President Donald Trump welcomed Josh Holt back to the United States after he was released from prison in Venezuela, where had been held since the summer of 2016. “You’ve gone through a lot, more than most people could endure,” Trump told Holt in the Oval Office shortly after the 26-year-old landed in the United States.
Holt traveled to Venezuela in 2016 to marry a Mormon woman he had met online while looking to improve his Spanish. Mere days after marrying Thamara Caleño Holt ended up jailed without trial for two years as he was branded the top CIA spy in Latin America. The Mormon missionary from Utah “became the ultimate example of an American in the wrong place at the wrong time,” notes the Washington Post. Holt ended up held in a notorious prison known for holding political prisoners who say they have been tortured.
Only last week, Holt had posted a video on Facebook saying he feared for his life after a riot. “I’ve been begging my government for two years,” he said. “They say they’re doing things but I’m still here.” That led to a doubling down of existing efforts to get Holt released. On Saturday night, Holt became emotional as he thanked those who worked toward his release. “I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude for you guys for everything you’ve done,” Holt said.
Trump, who had earlier called Holt a “hostage,” seemingly couldn’t help himself and used the opportunity to highlight the other American prisoners held abroad who were released during his administration. “You were a tough one, I have to tell you, that was a tough situation,” Trump said. “But we’ve had 17 [people jailed] released and we’re very proud of that record. Very proud. And we have others coming. We’re in the midst of some very big negotiations to get others out.”
The release of Holt came a day after Sen. Bob Corker held a surprise meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. Days earlier the Trump administration had refused to recognize Maduro’s re-election in what it had described as a “sham” vote. Although Corker may have provided the final push for release, Holt was able to return to the United States thanks to months of negotiations through a secret backchannel that was led by a veteran Republican staffer who is an expert on Latin America. Both Corker and Sen. Orrin Hatch from Utah credited the staffer, Caleb McCarry, with leading the negotiations. Hatch had also spoken with Maduro several times about Holt and his office posted a video on Saturday of the family reuniting in the United States.
Holt’s release comes at a time when Maduro appears to be launching a charm offensive to try to improve relations with countries that criticized last week’s election. But in a statement later on Saturday, the White House made clear that Holt’s release “does not change United States policy. The Maduro regime must call free, fair, and transparent elections, consistent with its constitution. The election process that occurred on May 20 was illegitimate.”