Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R., Texas) quietly visited Venezuela this week and met with President Nicolas Maduro to discuss the potential release of at least one U.S. hostage, despite warnings from Republicans against attending high-level meetings with the South American country's leaders.
Durbin traveled to Venezuela Wednesday reportedly to push for the release of Joshua Holt, a Utah man imprisoned in Caracas for nearly two years on what the United States has deemed false weapons charges.
Sessions's spokeswoman was tight-lipped about her boss's visit earlier this week but told the Associated Press it was related to work her boss had done as an "intermediary" in the past year to resolve issues in Venezuela.
In addition to jailing Holt, Maduro's government also detained several Venezuelan-Americans with dual citizenship in Caracas shortly before Thanksgiving, calling the executives "corrupt, thieving traitors" whom they planned to try for treason.
Both trips come as the Maduro government is desperately trying to stave off additional sanctions from the United States and other countries ahead of next week's Summit of the Americas in Peru.
Developing a more unified, regional approach to sanctions against Caracas is a top agenda item for the Summit, a meeting of the top heads of state from the Western Hemisphere.
In recent months, the European Union and Canada also have imposed sanctions against Venezuela, and a dozen Latin American countries led by Peru known as the Lima Group have signaled they will follow suit if Maduro does not agree to their demands to guarantee free and fair elections.
Ahead of President Trump's attendance at the summit, his first visit to the region as president, a senior administration official this week said the forum will "provide space for our leaders to address the most pressing issues of the hemisphere, and we believe the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is the most pressing issue at this time."
"We hope that the region will continue to take action to get Venezuela on the path to democracy, security, and prosperity," the official added.
The Peruvian government has taken the unprecedented step of excluding the Maduro regime from the Summit because of their concerns about its "departure from constitutional democracy."
The Trump administration in late March ratcheted up its pressure on Maduro's government in an attempt to force him to address the country's deepening humanitarian crisis, which has left hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans without food and medicine.
The crisis is fueling a mass migration of Venezuelans into Colombia, where the United States recently sent $2.5 million in aid to help the refugees.
U.S. administration officials in recent weeks have repeated threats that they are still weighing whether to impose more damaging oil sanctions if Maduro doesn't free political prisoners and provide evidence of tangible reforms in the upcoming election.
"These individuals have been illegitimately arrested and detained and have been used as bargaining chips," a senior administration official told reporters in late March, referring to Holt and the Citgo executives.
While the U.S. government seeks maximum leverage against Maduro, Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) have warned congressional colleagues not to fall prey to the Maduro regime's entreaties.
Jose Cardenas, a former State Department official during the George W. Bush administration who now consults on Latin America issues, said lawmakers' meetings with Maduro and other high-level Venezuelan officials on hostage issues are "extremely risky."
While he said he is very sympathetic to Holt's plight, Cardenas said meetings like Durbin's and Sessions's travel to Venezuela this week are "driving up the value of the hostage immeasurably," which gives Maduro "increased leverage to bargain on the fate of this unfortunate individual."
"Dictators like Maduro are always eager to exploit the good will and humanitarian concerns of decent people, and what on one hand can be seen as a humanitarian effort has the very real possibility of backfiring" and "putting bullseyes on the backs of more American citizens abroad," Cardenas said.
For this reason, hostage situations are always delicate for presidential administrations, which have stringent rules governing any efforts to persuade foreign governments to free U.S. citizens because of the precedents they set, he said.
On March 9, a Venezuelan state governor traveled to Washington in an attempt to pen a back channel of talks with members of Congress to negotiate Holt's return.
Rubio staffers, who have attended State Department briefings on imprisoned U.S. citizens and met with the families of the hostages, warned fellow staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations office not to meet with the governor during his U.S. visit, arguing that he was in Washington to try to negotiate the release of Holt and other U.S. hostages in Venezuela in exchange for sanctions relief.
"Senator Rubio wanted me to make your office aware that the primary purpose of such meetings will be so Maduro can portray himself as a strong leader at a time when many in his own government and military are harboring serious doubts about his continued rule," the email warning states.
The Rubio staffers also warned that Maduro would use the news of high-level meetings "to sow confusion and doubt in the minds of our regional allies about the commitment of the United States to sanctions."
"The fact that [the Venezuela governor] is even coming to the U.S. to negotiate a sanctions-for-hostage deal proves that Holt is being held as leverage," the email stated.
The State Department declined to say whether it knew or signed off on Durbin's and Sessions's trips to Venezuela this week, referring all questions about them to the lawmakers' offices.
A spokesperson for the agency previously declined to tell the Washington Free Beacon whether U.S. government officials met with the Venezuelan governor during his visit to Washington in early March.
"We meet with Venezuelans from across the political spectrum, including with the government of Venezuela; however, we typically do not comment on whether private diplomatic meetings have even occurred, much less comment on content," said the spokesperson.
"We call on the Venezuelan government to respect all human rights, including the rights of those in detention," the spokesperson added.