American freed from Venezuelan jail back in Salt Lake City

Updated May 29, 2018 - 2:36 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly two years after a trip to meet the woman he loved turned into an imprisonment in a Venezuelan jail, an exhausted but grateful Utah man arrived home with his wife.

Josh Holt arrived at the Salt Lake City airport Monday to a tearful, cheering crowd holding signs in his favorite color, green, with messages such as: “We never gave up.” His grandmother draped an American flag around his shoulders as he exchanged long hugs with person after person while the crowd sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Holt spoke briefly to thank everyone who helped him and his wife, Thamara Caleno, get released from jail but said they were exhausted, feeling like they’d gotten “maybe four hours of sleep in four days.”

Standing nearby were his parents, celebrating a homecoming they’d worked tirelessly to bring about.

 

Laurie and Jason Holt woke at 4:30 a.m. last Saturday to a phone call they had been anxiously anticipating for two years.

Their son, Josh Holt, now 26, traveled to Caracas in June 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he had met online while looking to improve his Spanish. The two were waiting for Caleno’s U.S. visa when they were arrested at her family’s apartment in a government housing complex.

Josh Holt and his Venezuelan wife were locked in a Caracas jail alongside some of the country’s most-hardened criminals — and President Nicolas Maduro’s top opponents — for what the U.S. government argued were bogus charges of stockpiling weapons.

The Salt Lake City parents had been through the emotional rollercoaster of believing their son would be released only to watch mediation efforts unravel at the last minute on at least three occasions. So they braced for another disappointment after an Associated Press reporter informed the couple Friday that Sen. Bob Corker, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had popped up unexpectedly in Caracas to push for Holt’s freedom.

But then they got the fateful call from Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office.

“They called us at 4:30 a.m. and said, ‘You need to be on the plane. Josh is coming home,’” said Laurie Holt, recalling how they had to pack and get to the airport in 90 minutes. “This was the first time they actually said: ‘Get to DC, he’s being freed.’”

Now, Laurie Holt said she can’t wait to sit down with her son. While there was a long hug Saturday evening she said they’ve had very little time to speak to her son. The whole family was whisked away to the White House for a meeting with President Donald Trump before Josh Holt and his wife checked into a government hospital for a battery of medical tests.

Laurie Holt said her son is in good health but lost weight, suffered a number of bronchial problems in prison and has a rotten tooth that needed checking out. Caleno has more serious pain issues on one side of her body.

Experts in treating people who have been held in captivity have debriefed the couple so that they can begin dealing with the emotions from their long ordeal.

“He’s not the same Josh that left,” said Laurie Holt. “He just doesn’t quite have that sparkle back yet in his eyes. He’ll come back, I know he will. We just have to give him time.”

His Salt Lake City welcoming committee included Caleno’s daughter from a previous relationship, 7-year-old Nathalia Carrasco, who has been living at Laurie Holt’s home since February. Caleno’s other daughter, Marian, traveled with the couple from Caracas.

Laurie Holt said she thinks Maduro — fearing retaliation from the U.S. —decided to finally act after her son appeared in a clandestinely-shot video from jail on the eve of this month’s presidential election railing against the Venezuelan government, saying his life had been threatened in a prison riot.

After communications between the U.S. senators’ offices and the Venezuelan government, “I think his heart was softened,” Laurie Holt said of Maduro.

Maduro never publicly mentioned Holt’s imprisonment even as it became a major irritant in relations between the already-hostile governments.

Laurie Holt said she’s also appreciative of Corker’s Venezuelan counterpart in the talks, Rafael Lacava, a governor close to Maduro who escorted the Tennessee senator and Holt back to Washington on a jet belonging to Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. In a photograph taken at the airport in Caracas, Holt can be seen standing alongside Lacava holding a Venezuela national soccer team jersey emblazoned with the governor’s name.

Trump on Friday night called Corker in Caracas and spoke to Lacava briefly to express his appreciation for Holt’s release, according to two U.S. officials with knowledge of the call. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the private conversation.

Finally, Laurie Holt credits Wilmer Ruperti, a government-connected Venezuelan shipping magnate, with keeping her son safe in jail. Ruperti flew to Salt Lake to meet her family and had been paying for Holt’s lawyers. But when his involvement in the case was revealed by the AP it was met with skepticism because he had also been funding the defense of two nephews of First Lady Cilia Flores who were convicted in New York in 2016 of drug trafficking.

Corker said that when Lacava traveled to Washington in March the possibility of the nephews’ release was discussed, as well as some sort of sanctions relief at a time Trump was threatening an oil embargo on the OPEC nation.

“All of those things were discussed but we told them it could not happen,” Corker said in an interview Monday, insisting that “nothing was asked, nothing was given” in exchange for Holt’s freedom.

The nephews are still imprisoned.

Corker said he’s not sure where U.S.-Venezuelan relations are heading and declined to comment on bipartisan legislation before his committee that aims to further isolate Venezuela’s government and provide humanitarian assistance. But the Republican, who is retiring this year, said it’s important for the U.S. to continue to speak out against the “many, many bad things” the Maduro government has done.

Nonetheless, he said the hardliner approach can only go so far and dialogue with adversaries, as demonstrated by the Trump administration’s willingness to talk with North Korea’s leader, can deliver tangible benefits.

“In my conversations privately, I could not be more strident in my criticisms of the way the Venezuela government has handled itself. I’ve seen in Venezuela people lined up outside grocery stores just to buy toilet paper,” Corker said. “But if we are engaging with Kim Jong Un, who executes his relatives with high-power artillery at close range, then it would seem to me that engaging with Venezuela, while keeping on all the pressure that we have, would also make some sense.”

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