Like every tourist in a foreign country finds themselves at some point, Eyvin Hernandez was a little lost. The public defender from Los Angeles was traveling in the border town of Cucuta, Colombia, with a friend when they realized they needed directions. They were pointed to a dirt road that led to an unmarked bridge.
That’s where a man demanded Hernandez pay a bribe to enter Venezuela. According to his family, Hernandez refused, saying he wasn’t trying to cross the border. Moments later, armed men grabbed Hernandez, accused him of being an American spy, blindfolded him and took him away. That happened in March 2022. More than a year later, Hernandez remains in a Caracas prison, facing trumped-up charges as a geopolitical pawn in negotiations between the U.S. and Venezuela’s autocratic regime under Nicolás Maduro.
“We know that the State Department and we know that the administration have a lot of tools in their toolkit,” Kamlager-Dove said. “We are asking you to use them — use every tool and then use it again.”
Hernandez’s family fled civil war in El Salvador when he was a toddler, settling in southern California. His father, Pedro Martinez, described how his son studied tirelessly in high school, then college and on through law school. Then Martinez stepped away from the lectern and dropped to his knees, clasping his hands together in prayer.
“Please, Mr. Presidente, I’m begging you to help me bring my son back,” he said in a quavering voice. “Give me a chance to speak with you … like a father.”
As he was helped back to his feet, Martinez crossed himself and kissed the rosary he wore over a black “Bring Eyvin Home” T-shirt.
Although national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with Hernandez’s supporters in May, they haven’t heard from President Biden himself. “We’ve been asking to meet with him for 15 months. And he hasn’t acknowledged us, hasn’t made a phone call,” said Drew Havens, a coworker of Hernandez who flew on a red-eye to Washington to attend the rally.
Hernandez faces charges of criminal association and conspiracy that, if convicted, could mean up to 16 years in prison. He is one of at least four Americans currently detained in Venezuela, along with Luke Denman, Airan Berry and Jerrel Kenemore. The U.S. State Department has designated Hernandez and Kenemore as wrongfully detained.
The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Venezuela in 2019, after a presidential election that outside observers called a sham. The Venezuela National Assembly refused to recognize Maduro’s reelection, instead appointing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as acting president. The United States, along with dozens of other nations, formally recognized Guaidó’s presidency, but he ultimately failed to remove Maduro from power. At the end of last year, Maduro’s opponents voted to end the interim government in the hopes of holding free and fair elections in 2024.
The United States stopped recognizing Guaidó’s presidential claims after the vote, but still refuses to recognize Maduro’s legitimacy. The Maduro regime has been accused of continuing Venezuela’s democratic backsliding that began under his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
Kamlager-Dove said it’s not entirely clear what Maduro wants with Hernandez, but that he’s being used as a bargaining chip with the U.S. around restoring diplomatic relations and lifting economic sanctions against the oil-rich nation.
While being held by a foreign country just for negotiating leverage is an absurd, dehumanizing situation in any case, Hernandez’s story is particularly Kafkaesque: A lawyer who has dedicated his life to freeing others from unjust imprisonment now finds himself locked up in a country he never intended to enter.
After an initial period of silence, Hernandez has been able to call his friends and family for brief periods a few times a week, describing grim prison conditions. “He’s suffering,” his father said.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, managed to secure the release of nine other Americans last year following a diplomatic visit to Caracas in March and a prisoner swap in October. Those releases were bittersweet for Hernandez’s friends and family, a simultaneous source of hope and disappointment. But while his friends were “devastated” when Hernandez wasn’t part of the prisoner exchange, he was happy for those who were.
“The first thing Eyvin told his brother was ‘Hey, did you hear the good news? Osman and Matthew are going home,’” Havens said, referring to Osman Khan and Matthew Heath, two Americans freed in October along with five others. “He wasn’t even thinking about himself, at least not in that moment.”
Hernandez had become a source of strength to the other Americans, Havens said, who turned to the experienced legal counsel for emotional support. “Osman Khan talks about [how] Eyvin helped him get through feeling suicidal,” Havens said.
Kamlager-Dove introduced a resolution last week calling for Hernandez’s release and urging the Biden administration to increase efforts to get her constituent home, and she wrote to the administration last year. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, she’s also lobbied Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., to hold hearings.
This isn’t the kind of constituency work Kamlager-Dove thought she’d get when she won election last year. “This was not at all what I was expecting as a first-term congressperson,” she said in an interview last week. “You think, ‘this is what you would see on Netflix or Amazon Prime – you know, on TV.”
But then an old coworker from her time on state Sen. Holly Mitchell’s staff called.
“We really, really need help,” Luan Huynh said.
Huynh has known Hernandez since they started at UCLA Law and is part of the ad hoc coalition of friends, coworkers and family trying to raise awareness of his detention. “Movement on these types of situations, and [their] resolution, depends on attention,” she said, pointing to advice given by former detainees.
Kamlager-Dove says she’s had positive conversations with McCaul and Meeks and hopes her resolution can be included in a committee markup. But she also recognizes that she’s a freshman in the minority party, and that outside efforts to increase Hernandez’s profile may be seen as counterproductive by some negotiators. But that won’t stop her from trying.
“I don’t know why you would walk these halls and talk about the history of this Congress and be excited about being in [the Congressional Black Caucus] because of Shirley Chisholm and all of these other icons, and then sit on your ass and not do anything and fight to bring somebody home,” she said. “I mean, if that’s what you’re going to do, then you should just shut the f— up and leave.”
So, Kamlager-Dove says she’ll keep pushing to raise awareness of Hernandez’s plight.
“I’ll be at the White House next week for another event, and I will certainly be wearing my Eyvin Hernandez T-shirt,” she said.