Washington • Just days ago, a panic-stricken Josh Holt took to social media to plead for his life, fearing riots in the Venezuelan prison he was held captive in for nearly two years would snuff out any hope he had left.
On Saturday, the Utah native, wearing a borrowed suit and a smile, sat elbow-to-elbow with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office and thanked members of Congress, State Department officials and others for their collective efforts to free him.
The stunning turnaround came together fast, the result of extensive U.S. pressure. Holt had faced charges of holding weapons of war that American officials say were planted by corrupt police officers and had never been given a court date to press his case. He went to Venezuela to get married, and before the president and the media, he joked that the ordeal was, “Not really the great vacation I was looking for.”
Holt then nodded to his wife, Thamara “Thamy” Caleno, whom he had just wed in 2016 when Venezuelan police arrested them. “But we’re still together,” he added, his left hand bearing his wedding band.
Thamy, sitting on an adjacent couch holding hands with Holt’s mom, Laurie, sat silent, a White House aide translating what the president and others said into Spanish.
“You’ve gone through a lot,” Trump told Holt. “You’ve gone through a lot. A lot more than people can endure.”
Holt’s release, just days after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won another term in what American officials and international watchdogs say was a sham election, came without conditions, U.S. officials said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Saturday night that U.S. policy toward Venezuela “remains unchanged,” and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders thanked Venezuela for releasing Holt but said that the United States would continue sanctions against the country.
Still, freeing Holt could be seen as a gesture by Venezuela, which faces shocking inflation and food shortages, in hopes of lessening economic sanctions by the United States and other countries.
For nearly two years, Utah’s elected officials had pressed Trump and the State Department to get Venezuela to release Holt, a campaign that has grown over time. On Friday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., flew to the country to meet with Maduro and seek their release.
Friday night, Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office got word that Holt and his wife would be let go, though the couple didn’t feel safe until they touched down at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. Corker and the Holts flew on a Venezuelan-owned jet – with Holt’s jailer aboard – and at one moment they thought their freedom was gone.
“We were going down the runway and they turned the engine off and [we] turned around,” Corker said. “And we still weren’t sure we were leaving or not.”
They did leave.
At Dulles, Holt was reunited with his parents. The long-awaited hugs lasted long; the tears flowed. Laurie Holt held her son’s head in her hands and kissed both cheeks.
A medical team examined the Holts as they were driven in Hatch’s motorcade and after their appearance in the Oval Office they were whisked to a nearby hospital for care. Both suffered injuries while jailed.
Trump, who said his administration had rescued 17 hostages held by foreign countries and was working to release more, praised Caleb McCarry, a GOP congressional staffer who has known Maduro for 15 years and had pressed Holt’s case personally to the Venezuelan president. The Oval Office crowd, which included White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser John Bolton as well as State Department officials, erupted in applause.
Trump told Holt that his case was a “tough one.”
“I have to tell you it was a tough situation,” Trump said of the process to secure Holt’s release. Then he turned to Holt. “You have gone through a lot.”
Rep. Mia Love, a Utah Republican who developed a friendship with Holt’s mom – Love says they talked almost daily sometimes, reassuring each other that Holt would return home – teared up as Trump asked her to speak. The president, who had phoned Love earlier in the day to tell her of the news, said Love brought up Holt’s case in every conversation they had so when he saw her, he would immediately say he was working on it.
Love, in turn, said it was Josh’s mother who deserved credit for never giving up.
“Your mom never let us forget about you,” Love told Holt. “She is one of the strongest women I know and we have started a friendship that has been, that started through maybe some heartache and some pain, but we are going to be friends forever because of the bond that we’ve had.”
In an interview after, Love said she and Laurie Holt planned to sip lemonade in one of their backyards soon to talk about the “distant past” that they have lived too long.
“It’s a miracle,” Love said. “Here we are with a country with no extradition treaty. You’ve got a regime that is trying to hold on to power... You’ve got gangs fighting, pretty much civil war and people are starving — people are practically starving — and we got Joshua released in pretty decent condition.”
Hatch, who called Maduro last week to personally plead for Holt’s release, took the lead in pushing the Utahn’s case. He held court with South American ambassadors and worked the State Department and White House to keep the issue forefront. At one point, a State Department official warned the senator it could hurt Hatch’s reputation if he kept pressing the issue and things went badly; Hatch said he wouldn’t give up.
In the Oval Office on Saturday, Hatch sat close to Trump, aside Love, Corker and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and was effusive of Trump’s help.
“Mr. President, I know you know how much I appreciate you,” Hatch said. “I think you’re doing a terrific job. This shows why we support you.”
Then Hatch turned to Holt.
“You better really live a good life,” Hatch said. “That’s all I can say.”
Lee, who spoke Spanish to Thamy and her daughter, Marian, eliciting a “gracias” from both, welcomed Holt home and looked to Thamy.
“Welcome to our country,” he said, “which is now your country.”
Holt, who had faced prison bars only hours before, donned a loose-fitting black suit loaned by Hatch’s deputy chief of staff and grinned even as he faced a barrage of cameras, reporters and American leaders.
“I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude,” Holt said. “For you guys and for everything you have done.”
And then he looked at his wife.
“We are still together and starting off a marriage rough,” Holt said. “But now we can be together and I am just so grateful for what you guys have and for thinking of me and caring about me — just a normal person.”