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How Venezuela Lured, Arrested and Imprisoned the CITGO 6; Food Banks Prepare to Feed Thousands of Americans. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired November 25, 2021 - 11:30   ET



ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN NEWSROOM: Yes. Best thing you can do for those children is get vaccinated yourself if you're an adult.

Let's talk about some of these numbers, new cases up 32 percent in the past two weeks, hospitalizations up 12 percent. CNN's John Berman asked Dr. Fauci if he thought this was the start of a new wave. This is what he had to say.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, PRESIDENT BIDEN'S CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER: It is conceivable, John, that that is going to be the case. But we can do something about it. We can get the unvaccinated vaccinated. We can get those who have been vaccinating boosters, and we can be prudent and careful when we go to indoor congregate settings to make sure we follow the CDC recommendations of wearing a mask. If we do that, it's within our power to prevent a big surge.


MARQUARDT: So, Doctor, where do you see where we are now? Do you agree with Dr. Fauci?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO, EXECUTIVE ASSOCIATE DEAN, EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT GRADY: Yes, I 100 percent agree with what Dr. Fauci says. We are clearly seeing what looks like an increase, looks like a potentially fifth wave. But, again, we can change the outcome, right? We can get people vaccinated. We can do masking. We can do many things to decrease the impact of that wave.

I spoke this morning to colleagues in Michigan and Colorado. They are seeing an increase in hospitalization. Michigan is seeing actually straining their healthcare system. But over 90 percent, 95 percent of those hospitalized are still unvaccinated individuals. If you are unvaccinated, delta is going to find you and you're going to get sick and you will very likely become a patient in a hospital and you may die as a consequence of this.

So, again, I cannot understress the importance of getting vaccinated. This is the time, please do it, because we can really control what's happening. We can really prevent people from ending up in the hospital. One thing is to get infected. A very different thing is to end up in a hospital and dying as a consequence of delta. We can prevent that.

MARQUARDT: Such an important message as we head into this holiday season. Dr. Carlos del Rio, thank you very much. Happy Thanksgiving.

DEL RIO: Happy Thanksgiving, Alex.

MARQUARDT: Coming up, a CNN investigation into how Venezuela lured five Americans and a U.S. resident to that South American country and then detained them for several years on trumped up charges. That story is coming up next.



MARQUARDT: Now to a CNN investigation on five Americans and a U.S. resident who have been detained for four years in Venezuela. The men were executives at the U.S. subsidiary of a Venezuela state oil company, CITGO. They were convicted of corruption in a closed-door trial. But CNN has learned that the men, who are known as the CITGO 6 and were lured into going to Venezuela and then tried on trumped up charges.

CNN's Isa Soares reports.


ISA SOARES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Carmen clings to a photo of her husband, Jorge Toledo.


SOARES: The same way she hangs on to his every word.

This voicemail the very first time the world is hearing from him, since he left on a business trip to Venezuela, yet to return.

TOLEDO: After four year, I think that, yes, that U.S. government has failed us.

SOARES: Jorge Toledo and his colleagues left Houston on November 19, 2017, called to a meeting to a meeting, Caracas, by CITGO's parent company, PDVSA. As they gather in a conference room, Venezuela's feared military intelligence sweep in and arrest the five Americans and a U.S. resident.

General Manuel Christopher Figuera was a senior intelligence officer, very close to President Nicolas Maduro until he turned on him and fled to the United States. He says the CITGO 6 was set up.

CHRISTOPHER FIGUERA, FORMER HEAD OF VENEZUELAN INTELLIGENCE: It was a well-prepared trap to arrest them. There was no arrest warrant.

SOARES: Initially, the six were held at a prison controlled by the agency Figuera was part of. Now in the United States, he tells us he takes responsibility for his actions.

FIGUERA: I feel responsible not just for them, but because I was part of that nefarious structure that today is destroying our country.

SOARES: Their families and lawyers tell us they have been kept in overcrowded cells, no windows and in the most unsanitary conditions. They say they've had to buy everything from food to water, toothpaste, to even toilet paper. Have a listen to what Toledo asked for just a few weeks ago.

Early this year, the CITGO 6 were moved to house arrest, only to be thrown back in prison in October hours after a Maduro ally was extradited to the United States. Throughout, President Nicolas Maduro has accused them of theft and embezzlement, off taking kickbacks from an illicit debt deal (ph).


