Mom thanks Venezuela leader for son's freedom

    FILE - In this July 13, 2016 file photo, Laurie Holt holds a photograph of her son Josh Holt at her home, in Riverton, Utah. Josh Holt has been released from a jail in Venezuela after spending nearly two years behind bars on weapons charges. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said on Twitter Saturday, May 26, 2018, that Joshua Holt had been released. President Donald Trump tweeted that it was “good news,” adding that Holt “should be landing in D.C. this evening and be in the White House, with his family, at about 7:00 P.M.” (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

    SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The 4:30 a.m. phone call that woke up Laurie and Jason Holt last Friday at their Salt Lake City home was the one they had been anxiously anticipating for two long years.

    Their son, 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 Utah 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 Thursday 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 at the airport 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. His wife, Thamara 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."

    On Monday, they were scheduled to be discharged and fly back to Salt Lake City, where they will be met by a welcoming committee that includes Caleno's daughter from a previous relationship. Nathalia Carrasco, 7, has been living at Laurie Holt's home since February but hasn't yet been informed she'll be reunited with her mother and Josh Holt, who she calls "papi." Caleno's other daughter, Marian, traveled with the couple from Caracas.

    Laurie Holt said she's thankful to Maduro, and believes he's trying to do the best for Venezuela, even if she says there's lots of things she doesn't agree with.

    "He didn't have to let Josh go," she said. "But I think his heart was softened."

    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.

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

    She 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."


    Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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