Alexandra Forseth has been on the TV news. She’s been invited to Washington, D.C. She’s had the ears of some of the most powerful people in the United States, including two senators, a congressman and the secretary of state.
The 27-year-old Oak Forest resident would trade all those experiences to be reunited with her father, who she wants to be as well-known as John Cornyn, Ted Cruz or Mike Pompeo.
Alirio Zambrano, a 56-year-old father of three, and five other Citgo executives have been imprisoned in Venezuela for nearly two years over what U.S. officials have said are trumped-up charges. His oldest daughter, Forseth, has dedicated much of her time and energy to bringing awareness to their plight and securing their safe return to America, where five of the men are dual citizens.
“It’s been horrible,” Forseth said. “It’s really taken over my life. It’s been very intense, just kind of like of movie. It’s like living in a movie where you just don’t believe it’s your life.”
Shortly before Thanksgiving in 2017, Zambrano and the other Citgo employees were summoned from Texas and Louisiana to Venezuela, where state-owned oil and gas company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) exerted control over its Houston-based subsidiary. He and the other men – Gustavo Cardenas, Jose Pereira, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell and Zambrano’s brother, Jose Luis Zambrano – were then arrested and have remained jailed by the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
In an attempt to pressure the U.S. government to demand their release, Forseth started the Citgo 6 Coalition and has secured more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to elected officials. She organized a march for the men last Sunday at Candlelight Park, where their families, about 250 other supporters, U.S. Rep. Pete Olson and a representative of Cruz, the senator from Texas, were on hand. Cornyn, the other senator from Texas, sent a letter that Forseth read to the crowd.
Four of the six detained men are constituents of Olson’s in Fort Bend County, and he told Sunday’s crowd he would post a sign outside his Washington office that would be updated daily to show how long the men have been jailed – 667 days as of Sunday. Olson carried that sign as he walked around the park with the other demonstrators. He also wore a white T-shirt that was handed out with “Never give up” written on the front.
The Republican congressman, who is not seeking reelection in 2020, has provided financial assistance to five of the families by working with banks to have their home-loan payments deferred. Olson said he continues to work with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo, the secretary of state, to pressure Maduro into releasing the men.
“It’s been a priority,” Olson said. “I want them out before I leave office.”
According to Forseth, Olson and relatives of Cardenas and Toledo, the men have been accused of trying to make decisions that would financially inhibit Citgo’s parent company and by extension the Venezuelan government. Olson said the men have been charged with traitorous crimes but have not yet been granted trials, with previous court dates having been pushed back.
Olson called the charges a “sham” and also called on Citgo to pay the men’s salaries to their families while they are jailed. The wives of Cardenas and Toledo said the company stopped paying their husband’s salaries a few months after they were jailed but continue to provide insurance benefits. They also said Citgo started assisting with legal expenses about six months ago.
Amidst U.S. sanctions against PDVSA, there recently has been some separation between Citgo and the Maduro-controlled parent company. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who the U.S. recognizes as the country’s legitimate leader following an election held there, appointed a new board of directors for Citgo in February, and that move was confirmed by a federal court in August.
In a statement released to The Leader on Monday, a Citgo spokesperson said, “Like those gathering in Houston on Sunday, we pray for the safety of our employees, and for their families. As a company, CITGO believes all human rights must be respected. We have met with and continue to provide support to each of the families of those who are detained by Maduro’s regime, including legal expenses, health care coverage and other benefits. CITGO also continues to support the U.S. Government’s efforts to secure their release.”
Olson said the matter is complicated by the political unrest in Venezuela. He said American officials cannot physically remove the men from custody and refuse to pay any sort of ransom to have them released, so they must continue trying to pressure Maduro into doing so.
The families of the Citgo 6 hope events such as Sunday’s will remind people to continue trying to pressure their elected officials into demanding a resolution. Among the attendees were Forseth’s friends from her neighborhood and St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church as well as her co-workers from ExxonMobil.
“(Forseth) came and spoke to us at work, gave us the background on the horrible situation with her dad and what they do now and all the families impacted,” said co-worker Katie Lawless, a Heights resident. “We all kept asking, ‘What can we be doing to help?’ Either get more people involved and knowledgeable about it, or by donating. She said, ‘Come out here and show everyone that it means a lot to a lot of people.’”
The families of the Citgo 6 are essentially paying for their fathers, grandfathers, husbands and uncles to be jailed. With the help of hired hands and relatives in Venezuela, they have had to provide basic necessities such as food, water, medicine and toiletries.
Forseth said her father had high blood pressure before he was arrested and went a while without medicine or seeing a doctor. She said he also was malnourished during the early stages of his detainment, losing about 60 pounds, and lost some of his vision as well.
Communication has been sporadic. Forseth said she had weekly phone conversations with her dad at one point, but now she has gone nearly two months without hearing his voice. Her mother, Jennifer Zambrano, said she hasn’t spoken to her husband in about seven months.
There is no telling when they might speak to Alirio Zambrano again, or see him in person. No trial dates have been set for the Citgo 6, and there are no signs of diplomacy between U.S. leaders and Maduro.
But relatives of the jailed men will continue to share their story and continue pushing for their release.
“All we can do is hope,” Jennifer Zambrano said. “Never give up. They’re not giving up. We won’t give up.”