Twenty-six-year-old Joshua Holt had been a prisoner in Venezuela since the summer of 2016, but on Saturday he told U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House that he was “overwhelmed with gratitude” for those who had worked for his release.
Trump said Holt had been “incredibly brave.”
Holt and his Venezuelan wife, Thamara Candelo, arrived in the U.S. Saturday accompanied by Senator Bob Corker, who helped negotiate their release.
Holt, a former Mormon missionary, had traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry Candelo. Police arrested the couple after finding an assault rifle and grenades during a raid on a housing complex where the couple lived. The couple has denied the charge of concealing weapons.
Senator Orrin Hatch, who represents Holt’s home state of Utah posted on Twitter:
Hatch also thanked Corker, the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee chairman, who met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro Friday in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, to secure the couple’s release.
The White House press secretary’s office released a statement late Saturday, saying Holt’s release “does not change United States policy.” It said, “The Maduro regime must call free, fair, and transparent elections, consistent with its constitution. The election process that occurred on May 20 was illegitimate.” The statement called for “new elections and the democratic process,” the release of all political prisoners and the acceptance of “desperately needed international humanitarian aid for Venezuela’s dying citizens.”
“Very glad that Josh Holt is now back home with his family — where he has always belonged,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence wrote in a tweet. “Sanctions continue until democracy returns to Venezuela.”
Maduro won a second six-year term in office May 20 in an election that the U.S. and other countries have described as a “sham” after several rivals were prohibited from running.
After his victory, Maduro expelled the two most senior U.S. diplomats for allegedly conspiring to sabotage the election by pushing opposition parties to boycott the election.
Despite the expulsion of the American diplomats, the Venezuelan government has been seeking ways to avoid the threat of harsh U.S. oil sanctions that could further cripple the country’s ailing economy.
A spokesman for Maduro described the release of the couple as a “gesture” aimed at improving diplomatic relations with the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Saturday, “U.S. policy toward Venezuela remains unchanged. The United States stands steadfast in support of the Venezuelan people and their efforts to return to democracy.”