Venezuela Frees American Josh Holt After Two Years

WASHINGTON (AP) -
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro meets with U.S. Senator Bob Corker at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday. (Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters)

Joshua Holt, who traveled to Venezuela from Utah in 2016 but soon found himself jailed and later branded the CIA’s top spy in Latin America, was set free by the anti-American Maduro government on Saturday in what his family called “this miracle.”

The release of Holt and his wife and their departure for Washington came one day after an influential U.S. senator held a surprise meeting in Caracas with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who the Trump administration says runs a “dictatorship” and just won re-election in a “sham” vote.

Their get-together was the result of months of secret, backchannel talks between an aide to Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and close allies of Maduro. Yet Holt’s release had seemed unlikely even a week ago.

President Donald Trump, in a tweet, described Holt as a “hostage” and said he expected to host Holt and his family at the White House on Saturday evening. “Good news about the release,” he wrote. The U.S. contended Holt was held on trumped-up charges.

The White House learned from Corker, R-Tenn., on Friday of Holt’s impending release, according to a U.S. official who has closely followed Holt’s plight and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.

Venezuela’s communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez, said their release was a goodwill gesture that followed months of dialogue between the Maduro government and U.S. lawmakers.

“We’re praying that this type of gesture … will allow us to strengthen what we’ve always sought: dialogue, harmony, respect for our independence and respect for our sovereignty,” he said.

Holt, now 26, set out for the South American country in June 2016. He had planned to spend several months in Caracas that summer with his new wife, to secure their visas so they could move with him to the U.S.

Instead, the couple was arrested that June 30 at her family’s apartment in a government housing complex on the outskirts of Caracas. Authorities accused him of stockpiling an assault rifle and grenades, and suggested that his case was linked to other unspecified U.S. attempts to undermine Maduro’s rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.

They were held in a notorious Caracas prison, run by the secret police, that also is home to dozens of top Maduro opponents jailed during the past few years of political unrest in the country. Their trial was set to begin this month after repeated delays that led the Trump administration to question the motives for his detention.

Until Trump’s tweet on Saturday, the U.S. had stopped short of publicly calling Holt a “hostage.”

Holt’s release looked unlikely a week ago, when he appeared in a clandestinely shot video railing against the Maduro government and saying his life was threatened in a prison riot. In retaliation, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Maduro ally, said on state media that Holt was the CIA’s top spy in Latin America.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has Trump’s ear on Latin America issues and spoke to Trump at length Friday night, said the couple’s release “will in no way change U.S. policy toward the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

The Trump administration has threatened crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela for Maduro’s decision to go forward with the presidential election last week.

The U.S. government at first avoided ratcheting up public pressure on Venezuela in light of their already strained relations, but eventually raised Holt’s case with the highest levels of the Venezuelan government and decried his treatment in prison.