NICOLAS MADURO, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT: A few days ago, as head of state, I requested an urgent investigation, given the serious claims that I was made aware of, of embezzlement of our company, CITGO, of a blatant and massive robbery at CITGO.

SOARES: The main accusations against the six said they had tried to renegotiate the CITGO debt without consulting with PDVSA or Maduro. The military officer behind their arrest said in court the Venezuelan authorities had received information from its intelligence sources in the U.S. but offered no proof.

CNN obtained documents showing that the board of CITGO's parent company, PDVSA, explicitly authorized negotiations. In addition, look closely, only one of the six, Jose Pereira, was part of the conversations.

The deal, by the way, never went ahead and the company that was mediating the refinancing move, Mangorasal (ph), says no money was ever exchanged. Still, they were convicted.

The arrests to the CITGO 6 took place after protesters began pouring onto the streets in 2017. Venezuela's once booming oil industry was on its knees, the country under a mountain of debt. And Sanctions imposed by President Trump crippled PDVSA's ability to move profits from CITGO back into Venezuela.

As the flow of cash dried up, the regime's blame and fear strategy kicked in.

TAREK WILLIAM SAAB, VENEZUELAN ATTORNEY GENERAL: They're saying this is all part of the internal struggle. What internal struggle? This is corruption, corruption of the most rotten kind.

SOARES: Former Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez ran PDVSA for a decade under Hugo Chavez.

Once an ally, he became a threat to Maduro's rise to power, and a potential challenger to the presidency when their leader and mentor, Hugo Chavez, died suddenly in 2013. He fled into exile when he received word Maduro wanted to arrest him on corruption charges, charges he denies.

RAFAEL RAMIREZ, FORMER VENEZUELAN OIL MINISTER AND PRESIDENT OF PDVSA: The arrest order and the way they were detained is an instruction by Maduro to spread terror, to generate fear.

SOARES: So, they were set up?

RAMIREZ: Yes, of course. This spread fear throughout PDVSA, throughout the country, a feeling of fear and terror with regards to the security forces started to grow around the country.

SOARES: A fear that only increased with the purge of PDVSA employees, 15 arrested since 2017, according to Venezuelan NGO, Foro Penal.

BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: It seems that they have been used as -- you know, as bargaining chips.

SOARES: Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson is navigating this minefield in an effort to win the freedom of the CITGO 6. He tells me what he believes Maduro's intentions are.

RICHARDSON: They don't want any further sanctions. They want sanctions lifted, but you know, the relationship has been so poor in the last four to eight years, that I'm the one that's talking to the Venezuelans. The U.S. Government doesn't talk to them.

SOARES: Since he took office, President Biden has said little on Venezuela. Its policy, some say, is inexistent, a very different approach to former President Trump. For Carlos Anez and the families of the other five in Venezuela, the fight for justice has been lonely, with silence, they say, from the U.S. government.

CARLOS ANEZ, SON OF DETAINED CITGO EXECUTIVE JORGE TOLEDO: I always apologize to my dad for, you know, not having delivered, is how I feel. I feel like I haven't delivered until he's home. And if he's not home, then I'm not applying the right kind of pressure or I'm not getting my mission accomplished.

SOARES: A battle that will continue as long as the CITGO 6 is seen as a valuable bargaining chip for a regime that has few options left.

Isa Soares, CNN.


MARQUARDT: And in response to CNN, the State Department says that it continues to, quote, seek the unconditional release of the CITGO 6, and it urges Maduro to allow them to return to their families here in the United States.

Coming up, rising food prices are putting a strain on Americans this Thanksgiving. We'll discuss how food banks are dealing with that high demand. That's next.



MARQUARDT: Today, food banks around the country are opening their doors to thousands of hungry Americans who need a little extra help getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table today. For the second year in a row, communities in need have been hit hard by this pandemic, and now food prices are also on the rise.

CNN's Rosa Flores is live in Houston, where the nation's largest Thanksgiving Day food distributor has just started serving the public.

Rosa, what are you seeing there this morning, Rosa?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alex, Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Thanksgiving to everybody. This event is expected to serve up to 30,000 people today.

Now, what you see behind me is the area where all of this food is going to be served. According to the organizers, they have cooked about 3,200 turkeys, and hear this, 635,000 pounds of food. So, what the participants will be able to do is they will be able to walk, grab their food, grab some water and then pass over on to this side, where there is a dining area where they'll be able to enjoy their meal.


