WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Venezuelan government on Saturday released an American, Josh Holt, whom it has held since 2016 on weapons charges, U.S. President Donald Trump and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch announced separately on Twitter.
The release of Holt, a Mormon missionary from Utah, comes despite deepening U.S.-Venezuelan tensions that in the last week saw tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, Washington’s refusal to recognize the May 19 re-election of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and the imposition of new U.S. sanctions on Caracas.
Holt was expected to arrive in Washington on Saturday evening, Trump said. Hatch issued a statement on Twitter saying Holt’s release followed two years of lobbying and that Holt’s wife Thamy would be accompanying him home.
“Over the past two years I’ve worked with two presidential administrations, countless diplomatic contacts, ambassadors all over the world, a network of contacts in Venezuela and President Maduro himself, and I could not be more honored to be able to reunite Josh with his sweet, long-suffering family,” Hatch said in a statement.
Holt’s mother Laurie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had met in Caracas with Maduro on Friday.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately comment on Saturday, but Communication Minister Jorge Rodriguez said on Friday night that the meeting with Corker was aimed at seeking “peace and fruitful dialogue.”
Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer with Venezuelan rights group Penal Forum, said Holt was being transferred from jail to the U.S. embassy in Caracas, and would leave for the United States on Saturday afternoon.
Venezuelan authorities arrested Holt in June 2016 while he was in Venezuela for his wedding. His family says he was framed and the United States charged that Caracas used him as a bargaining chip in sanctions talks.
The United States accuses Maduro’s government of stifling democracy, repressing the opposition and massive corruption. Maduro says Washington is conspiring to topple his socialist-led government and seize the OPEC member’s oil reserves.
He blames a U.S. “economic war” for Venezuela’s fiscal woes, including hyper-inflation and food and medicine shortages that have triggered mass emigration.
Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in Caracas, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Rosalba O’Brien