Vice President’s Ceremonial Office

1:36 P.M. EDT

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you very much for being here.  It’s an honor to welcome all of you to the White House, but I know under very difficult circumstances for your families.

Before me, seated today, are six families whose loved ones are being illegally detained by the Maduro regime in Venezuela.  And on behalf of President Trump, our entire administration, and all the American people, I want to assure you that we’re with you, and we’re going to stand with you until your loved ones are free and until Venezuela is free.

November 2017, at a Citgo meeting in Caracas, Maduro’s regime arrested six men: five American citizens and a legal permanent resident.  The names of all of them deserve to be known to the world: Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Angel Pereira.

They’re still being held to this day.  And I look forward to hearing their stories from each of you and giving — giving you the opportunity to tell the story of your loved ones.

It’s important that the media know that the Maduro regime has denied repeated efforts by these families to meet with their loved ones.  They’ve canceled 16 separate court hearings.  Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolás Maduro must go.  Nicolás Maduro has suspended due process and the rule of law.  And these six families and their loved ones are a testament to the brutality of this regime.

We hear that, while you are separated from your loved ones, that many of them have been deprived of food and medicine and are now suffering severe health problems.

But let me — let me let these families tell their story.  Veronica Weggeman’s father, Tomeu Vadell, is currently being held by the Maduro regime.  Her mom and her sister are here with us today.  But, Veronica, you’ve been a — you’ve been such a strong voice for your family and for all of these families.  Tell us your story.

MS. WEGGEMAN:  Well, first of all, I want to say thank you, Vice President Pence, and Trump, State Department, the Consular Affairs, for all your effort and support on this case, on this matter.

This meeting brings us faith and hope that our family members will hopefully soon be back with us.

Today marks day 497 of our loved ones not being here with us.  It’s been hard.  We’re concerned for their health and safety as Venezuela’s situation continues to deteriorate.  And we need all the help that we can get to bring them home.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  And you’ve had — you’ve had no contact?

MS. WEGGEMAN:  We haven’t had contact with our father for about four weeks now, since the initial blackout in Venezuela.  They don’t have power.  They’re in basements.  They don’t have A/C.  There’s no light.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Where are they being held?  Do you know?

MS. WEGGEMAN:  They’re being held in the — a place called DGCIM.  It’s the — it’s a counterintelligence military base, two floors down in a basement.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  And what is he accused of?

MS. WEGGEMAN:  He’s being accused of false — just bogus charges: corruption, traitor to, you know, the country or — just silly.  Nothing that, you know, is real.

Our father and all these men are honest and hardworking men.  They’ve all worked in the industry for over 20-something years.

And our family men all have been married for over 25-plus years — children, grandchildren — and we’re all extremely worried for them.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Did you have any prior warning?  Did they have any prior warning, prior to the arrest?

MS. WEGGEMAN:  No, not at all.  They were summoned very quickly, about two days before, that they need to go to this emergency meeting and speak about budgets or something.  Pretty out of the normal.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  They were summoned to Caracas?

MS. WEGGEMAN:  Yes, sir.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  In November of 2017?

MS. WEGGEMAN:  Yes, sir.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  And they were arrested at the meeting?

MS. WEGGEMAN:  They were arrested Tuesday, November 21st, the week of Thanksgiving.  And we were not able to spend it with our family members.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Okay.  Well, you’ve been very courageous, Veronica.

MS. WEGGEMAN:  Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  I know your family is very proud of you and so are we.

MS. WEGGEMAN:  Thank you so much, sir.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  We’re with you.

MS. WEGGEMAN:  Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  We’re with you.

Carlos Anez, your father is being held, Jorge Toledo.  Tell us about your dad and your experience.

MR. ANEZ:  Well, my dad brought us to the United States back in January of 1997, and we’ve made a wonderful home here in the U.S.  The country has given us so many opportunities to grow that we just wish to be able to pay this back throughout the rest of our lives.

My dad has worked for Citgo for almost 21 years.  And, as Veronica mentioned, they’ve been detained now for over 16 months in the basement of a facility with very little air circulation, now with no light, with absolutely no medical care.  And we are just worried for their lives and we just want them home as soon as possible.

And if I may speak for the six of them: We’re very confident in the administration, sir, with their track record on the recovery of American hostages and illegally detained citizens abroad.  We are confident that, soon, you’ll be able to extend the same warm welcome to them.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you, Carlos.  Thank you for your strong stand.  And we’re with you.

ANEZ:  Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  We’re with your family.

I know the State Department today is hosting a conference you all have been a part of about Americans that are being imprisoned around the world, held against their will.  But I wanted to take particular time to welcome you here to the White House to make sure that you know that we’re standing with your loved ones and we’re going to continue to stand with them.

