World News

U.S. Citizen Held in a Venezuelan Jail for 2 Years Is Back in the U.S.

Posted May 27, 2018 2:35 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump hosted a U.S. citizen in the Oval Office on Saturday night just hours after a delegation led by one of Utah’s senators succeeded in freeing the 26-year-old man from a Venezuelan prison where he had been held for two years without a trial.

The man, Joshua Holt, who had traveled in 2016 to Venezuela to marry a woman he had met online, sat in a yellow chair next to Trump as the president welcomed him home from what he called a “tough situation.”

Trump praised Holt for his bravery and bragged that Holt was among 17 prisoners in foreign countries that his administration had succeeded in getting released.

“You were a tough one, I have to tell you. That was a tough situation, I have to tell you,” the president said to Holt, his family and lawmakers from Utah during brief remarks shortly before 9 p.m.

Trump also promised that “we have some others coming,” adding, “We are in the midst of some big negotiations,” he said.

The president gave few details, but he did mention the case of a Christian pastor in Turkey and said that the U.S. government had been working for the pastor’s release.

Holt expressed his gratitude to Trump and the lawmakers who helped secure his release from a jail in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

“It was not really the great vacation that I was looking for,” he said, apparently referring to his trip to Venezuela to marry his wife, who sat on a couch nearby. “But we’re still together, starting off a marriage rough, but now we are going to be together.”

Trump made the announcement Saturday morning that Holt was on his way home to the United States and would be reunited with his family at the White House that evening.

In a tweet, Trump called Holt a “hostage,” and said the release would make the people of Utah happy.

Holt was arrested shortly after arriving in Venezuela and was accused by the government there of stockpiling weapons. Supporters said they believed the charges were overstated by the Venezuelan government.

In a statement posted to Twitter on Saturday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said the release of Holt and his wife, Thamy Holt, was the result of a two-year effort with Trump and former President Barack Obama, and President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.

“I could not be more honored to be able to reunite Josh with his sweet, long-suffering family,” Hatch said in the statement.

In the Oval Office, Hatch heaped praise on Trump, saying the president was “doing a terrific job, and this shows why I supported you.”

Hatch added, “When you look back over your tenure in the presidency, this is just one of the many great things you are doing.”

Hatch also thanked Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who met Friday with Maduro in Venezuela.

In the Oval Office session Saturday evening, Corker described some harrowing moments as he attempted to fly to the United States with the Holts. As their plane was beginning to take off, the engines stopped and the aircraft returned to the gate, prompting fears that the government was stopping the departure.

Corker said it turned out to be only a malfunction with some of the plane’s instruments.

“Finally, we got out of there, and obviously Josh had a huge smile on his face,” Corker told the president.

Holt’s release comes days after he posted two short videos to Facebook pleading for the U.S. government to help him. In one video, he said: “I’ve been begging my government for two years. They say they’re doing things, but I’m still here.”

Freeing Holt appeared to be a step to try to lower tensions between Washington and Venezuela. Last Sunday, Maduro was declared the winner of an election that many countries said was undemocratic. The United States issued an even harsher assessment, calling the election a “sham” and imposing new economic sanctions on the country’s businesses.

The next day, Maduro expelled the two top diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, accusing them of conspiracies against his government.

In addition to the gesture to the United States with the release of Holt, there were indications Maduro was also loosening his hold on some Venezuelan prisoners.

This week, in a speech before the country’s Constituent Assembly, Maduro told officials that many who took part in protests last year and had committed “political violence” remained behind bars, something he wanted to change.

“I want these people to go free — and that they’re offered a chance for national reconciliation,” he said.

Alfredo Romero, head of a group that represents Venezuelan political prisoners, said at least 20 people were released Friday in Zulia state after protesting there this year over a lack of electricity.

Corker told Trump he believes the release of Holt is evidence that there are people in Maduro’s government who are willing to work with the United States to improve relations between the countries.

“There are people who really want to affect the relationship in a good way,” Corker said. “They were very helpful to us.” But Omar Mora, a Venezuelan lawyer representing political prisoners, said the recent releases sidestepped the fate of the more than 450 politicians and activists, by his count, who remain jailed because the government continues to see them as a threat.

“The government pretends to release people, and in the end, it doesn’t release any of the political prisoners who are on our lists,” Mora said.