The family of a California man is desperately seeking his release after he was wrongfully arrested in Venezuela and held for ransom following the Biden administration’s recent easing of oil sanctions on the socialist-run government. Savoi Wright’s arrest occurred on October 24th but had not been previously reported, and it has now become a contentious issue in the delicate relationship between the United States and Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
While critics argue for the reinstitution of sanctions, all Wright’s family wants is to bring him back home. However, they have little information about his arrest, with no charges filed, no access to a lawyer, and no official word from the Venezuelan government on his location.
Describing the situation as a nightmare, Wright’s mother, Erin Stewart, pleaded for her son’s safe return, comparing their experience to being in a horror movie. Wright’s case stands out as one of the many American citizens who remain detained in Venezuela. Notably, his arrest occurred immediately after President Joe Biden decided to rollback debilitating oil sanctions and amidst an agreement between Maduro’s government and its adversaries to hold elections in the upcoming year.
However, Maduro’s government appeared to backtrack on this deal when the nation’s Supreme Court, comprised of many loyalists, suspended the results of an opposition-run primary. This move has raised concerns and cast doubt on the durability of the agreement.
The Biden administration has made it clear that it is ready to reimpose sanctions if Maduro reneges on his commitments, which include allowing opposition figures like Maria Corina Machado to hold office and releasing political prisoners and wrongfully detained American citizens by the end of November. The U.S. State Department reasserted this stance in response to inquiries regarding Wright’s arrest, warning that failure to follow through on the agreement will result in reversed measures.
Under former President Donald Trump’s administration, the United States increased sanctions on Venezuela in 2019 after accusing Maduro of clinging to power through fraudulent means. Instead, they recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president through democratic elections.
Former Trump administration officials argue that Wright’s arrest is a continuation of Maduro’s deceptive behavior, with Kimberly Breier, a former top U.S. diplomat to Latin America, emphasizing that Maduro’s disregard for American lives is unacceptable. Elliot Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, added that Maduro is testing President Biden’s resolve.
The U.S. State Department has repeatedly cautioned American citizens against traveling to Venezuela due to the risks of abduction and extortion. Criminal groups, often in collaboration with government security forces, target unsuspecting individuals online or in neighboring Colombia by luring them with romantic offers.
Wright appears to be only the second American citizen detained since Venezuela released five Citgo oil executives from Houston and two other Americans in exchange for the U.S. government’s freedom of two of Maduro’s wife’s nephews, who had been imprisoned on narcotics charges. Wright, a 6-foot-10-inch Berkeley native and Loyola Marymount University graduate, has led a nomadic lifestyle for over a decade, splitting his time between Oakland, Miami, and South America while working remotely as a mortgage loan officer.
His family describes him as a gentle giant, greatly loved wherever he went. Stewart, who was unaware of her son’s presence in Venezuela until his arrest, recounts her only conversation with him, which occurred after his captors demanded a large ransom that she and her loved ones struggled to afford. Wright shared that he had been stopped by police while in a park with a woman who was in possession of drugs, leading his family to suspect foul play.
Eventually, the police cleared Wright of any criminal wrongdoing but discovered he lacked a passport stamp. As a result, they handed him over to immigration authorities for deportation. After this point, the sequence of events remains unclear. However, other inmates have informed Wright’s family that he is being held in a former textile factory converted into a detention center governed by Venezuela’s feared military counterintelligence.
Numerous former political prisoners have reported being subjected to torture and abuse in the basement of this facility, ominously referred to as the “House of Dreams” by guards. Stewart fears that her son is enduring psychological torture and worries about his health due to severe food allergies that restrict his diet.
Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab did not provide any information regarding Wright’s case. Among the other U.S. citizens detained in Venezuela are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were involved in a failed attempt to overthrow Maduro in 2019.
Additionally, three men, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, and Joseph Cristella, were arrested for allegedly entering the country illegally from Colombia. Wright’s family is speaking out because they believe the U.S. government has not done enough to secure his release.
After reporting the extortion to the FBI, they were directed to the State Department, which has limited diplomatic tools to aid Americans in a politically unstable country where the U.S. Embassy has been closed since 2019. When asked whether U.S. officials have raised Wright’s detention with Maduro’s government, the State Department did not respond to email inquiries. Moizeé Stewart, Wright’s sister, expressed her frustration, feeling let down by the lack of assistance from the United States when their loved ones are in dire situations.