The United States today calls for the immediate release of these six individuals: five American, one legal permanent resident of the United States of America.  We call on the Maduro regime to release them immediately.  We call on the Maduro regime to release all political prisoners.

Of course, we recognize that none of that will happen so long as Nicolás Maduro remains in power.  Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power.  The National Assembly, under the constitution, has recognized Interim President Juan Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela.  And the United States was proud to be the first nation on Earth to recognize President Guaidó.  And now more than 50 nations around the world have stood with him.

We’ve continued to bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bear on the regime, but we stand for the principle that for democracy to be restored, for the rule of law to be restored, Nicolás Maduro must go.  And so we call not only on them; we call not only on the regime to release and free your loved ones.  We call on this regime to free the people of Venezuela who are suffering under dictatorship and deprivation.

And I want to assure each and every one of you that President Trump and I and the American people are going to continue to stand firm, to stand firm for the freedoms of your loved ones, and we’re going to stand firm until liberty, freedom, and the rule of law is restored in Venezuela.

So thank you for being here.  I look very much forward to hearing your stories and giving you the opportunity to tell your stories to the country and to the world.

WEGGEMAN:  Thank you.

ANEZ:  Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:    Thank you all.

Q    Will the U.S. take any (inaudible) actions to help (inaudible)?

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  The United States is going to continue to take strong action not only to isolate Venezuela, but also we’re looking at strong action against Cuba, which continues to provide personnel and support to the dictatorship in Venezuela and enables the oppression of the people of Venezuela.

At this point, this President is looking at a broad range of options.  There’s a great deal more we can do, and we’re prepared to do it.  But we call today on the regime to immediately release these five Americans and one legal permanent resident.  They’re being held illegally.  But this regime should release all political prisoners.  But to accomplish that, the rule of law has to be restored, democracy has to be restored, and Nicolás Maduro must go.  It’s time for a new day for Venezuela.

Q    Can you talk about the health of Citgo as a business and how it’s affecting U.S. gasoline supplies?  Is the U.S. able to keep track of profits from Citgo?  That sort of thing.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Well, look, among the sanctions that we imposed were on PDVSA, the Venezuelan oil company.  At this point, we remain absolutely determined to stand firm.  We recognize the importance of energy for the United States.  We recognize the importance of petroleum product in this country.  But the price of oil around the world has been quite low for some time, quite competitive for some time, and we’re just going to continue to stand firm and bring even more pressure on this regime.

It is astounding to think — and I don’t have to tell the families of oil executives — that Venezuela, by some accounts, has the largest oil reserves in the world and was the second wealthiest nation in our hemisphere.  But through socialism, through dictatorship, through oppression and corruption, Nicolás Maduro has impoverished this nation.  And so we’re — we’re going to continue to bring pressure on the oil industry.  We’re going to continue to bring pressure on countries in this hemisphere who are supporting the dictatorship in Venezuela.

But I just want these families to know, and the President wants them to know, that we’re going to stand with them until their loved ones are free, and we’re going to stand with the people of Venezuela until their nation is free.

Q    Do you feel that these family members are hostages?  And have you tasked, or has the administration tasked U.S. Hostage Envoy Robert O’Brien to look into this?  Is he working on this?

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  I would refer your technical question.  But, look, we believe that these six individuals — five of which are American citizens and one of which is a legal permanent resident — these six individuals are being held illegally since November of 2017.

We just heard from Veronica that they were enticed to come to Caracas under the auspices of an emergency meeting, and then they were arrested, and now they are being held, many of them to great detriment to their health.  And I can assure you that we’re going to use all means at our disposal to secure their release.

I appreciate Carlos mentioning the success that this President and our administration have had in seeing Americans freed from captivity around the world, whether that be in North Korea or other nations around the world.  And as you heard at the State Department today, we remain determined to see Americans, who are being illegally held, freed.

Q    Mr. Vice President, (inaudible) sanctions on Friday.   When should we expect to see those?

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  President Trump has made it clear there’s a lot more we can do to bring pressure economically to bear on Venezuela, and we’re prepared to do it.  Nicolás Maduro must go.  And while all options are on the table, we have a whole range of economic sanctions that we can bring to bear, and we’re continuing to see support across the wider world grow for President Juan Guaidó and for the reestablishment of the rule of law.

But the personal stories of these families are all emblematic of the story of a nation that literally is being held hostage by a regime.  And we’re going to continue to stand firm until freedom is restored for their loved ones and freedom is restored for all the people of Venezuela.

Thank you all.

END

1:49 P.M. EDT