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How We Got Venezuela to Release an American Political Prisoner

5 minute read
Hatch is chairman emeritus of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. A Utah Republican, he served in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 2019.

Hatch announced on May 26 that he had secured the long-awaited release of Joshua and Thamy Holt, a married couple arrested and imprisoned in Venezuela under false allegations. Here, the Senator describes the two years he spent working to release Josh and the lessons learned.

Words cannot describe what went through my mind when I told Laurie Holt that her son, Josh, would be returning home. It came after two years of incarceration in Venezuela—two years during which I, along with a small team that worked tirelessly on Josh’s case, felt just a small piece of the unimaginable pain experienced by the Holt family.

We are so blessed to have Josh back home safely, reunited with his dear family, who have suffered so much. Today, as that suffering turns to celebration, it is fitting to reflect on the steps this small team took, the lessons we learned along the way, and what a future diplomatic course could look like.

Josh’s case has been a priority for me since it began in June 2016. Josh, a native Utahn, had moved to Venezuela to marry Thamy, a native Venezuelan. Just fifteen days after their wedding on June 16, they were both thrown in prison under the false allegation that they were in possession of weapons and involved in espionage. Over two harrowing years of incarceration, their trial dates were regularly postponed for inexplicable reasons while Josh’s medical conditioned worsened.

During the entire period that Josh was in prison, I have worked with two U.S. presidential administrations and have reached out to my network in Latin America—specifically, government officials in the region—in search of leads and angles that might help us secure Josh’s release.

Several months ago our search led us to one critical actor: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro himself. It was the opportunity we were all waiting for, and yet it came at perhaps the most difficult time for our countries’ bilateral relations. Maduro was preparing himself for his election and facing an onslaught of sanctions from the United States. Here in Congress, few were prepared to give him or anyone representing his government the time of day.

Still, we decided to act. I reached out to Senator Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Caleb McCarry, his Senior Staffer for Latin America. McCarry, who soon became a close friend of my office, was going to Venezuela to meet with President Maduro, so I offered to have him carry a letter from me to Maduro asking for Josh’s swift release.

That gesture became the opening of a unique and unexpected partnership. It was President Maduro and me, two individuals with different priorities, from different worlds, agreeing to a conversation.

After substantial correspondence, President Maduro and I eventually spoke on the phone for nearly an hour. Even though we both spoke through interpreters, I believe we reached one another at a level that transcended geopolitical dynamics. We spoke as two individuals, each making a plea to the other. I told him that as a man of my word, I would be able to speak on his behalf to the American public and the American leadership, but only once he released Joshua Holt and his wife, Thamy.

And here we are today, celebrating the release of Joshua and Thamy Holt. What lessons can we draw from this journey?

The first is the importance of the team. My staff in Utah worked closely with the Holt family, mapping steps out with the basic view that everything may indeed be an opportunity. And, of course, a significant part of the team were the Holts themselves, who even in their darkest hours put their faith in our staff, for which I will be forever grateful.

Equally important was the lesson of listening to all voices. Negotiating Josh’s release required us to reach for common ground where it initially seemed none was to be found. Indeed, it was the determination—by both sides—to communicate even when all parties in both the American and Venezuelan settings advised against doing so.

The third, and perhaps most important, is that faith and planning go hand in hand. In situations such as these, the outcome is indeed unpredictable. It was anyone’s guess when precisely Josh would be released and under what circumstances. One must rely on faith. At the same time, that is not an invitation to throw one’s hands in the air and to give up planning. Faith requires action.

To that end, in my letter to Josh I quoted Matthew 21:21, “If ye have faith, and doubt not…if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.” And by God’s grace, we were truly able to move mountains in the case of Josh Holt.

This journey is ultimately about rescuing one man, his wife, and their child. But it can also be a lesson for how our leadership might build a way forward through not only the present situation in Latin America, but in the many areas of the world—from Europe to the Korean Peninsula—where being able to listen and have the right understanding of faith has never been more urgent.

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