WASHINGTON (AP) — Joshua Holt, who traveled to Venezuela from Utah in 2016 to marry a Spanish-speaking Mormon woman 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, Thamara Caleno, 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.
Holt and his wife were reunited at the Caracas airport with her daughter from a previous relationship, and all three boarded a chartered flight to Washington. “We are on our way home,” Corker tweeted.
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 to marry a woman he met online while he was looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons who could help him improve his Spanish. He had planned to spend several months in Caracas that summer with his new wife and her two daughters, 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 television 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.
Corker was seen live on state TV on Friday shaking hands with Maduro and being greeted by first lady Cilia Flores as he entered the presidential palace. Corker left an hour later; neither the senator nor the president made any statements.
Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, said her son and his wife were wrongly accused. She worked feverishly to bring attention to her son’s incarceration, hosting rallies, fundraisers and doing media interviews.
Laurie Holt said her son has suffered numerous health problems in jail, including kidney stones and respiratory problems. He was depressed and at one point lost so much weight that he dropped several pant sizes, she said.
In their statement, the Holt family said, “We thank you for your collaboration during this time of anguish. We ask that you allow us to meet with our son and his wife before giving any interviews and statements. We are grateful to all who participated in this miracle.”
“Josh is finally coming home,” the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a tweet, adding that Holt soon would be reunited with “his sweet, long-suffering family.”
Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writers Scott Smith in Caracas, Venezuela, and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.