Last September, 39-year-old Matthew Heath, a former marine, was arrested in Venezuela and charged with spying and plotting to overthrow the government of dictator Nicolas Maduro. He was tossed in prison and cut off from all contact with his family and the outside world since October. Attorneys for Heath allege that their client has been literally tortured in prison, frequently being locked down in a tiny cell for extended periods of time. The question now is what, if anything, the Biden administration can do to ensure justice for Heath in what’s expected to be a kangaroo court show-trial and bring him back home. If any diplomatic work along those lines is taking place at the State Department, nobody seems to know about it.
The father of a former Marine being detained and tortured in Venezuela is pleading with the Biden administration to ramp up efforts to return his son home.
Matthew John Heath, a 39-year-old Knoxville resident, has been imprisoned by the communist Maduro government since September. The Venezuelan regime accuses Heath of acting on behalf of the CIA to destroy oil refineries and foment public unrest. Heath and his legal team pleaded not guilty to such charges, saying that evidence of such accusations was planted on him after his arrest. Robert Heath says he has not heard from his son since October and wants more attention on his son’s case from a national audience and the Biden administration alike.
“It’s depressing for us here at home that we aren’t getting that recognition for what’s happened to Matthew and others. We haven’t seen any response to it,” Heath said. “I just don’t know what it would take to get that. I don’t know what else for a guy that’s been held and tortured to no end and is going to be tried and found guilty.”
The last communication between Heath and his family came in the form of a slip of paper that he managed to slip to his lawyers during one of their visits. On it was scrawled the words “don’t WORRY. Han Solo always wins.” (The message is believed to have been intended to cheer up his son.)
So was Matthew Heath actually up to some sort of covert action in Venezuela or was this just a case of Venezuela planting evidence on him to create phony charges as he claims? To be fair, he does fit the profile of the sort of people our intelligence agencies might recruit for covert operations. And if his son calls him Han Solo, he probably portrays an adventurous spirit. But his story doesn’t make that sound very likely. Local news reports describe Heath as a “sailing enthusiast” who had been on a long voyage before becoming stuck in Venezuela due to delays caused by the pandemic.
At that point, he was arrested and Maduro accused him of being a terrorist deployed to Venezuela to help overthrow the government at the direction of Donald Trump. And that’s precisely the sort of thing you would expect an authoritarian maniac like Maduro to say. In all likelihood, Heath is probably just what his family describes… a guy who was on an adventure and got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time and was swept up in international political disputes. Congressman Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee has been trying to negotiate for Heath’s release through the U.S. embassy in Colombia, but no progress has been made thus far.
What happens next largely depends on what the relationship between Maduro and the Biden administration turns out to be. Maduro’s government remains under tight sanctions along with many individual members of his inner circle. The United States doesn’t even recognize Maduro as the legitimate president of the country, nor do many other nations around the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Maduro is trying to use Heath as a bargaining chip to gain that recognition from Joe Biden and have some of the sanctions lifted. But like most dictators, he would most likely want our end of the bargain to be publicly fulfilled before Heath is released, assuming they even intend to make good on the deal.
Joe Biden doesn’t have a lot of options here. No matter what the relationship between Trump and Maduro may have been (and it was pretty awful), making broad concessions to Maduro would be a really bad look. For his part, Maduro is probably happy to keep allowing word to leak out about the horrible conditions Heath is being held under to ramp up the pressure on the White House. Short of an armed covert operation to spring Heath (which would be an extremely high-risk maneuver that could end disastrously), it’s tough to see what Biden’s next move is. But something needs to be done. Matthew Heath needs to be brought home.