‘Hope in Darkness’: Key relationship helped pave road to Holts’ release
SALT LAKE CITY — The foundation for a meeting with Venezuela’s president to negotiate the release of Josh and Thamy Holt was laid nearly 20 years beforehand.
If a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer had not shared a beer with future-President Nicolás Maduro at a retreat in Boston in 2002, he might never have been in a position to later help persuade Maduro to release the Holts.
New details about that work are presented in the latest episode of the podcast, “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story.”
Right place at the right time
In 2016, when Josh Holt, a Utah man, and his wife, Thamy, were arrested and taken to a notorious Venezuelan prison, Caleb McCarry was serving as senior professional staff member to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“How I got involved with this is when I got asked to meet with Josh’s mother,” McCarry said.
McCarry, who currently does diplomatic and interagency outreach for the US International Development Finance Corporation, served as President George W. Bush’s Cuba Transition Coordinator and is fluent in Spanish.
He’s also worked on democracy projects in both Guatemala and Haiti.
Laurie Holt traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for her son after his arrest. That led to a high-level meeting at the office of now-retired Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
McCarry wasn’t there, but someone who knew him was: Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon.
“Ambassador Tom Shannon had been doing a lot of work to try to get [Josh] out,” McCarry said. “And Tom is a personal friend of mine and used to be my boss — I worked with him when I worked at the State Department.”
At that meeting, someone suggested Shannon reach out to McCarry to see if he might be able to help the Holts. That led to his meeting with Josh’s mother.
“As [Josh’s] mom walked out of the door, I said to myself, ‘If I ever get a chance to help this woman get her son back, I’m going to do that,’” McCarry said.
A failed coup involving the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ultimately opened the door for McCarry to be able to provide that help.
A failed coup
In 2002, an attempted coup ousted Chavez from office for 47 hours.
Opposition leaders, concerned about Chavez’s growing control over more and more government agencies and commerce, launched a coup d’etat targeting PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-run oil company.
Two days later, more than a million Venezuelans marched in the streets of Caracas to support the coup. Opposition marchers clashed with Chavez supporters, or Chavistas, outside the presidential palace.
In a shootout, 19 people died – some from each side.
When Chavez refused to resign amid the unrest, the military arrested him. When his Chavistas realized he had not resigned as they’d been told, they seized control of television stations and demanded he be restored to his office.
That failed coup led to McCarry’s later involvement in the Holt case. Chavez believed the United States was behind the attempted coup.
“My experience with that is that I don’t think we were behind it,” McCarry said, “but I do think we knew all about it.”
A Republican and a Democrat member of Congress approached McCarry and asked him to set up a meeting of the minds in Massachusetts. They wanted to see if McCarry could bring a delegation from Venezuela to the US to repair the relationships between Venezuela’s government and opposition leaders while also improving relations with the US.
The program became known as the Boston Group.
The Boston Group
The Boston Group’s Venezuela delegation included the country’s future president, Nicolás Maduro, and his wife, Cilia Flores. McCarry got to know them well enough that he felt like he could speak frankly with them.
“I was pretty hard-line in those days, and so I certainly had some direct conversations with Maduro about Chavismo and what they were doing in the country,” McCarry said.
“And frankly, we drank some Sam Adams together. You know? We were at a retreat.”
In a roundabout way, that beer was just the beginning of a long connection to Venezuelan politics.
Chavez died in 2013, and Maduro took his place as Venezuela’s president.
“Fast-forward to 2014 and February with the massive street protests against the Maduro government,” McCarry said. “I got a call from the opposition coordinator from the Boston Group, Pedro Diaz-Blum.”
Diaz-Blum, a former member of the Venezuela National Assembly, hoped the Boston Group could help the two sides find common ground.
He wanted to talk to Maduro, but he didn’t have a direct connection. Eventually, they thought to reach out to Gov. Rafael Lacava, who leads Venezuela’s Carabobo state.
Lacava, who goes by the nickname “Dracula” and conducts late-night patrols in his homemade Batmobile to discourage black market activity, wasn’t in the original Boston Group – but he had served in the National Assembly with Diaz-Blum and was open to helping.
He agreed to try to connect Diaz-Blum and McCarry to Maduro.
It didn’t work, but the connection still helped in 2018, when McCarry needed again to try to reach Maduro.
Dracula arranges a Boston Group reunion
In early 2018, McCarry traveled to Caracas determined to get an audience with Maduro. But he didn’t tell Lacava that’s what he wanted to do until he landed.
Lacava was skeptical, but to his surprise, Maduro agreed to the meeting. He went back to get McCarry and Diaz-Blum, who traveled with him.
“As we were walking into the meeting, Lacava said to me, ‘You know, Caleb, President Maduro’s gotta really feel like you’re his friend,’” McCarry said.
“That wasn’t hard, because I was there as his friend. I genuinely and sincerely wanted to get [Josh] out, and I genuinely and sincerely wanted to help. I was concerned that [Maduro] didn’t understand how bad the situation was in Washington, where nobody, literally nobody, not even Bernie Sanders, had any sympathy whatsoever for him or for Chavistas.
“And I wanted him to understand that. I wanted to explain that.”
Right away, McCarry could tell his cordial and honest relationship with Maduro hadn’t changed.
“President Maduro said, ‘Caleb, you look just alike, only you’re quite a bit wider than you used to be,’” McCarry said, laughing.
He and Diaz-Blum shared photos from the original 2002 Boston Group meeting, hoping it would reinforce the feeling of camaraderie and goodwill.
“The Boston Group was something that President Maduro actually — and Cilia both — valued, and think can be of help, could be of help, in resolving tensions. And he always gave, always has given, the Boston Group his full support,” McCarry said.
Finally, McCarry brought up Josh and Thamy Holt, who had been in prison a year and a half at that point. He translated a letter to Maduro from Utah’s now-retired Sen. Orrin Hatch.
“We met for almost two hours. And at the end of those two hours, two things happened. Maduro said, ‘Please tell Senator Hatch that we will take his request seriously, that we are serious people,’ and then he said, ‘Lacava, Pedro, I’m told that Joshua Holt is in good condition, but I want you two to go and to meet with him and to verify that that’s the case and report back to me,’” McCarry remembered.
“I asked if I could join that visit. He said, ‘Of course.’”
McCarry had another letter from Hatch – this one, addressed to Josh Holt, he delivered to the prison. While he, Lacava and Diaz-Blum met with Holt, McCarry asked the young Utahn to lead them in prayer.
That request included a prison official who was there to observe the meeting.
“I was so proud of you, Josh, for your composure and your faith, and holding hands with your jailer of all things, as we prayed together,” McCarry said.
McCarry had to go back to Washington without Josh and Thamy Holt during that trip, but he believes the prayer was the beginning of Josh Holt’s freedom, which came just a few months later.