A former missionary from Utah who spent two years in a Venezuelan prison in what human-rights lawyers called a trumped-up case was released Saturday by President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government as an olive branch as it faces intensifying U.S. sanctions.
Joshua Holt, 26 years old, and his Venezuelan wife, Thamara Caleno, arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport on Saturday night. He was en route to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump, according to a person familiar with his itinerary.
Mr. Holt, who never faced trial, had been held on espionage charges. Rights organizations have long said the two were being used as bargaining chips by Mr. Maduro’s administration.
“Good news about the release of the American hostage from Venezuela,” Mr. Trump said via Twitter. “Should be landing in D.C. this evening and be in the White House, with his family, at about 7:00 P.M.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said Mr. Holt’s release came after diplomatic negotiations that began under the Obama administration. “I could not be more honored to be able to reunite Josh with his sweet, long-suffering family,” Mr. Hatch said in a statement.
Venezuela Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said Mr. Holt’s release was part of a process of negotiations with Washington.
The U.S., the European Union and nations across Latin America have moved to isolate Caracas after Mr. Maduro secured re-election Sunday in a vote that was panned internationally as a farce. Mr. Maduro had barred two popular opposition leaders from running and forced others into exile. The U.S. has warned that it may impose stricter sanctions on Venezuela, including against its oil industry.
Venezuela’s Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez announces the release of U.S. citizen Joshua Holt on Saturday. Photo: juan barreto/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
“We hope that this gesture is read by those factions that promote aggression against Venezuela,” Mr. Rodriguez said in a televised address.
Following Mr. Maduro’s re-election, his government expelled the top American diplomat in Caracas, Todd Robinson; arrested Venezuelan military officers in a continuing purge; and took legal actions against the country’s most prominent newspaper, El Nacional. But Mr. Maduro also met Friday with the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who had traveled to Caracas to push for Mr. Holt’s freedom, and expressed openness to dialogue with the U.S.
“The Venezuela play is obvious: A gesture of good will after the sham elections and the increased international pressure,” said Mark Feierstein, the former director of Latin America at the National Security Council under the Obama administration.
Mr. Holt, a former Mormon missionary, went to Venezuela in 2016 to marry his now-wife. But the two were arrested by Venezuelan soldiers at their residence in a crime- and poverty-ridden government housing project just outside Caracas.
Mr. Holt had been housed at a notorious Caracas detention center along with 50 political prisoners, though his lawyers and the U.S. considered him a hostage, not a prisoner of conscience. His wife was held in the same facility.
On Friday, Mr. Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, said U.S. Embassy officials were able to enter the Helicoide prison for the first time since a riot broke out last week, during which her son played a visible role. He videotaped himself telling the world about the conditions for prisoners. She said the officials gave him “a big mama bear tight (hug) from me.”
Winning Mr. Holt’s freedom became a priority for Mr. Robinson after he became head of the diplomatic mission in Caracas in December, he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview last week. Mr. Robinson said he raised Mr. Holt’s case at the beginning of every meeting he had with Venezuelan officials and frequently made public appearances to condemn Mr. Maduro’s regime for holding the American.
“He’s an American, and there is no higher responsibility for the U.S. abroad than the protection of American citizens,” Mr. Robinson said as he sat on the veranda of his home earlier this month. He took particular exception to a top Venezuelan official’s statement that Mr. Holt headed U.S. intelligence operations in Latin America.
“This isn’t a show,” Mr. Robinson said. “There are human beings in their care…and they’re not giving anyone information on the status of these people.”
It was a confrontational style seldom seen from a U.S. envoy in Venezuela, where diplomats often keep low profiles due to the hostile relations between the two countries. The U.S. and Venezuela haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Gonzalo Himiob, the director of Foro Penal, a human-rights group that has advocated for Mr. Holt and 338 political prisoners in Venezuela, said the government continued to imprison its political opponents, even as Mr. Maduro publicly said this week that some dissidents would be freed.
“Releasing political prisoners has no point if at the same time their cells are being filled with newly incarcerated,” Mr. Himiob said in a Twitter post Saturday. While 22 prisoners have been released in recent days, 14 new arrests have been made on charges that Foro Penal deemed political, he said.
—Ryan Dube in Lima, Peru, Vivian Salama in Washington and Mayela Armas in Caracas contributed to this article.
Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at email@example.com