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American Released From Venezuelan Prison Returns Home


Venezuela has released an American who had been held as a prisoner there for two years. President Trump welcomed Josh Holt at the White House last night, saying Holt had dealt with more than most people could endure. Holt had come to Venezuela to marry his fiancee. But instead, he was arrested and accused of being a U.S. spy. Reporter John Otis, who covers Venezuela for NPR, joins us now. John, tell us what happened yesterday.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Well, this really came as a huge surprise, Lulu. Holt - as he said, he'd been held for nearly two years. And Venezuela's government all along was claiming that he was this really dangerous U.S. spy. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a top Venezuelan official said he was the top U.S. spy for all of Latin America. So it didn't seem like anything was really going to happen.

But after meetings between Senator Bob Corker and a lot of backchannel negotiations with President Nicolas Maduro, Holt was suddenly released yesterday. And he flew to Washington, and he was in the White House last night with President Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, why did the Venezuelans hold him for so long?

OTIS: Yeah. That's a very good question. Holt's not exactly, you know, a hardened criminal type. And they were at his wife's apartment on the outskirts of Caracas after the wedding and got caught up in an anti-gang raid.

I interviewed Holt's family afterwards, at their apartment. They told me that Holt and his new wife had been filming this police raid and that might've angered the police, who stormed into their apartment. And once they were in there, his family claims that they planted an AK-47 and a grenade in some of Holt's luggage because they were getting ready to come back to the U.S. and use those weapons as an excuse to detain both of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This kind of alleged operation happens a lot in Venezuela.

OTIS: Yeah. That's correct, Lulu. The Venezuelan government has become increasingly authoritarian. There's been a lot of anti-government protests. And that's led to a huge backlash against, you know, people who oppose the government. Currently, there's more than 300 political prisoners in Venezuela. And a lot of human rights lawyers and defense attorneys viewed Holt as a kind of political prisoner.

In two years, his case never even went to trial, probably because they may just not have had much evidence at all against him. Holt was held in a really dangerous prison in central Caracas. A riot broke out there two weeks ago. Holt was able to post a video on Facebook basically pleading for help to get him out of there.

A lot of people told me that Holt was being held by the Venezuelan government for so long because they were kind of trying to justify this overall view that they have that the U.S. government is trying to overthrow the Maduro government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why do you think he was suddenly released? I mean, we are seeing a moment of increasing tensions between the United States and Venezuela with new sanctions and other heated rhetoric.

OTIS: That's very true. But things are really getting critical in Venezuela right now for the Maduro government. There's a huge economic meltdown happening right now, widespread food shortages, hyperinflation. Maduro just held what many international observers call a sham election on Sunday and won another six years in power. But, you know, opposition is really growing. The oil industry is sinking right now. So I think he's reaching out at a time when he doesn't have a lot of friends. And that seems to have been the key to getting Holt released.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should say that the U.S. says its policy towards Venezuela remains unchanged in the light of this release and that they conceded nothing to get Holt back. That's John Otis in Bogota. Thank you very much.

OTIS: Thanks, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.