refer to as “abuse.” “dream house.”
Stewart says she fears her son will also be subjected to psychological torture. Her son’s health is also a concern due to strict dietary restrictions caused by severe food allergies.
Venezuelan Attorney General Tariq William Saab did not provide any information about Wright’s case.
Other US citizens detained in Venezuela include two former Green Berets – Luke Denman and Airan Perry – who were involved in a terrorist operation. Attempt to overthrow Maduro In 2019, three men – Evin Hernandez, Jeryl Kennemore and Joseph Cristella – were also arrested for allegedly entering the country illegally from Colombia.
Wright’s family is speaking out because they feel the US government has not done enough to secure his release. After filing a complaint with the FBI that their son was being blackmailed, they were directed to the State Department, which has limited diplomatic tools to secure the release of Americans in a politically volatile country where the US embassy has been closed since 2019.
The State Department did not respond to emailed questions about whether U.S. officials had raised the issue of Wright’s detention with the Maduro government.
“As Americans, when your loved one is in this horrific situation, you think someone is going to be there to help, and when they don’t, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” said Moisey Stewart, Wright’s sister. He added: “It’s disgusting that they raise their hands in the air and say we don’t have diplomatic relations with Venezuela, so we can’t do anything.”
Goodman reported from Miami. Tucker from Washington.
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