SALT LAKE CITY — Riverton resident Josh Holt chose a precarious time to travel to Venezuela two years ago to marry his fiancée, Thamy Caleno.
President Nicolas Maduro had continued the failing socialist experiment fostered by his successor, the late Hugo Chavez. Inflation skyrocketed, prompting price and wage controls. People are starving. Others fleeing in droves. Violent crime rose significantly due to ineffective police and courts, especially in Caracas.
Maduro has worked with hardliners in the government and the military to maintain control. The military has been an accomplice with civilian government leaders to run the drug trade, souring relations with the U.S.
"It was a rough moment to be going down for a lot of those reasons, with the government that was curtailing civil liberties for many of its citizens, that was becoming increasingly corrupt, was still committed to this radical socialist vision that Chavez had had for the country's government and its economy," BYU political science professor Kirk Hawkins said Saturday from Barcelona, Spain, where he is attending a conference.
Holt, 26, and Calen met in May 2016 in the Dominican Republic, where he proposed. He then flew to Venezuela for the June 11 wedding. The two planned to wait for her visa before flying to the U.S. — a plan that made family members nervous.
"We were just like, 'Absolutely not, you cannot go there. It's dangerous.' We've seen everything on the news, and he just, he didn't listen," Holt's mother, Laurie Holt, said in a July 2016 interview after learning her son had been jailed.
Although Venezuela was a risky place to be, it was unusual for an American to be arrested in the way Holt was, Hawkins said.
"As far as I know, he's the only case of an American being arrested over the past couple of years and being kept for such a long period of time," said Hawkins, an expert on Venezuelan politics.
"It's been a mystery to many people why he would be targeted for this."
Before releashing him Saturday, Venezuelan authorities had claimed Holt was keeping guns in the home of the woman he went to the country to marry in 2016. Holt denies the charges. His family has said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time of a raid in the Caracas neighborhood of his wife, whom he met through online Spanish lessons after returning from an LDS mission.
Once Holt was in prison, there was a sense that he was being used as a future bargaining chip, Hawkins said.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations pressured the Venezuelan government to release Holt, so the question becomes what changed, he said.
Hawkins said it might have something to do with how the world viewed the recent election retaining Maduro as president, which weren't "free and fair." The government jailed or exiled popular opposition candidates and blatantly abused public resources for its campaign. It also exaggerated voter turnout numbers.
Venezuela is now facing strong international opposition, he said, noting many countries in the Americas have pulled their ambassadors in protest of what they see as an undemocratic election.
"The international reaction has been unusually united and severe. So I think there's a sense that this is kind of a ploy by the government to win some favor in a desperate moment. I can't imagine why else they did this," Hawkins said of Holt's release.7 comments on this story
The professor said it's unclear what it means for U.S.-Venezuela relations going forward.
"It doesn't fundamentally change the situation of a government that is no longer democratic and is running the economy into the ground and seems so willing to sacrifice the well-being of citizens in order to stay in power and pursue its revolutionary vision. That's all still there," he said.
"It's happy development," Hawkins said, "but I don't think it will change the situation."