Christianity

1 year later, Utah man stuck in Venezuela jail amid unrest

The parents of a Utah man imprisoned in Venezuela one year ago as of Friday fear their son will die in a Caracas jail with no relief in sight and growing volatility in the South American country.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been brought in by Joshua Holt's family to pry open negotiations with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro over a humanitarian release, something Richardson said could possibly lead to dialogue about other strains between the embattled Maduro and President Donald Trump, who has taken a personal interest in Americans held overseas.

The U.S. government has raised Joshua Holt's case to the highest levels of the Venezuela government and renewed a call Thursday for his release. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that U.S. consular access to Holt is "slow and grudging" and that Venezuela's refusal to hold a preliminary hearing on his case "casts serious doubts" on the reasons he was detained.

Holt, 25, traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 and married Thamara Candelo, a Venezuelan woman he met online while practicing his Spanish. He had planned to spend several months in Caracas with her and her two daughters to secure their visas so they could move with him to the U.S.

Instead, the couple was arrested at her family's government housing complex on the outskirts of Caracas. On the day of the arrest, Venezuelan security forces in fatigues carrying assault weapons flooded the complex, with some standing on rooftops like snipers, Candelo's mother said in an interview.

Maria Candelo showed English books Holt had left behind and the closet where authorities say they found an AK-47 assault rifle and the child's playroom where they said there was a grenade.

"With a 5-year-old and 8-year-old in the house, who are way too mischievous, nobody is going to have that kind of stuff lying around," Maria Candelo said. "The grenade could have blown up the entire building."

In an interview at their home Wednesday night in the Salt Lake City suburb of Riverton, where middle-class houses with big front lawns line wide streets that surround a Mormon church, Laurie and Jason Holt said their son is only guilty only of being in love and unaware of Venezuela's political instability.

Holt and his wife are being held in a prison run by Venezuela's intelligence police and his parents became even more worried about his future after the recent death of U.S. university student Otto Warmbier, who spent 17 months in detention in North Korea for stealing a propaganda poster. Warmbier died days after returning home to Ohio in a coma.

"I don't think that I'm going to see him again alive," said Laurie Holt, crying in her kitchen. "That's my biggest fear after watching what the family with Otto went through."

Richardson, who has worked for the release of dozens of Americans held abroad, was brought in by the Holt family about eight months ago to try to quietly open a line of communication with Maduro's government.

His work complements diplomatic efforts by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and others. Hatch said this week he's still hopeful the efforts will pay off.

Richardson has met three times with Venezuela's Ambassador to the United Nations, Rafael Ramirez, to discuss the case as well as with former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero, who last year attempted to bring Maduro to the negotiating table with his political opponents. Although Holt was not known to be part of that dialogue effort, one of the Venezuelan opposition's key demands for talks is freedom for political prisoners.

Richardson, who got to know Maduro when the president served as the late Hugo Chavez's foreign minister, said he was told through informal channels since the unrest began three months ago that the government was open to him visiting Caracas to make the case for a humanitarian release.

But he has not yet received a Venezuelan visa. He said he thinks involvement of President Trump might be able to break the stalemate by offering Venezuelans a potential channel to discuss other irritants in the relationship. The countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

"His personal intervention might prove decisive," Richardson, referring to Trump, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "A humanitarian release could maybe pave way for a dialogue on other issues between the two governments at time when relations are rock bottom. I can't guarantee it, but I've seen some comments that it might be a path."

Hopes were high in December of a humanitarian release of Holt, after Citgo Petroleum Corp., the U.S. affiliate of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, donated $500,000 to Trump's inaugural and Maduro was aiming for rapprochement with Trump, who he saw as a common ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But relations between the two countries have since deteriorated, with Maduro recently telling Trump to get his "dirty hands off Venezuela" and blaming the U.S. for stoking anti-government demonstrations that have left at least 75 people dead and hundreds injured or jailed.

Richardson said what happened to Warmbier show that "time is no longer a neutral factor."

Laurie Holt drives twice a day past the flag pole at the Mormon church her son helped raise money to build. In her son's bedroom, paintings of Mormon temples adorn the walls and a Los Angeles Chargers football helmet sits on a bookshelf.

"I come here and I can't smell him anymore. It's just gone away," Laurie Holt said. "My heart hurts all the time."

___

Goodman reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report from in Washington, D.C.