CARACAS, VENEZUELA - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, less than a week after the embattled socialist leader was re-elected in a vote the U.S. condemned and he kicked out the top American diplomat in the country.
The visit appeared to be an attempt by Sen. Bob Corker to push for the release of Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen who has been held for two years in a Caracas jail without a trial on what he has called trumped-up weapons charges.
Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, was seen live on state TV shaking hands with Maduro and being greeted by first lady Cilia Flores as he entered the presidential palace. He left an hour later, and neither the senator nor the president made any statements.
Maduro easily won a second, six-year term in Sunday’s election, which was criticized by the U.S. and other nations as a “sham” after several of his key rivals were barred from running. After his victory, Maduro expelled U.S. charge d’affaires Todd Robinson and his deputy for allegedly conspiring to sabotage the vote by pressuring opposition parties to boycott the election, which had the lowest voter turnout in decades.
Corker was accompanied by an aide, Caleb McCarry, who led backchannel talks earlier this year with a close associate of Maduro aimed at securing the release of Holt.
Speculation on social media
Holt, a 26-year-old from Utah, traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry a woman he had met online while looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish. He was arrested after police said they found an assault rifle and grenades during a raid on the public housing complex where the couple lived. He has denied the charge.
Shortly after Corker’s meeting with Maduro, social media in Venezuela lit up with speculation that Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, would be released as a good will gesture to improve relations, much as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did by freeing three American detainees.
In a previous visit to Caracas in 2015, Corker was shunned by Maduro after having been promised a meeting with the president. Upon his return to Washington, Corker blasted Maduro’s government, saying its “flawed economic policies and political system” had put Venezuela on a “destructive path.”
There was no immediate comment from Corker’s office about the nature of his latest visit.
Last month, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also met with Maduro to press for Holt’s release.
The Maduro government has been seeking contacts in the U.S. to stave off the threat of crippling oil sanctions that could further damage an economy already staggering from hyperinflation and widespread shortages.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, an outspoken critic of Maduro who has President Donald Trump’s ear on Venezuela, played down Corker’s visit.
“Any U.S. Senator can meet with whoever they want,” Rubio tweeted. “But no matter how many senators dictator (at)NicolasMaduro gets to meet with him, U.S. sanctions will go away when Maduro leaves & democracy returns.”
Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez described Maduro’s conversation with Corker as “very good meeting, good news for the Venezuelan people” but gave no details of what the two discussed.
A close Maduro ally, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, accused Holt of being the CIA’s spy chief in Latin America after the prisoner appeared in a video last week pleading for help, saying his life had been threatened during a riot by inmates in the Caracas jail where he and dozens of Maduro’s opponents are being held.
Before he left Venezuela on Thursday on Maduro’s orders, Robinson had been pushing unsuccessfully to see Holt.
However, on Friday, U.S. officials were allowed entry to the prison, according to a message posted by Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, on her Facebook page. She said her son “was in good spirits,” except for discomfort from dozens of mosquito bites. She said his visitors gave him bug repellant.