Now, according to the organizers, putting this together takes thousands of volunteers as well. This year, they've had about 3,500 volunteers. Now, beyond the volunteers that you see beyond these tables, there's a giant door. What's happening out there is that people are driving up and grabbing a free turkey and also a basket. The idea there is that, Alex, those individuals who can't come in and dine in, they can take the turkey, prepare it at home and share the meal with their families. Alex?

MARQUARDT: So important especially this year. All right, Rosa Flores, Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.

President Biden and Vice President Harris did their part to help those in need this week. The president, V.P. and their spouses helped pack Thanksgiving meals at a food bank here in the nation's capital on Tuesday. That was back on Tuesday.

Joining me now is the CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, Mike Curtin Jr. Mike, thanks so much for being with me and Happy Thanksgiving.

MIKE CURTIN JR., CEO, D.C. CENTRAL KITCHEN: Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for having us.

MARQUARDT: We've been talking about how things are getting a little bit more back to normal. Of course, the pandemic is still raging, but with families gathering more this year than last year, and that sense of normalcy somewhat returning, what are you seeing in terms of demand and of need now? CURTIN: Well, I think one of the things that we really have to be careful about is and understand the damaging effects of this pandemic are going to last far past the time when we are all unmasked and we are back to a normal place. We have seen so many households fall into hunger insecurity or food insecurity. That swath of the population is growing. Demand has grown and we have done more over the last 18, 20 months than we had the two years -- two or three years prior to COVID and we anticipate this demand continuing to grow.

MARQUARDT: But you also say that the pandemic has exposed what you called the hidden face of hunger. How so?

CURTIN: Sure. Well, often, we focus on childhood hunger, which is widely important, but all hunger is bad. One of the areas where we have to be really careful and aware is seniors. And that is sort of the hidden face of hunger, also a single parent, most often a single mother. But we have seen seniors whose budgets just aren't going as far as they used to go. They can't get out to the stores at certain times, don't have access to food.

So we've done almost 600,000 pounds of -- I'm sorry, 3.5 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables in grocery bags, something that we've done before. And that's in addition to the 6 million meals that we've delivered over the course of this pandemic. And a good bit of those are going to seniors, folks that we weren't serving prior to COVID.

MARQUARDT: You're obviously the CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen. But when you look at this nationally, where do you think the issue is most acute? What types of areas?

CURTIN: Well, I think hunger goes everywhere. Certainly, urban areas, like the District of Columbia where we are, but rural hunger is a huge issue as well. Rural areas have less access to food banks or community kitchens, like D.C. Central Kitchen. The system, the philanthropy system that is designed to help those who need a little extra help just doesn't extend often to those areas.

So, I really think we need to be careful too about looking at just one place and recognize that this is a large, national issue. We have more than enough food. We are throwing out up to 40 percent of the food that we produce in this country every day, ends up in the garbage. Yet, we have people that are hungry. One in six families don't know where their next meal is coming from. That's criminal. We have the resources. We just have to be smarter about how we deploy them.

MARQUARDT: That's such a travesty and that needs to be fixed and reconciled.

On top of providing meals and food, you also have a job training program. You've trained over 2,000 people for jobs in hospitality. And, of course, the hospitality industry took a huge hit during the pandemic. All sorts of companies, restaurants, bars, et cetera, are finding it hard to staff up. How has that impacted that part of your work? CURTIN: Sure. So, we actually had to put our training program, which is the heart and soul of what we do. Although people often equate us or associate us with food, we use food as our tool to strengthen bodies and power and build communities. And we do that most pointedly through our culinary job trainings program, working with individuals who have faced immense barriers to employment, like histories of incarceration, addiction, homelessness, abuse, or other traumas to get them jobs in the hospitality sector.

So, as that sector does come back, we are working really hard with our graduates and our restaurant and hospitality partners to get people back in the workforce.


The training programs that we were able to run during the pandemic, we just graduated a class not too long ago, we are able to -- we have been able to get them back in the workforce, which is very positive. And we also hire a good number of our graduates here into our social enterprise programs at D.C. Central Kitchen.

MARQUARDT: Well, Mike Curtin, thank you for everything you do. Wishing you and everyone you work with a very Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you.

CURTIN: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.

MARQUARDT: And we have much more ahead on CNN Newsroom. We'll be right back after this quick break.