‘Hope in Darkness’: Venezuela conditions leading to Josh Holt’s arrest
SALT LAKE CITY – In the two years since a Utah man was released after 23 months in a Venezuelan prison, one question remains: why. Why did authorities arrest Josh Holt and his wife, Thamy?
The latest episode of “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story” attempts to answer that question with the help of two Utah experts in Latin American politics.
A stark contrast
Venezuela’s natural beauty stands in stark contrast to the harsh conditions many of its citizens confront daily.
A narrow strip of tall, green mountains stand between Caracas and the Caribbean Sea.
“Caracas is famous for food [and the] beach,” Thamy Holt said. “Every time — every Sunday, every holiday, the people go to the beach.”
Josh and Thamy Holt spent their honeymoon on Isla de Coche, one of many resort islands that dot the Venezuelan coast. Those same islands figured prominently in promotional tourism vidoes of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Venezuela’s a beautiful country,” said Laura Gamboa, an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University and an expert on Latin American politics. “Caracas is a beautiful city.”
Gamboa, a native of Colombia, lived in Caracas while doing research in 2014. The Caracas she witnessed then was a far cry from the Caracas she heard about as a child.
“When I grew up in Colombia, people fled to Venezuela. It was never the other way around,” Gamboa said. “They were seeking peace and security and prosperity.”
With the world’s largest proven oil reserves, accounting for about 18 percent of the total oil reserves on the planet, much of Venezuela’s wealth in the mid-20th century was built on oil money.
“But in the 1980s, there are two things that happen,” Gamboa said. “One, Latin America in general sees a recession. We’re talking about a regional crisis that destroys economies across the region. And second, oil prices are not as good as they used to be. And so the government no longer has the money to fund everybody, which is what was happening before.”
According to Gamboa, the people who drew the short straw were those least equipped to ride out an economic storm: the poor.
The rise of Chavez
This was the Venezuela in which Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999. He won election by embracing the poor and downtrodden, as witnessed by Thamy Holt as she grew up in the country. Through a translator, she described his electoral tactics as astute.
“He went to the poor people [and said], ‘I’m going to give you a house. I’m going to give you medicine. I’m going to give you food. I’m going to give you a car,'” she said through the translator. “The other candidates offered jobs and jobs and jobs, so that you can earn money and buy things. And a lot of people didn’t like that because that would take years. But there was someone who was going to gift you something. What did the people do? Go for the guy who was going to give them things.”
At the same time, he blamed the United States for everything that was wrong with his country.
“Around 2010, everything that happened in Venezuela was the fault of the United States. If there wasn’t food, it’s because the US didn’t let food in. If there wasn’t money, the United States was ensuring our money wasn’t worth anything,” Thamy Holt said through the translator.
The message resonated with Venezuelans who already didn’t trust North American motives and intervention. As one example, during the Cold War, US leaders worried that more countries might follow Cuba’s lead and ally themselves with the former Soviet Union. In 1973, the CIA backed Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, a general who overthrew a democratically-elected Marxist president only to establish a dictatorship of his own.
While Chavez led his country, he accused the US of multiple attempted coups and even assassination attempts. His hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has followed that example.
“Venezuela’s democracy began backsliding. But it really — it was still a democracy, an increasingly flawed one, but a democracy nonetheless, up until 2006, 2007, when Chavez had finally taken over every single state institution,” Gamboa said.
Brigham Young University professor Kirk Hawkins is also an expert on Latin American politics. Like Gamboa, he lived in Caracas while doing research.
“I remember in 2010 when I went to see the legislative elections, I was really shocked at how many government buildings had election advertisements for Chavez tacked up to the outside of them. Something that, you know, we’d say, that’s really — that’s wrong,” Hawkins said. “Government agencies don’t get to campaign on behalf of anybody. But they did. And it was really evident. It was everywhere.”
What little electoral fairness there was, Hawkins says, disappeared when Maduro took charge.
“No one has any confidence now that a count would be fair. That the government wouldn’t just make up numbers. No one really thinks of Venezuelan elections as incredibly democratic anymore. They’re not free. They’re not really competitive,” Hawkins said.
Food and medicine in short supply
As the electoral process became less fair and corruption more rampant, bad economic policies started to add up. In 2016, opposition leaders began to lead street protests over the lack of access to food.
“And these can be massive. Like, we’re talking about opposition-organized protests all over Caracas,” Gamboa said.
Wages couldn’t keep pace as inflation climbed out of control. Gamboa estimated minimum wage in October 2019 to be worth the equivalent of $7 US for the entire month.
Government shortages extended not just to food but also to critical medical supplies, according to Hawkins.
“You know, what if you have diabetes?” Hawkins asked. “You can’t get insulin anymore. What’s going to happen to you? Well, you might not live. And it’s going to be a painful death. And what happens if you get a cut and a little infection, and there’s no more antibiotics anymore? Well, you might die from your infection.”
“My sense is that a lot of people are dying there from treatable and avoidable things,” Hawkins added.
The government cracks down
In 2014 and 2015, while those conditions fed more tensions within Venezuela itself, the country found itself grappling with the United States.
Venezuela’s government expelled three US diplomats in February 2014, accusing them of inciting violence. By the end of that year, the US Congress approved sanctions on Venezuela, which President Barack Obama expanded through an executive order in early 2015.
That year, opposition leaders won a two-thirds majority in the Venezuelan parliamentary elections, a huge blow to the Maduro government. By summer 2016, Maduro had declared a state of emergency. Opposition leaders called for a recall election to remove him from office.
“That’s when we start seeing people getting shot in the streets,” Gamboa said. “We’re talking about 500 people who have been ‘disappeared.’ We are talking about selective killings. That’s when we start seeing full-blown repression.”
“Unfortunately, Josh’s case isn’t unique — although it is unique in this case that they picked an American citizen to target. They’ve certainly done this to plenty of Venezuelans, including people in the opposition and even ordinary Venezuelans. If they decide that someone in the street in a bad neighborhood is, you know, causing problems or has a score to settle, they’ll just take them and plant the evidence and throw them in jail,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes, you know, throw away the key as well.”
A critical speech at a critical time
Josh Holt arrived in Caracas on June 11, 2016.
On June 14, two days before he and Thamy got married, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the Organization of American States, calling on Venezuela to release the country’s political prisoners.
“To respect freedom of expression and assembly, to alleviate shortages of food and medicine,” Kerry said at the time. “And to honor its own constitutional mechanisms, including a fair and timely recall referendum that is part of that constitutional process.”
We can’t say for sure whether that speech was a catalyst for the arrest of the Holts just two weeks later, on June 30, 2016. But the prior intervention of the US in South America, the rising tensions between Venezuela and the US, and Kerry’s speech may have stood out to Venezuelan leaders when officers arrested Josh and Thamy Holt. The timing may not have made it difficult for the Venezuelan government to depict Josh Holt as a possible American infiltrator in video aired on state television shortly after their arrest.
KSL showed the video to Gamboa. She thought as propaganda went, the arrest of Josh Holt was something of a gift to the Maduro government.
“In seven minutes, you show that there’s an American living where nobody would expect him to be living,” she said. “You have drawn enough suspicion over him to make him a credible CIA agent, with all sorts of half-truths and bogus information. This is a media coup.”
Hawkins believes Holt, like many Venezuelans arrested and accused of crimes they did not commit, was guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I think he was just kind of a bargaining chip,” Hawkins said. “He was just a pawn that they could use for this.”
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