For almost two years, Joshua Holt was a detainee of the Venezuelan government — stuck in one of the country’s most notorious prisons, fighting for his life and awaiting a trial that never materialized.
On Saturday night, after a stunning turn of events, Holt was hugging his mother in Washington, D.C., and sitting next to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
As they sat side-by-side, Trump said Holt had gone through "more than most people could endure."
He also said that 17 foreign-held prisoners had been released under his administration, including three from North Korea earlier this month. "You were a tough one, I have to tell you," Trump said.
Holt said he was "overwhelmed with gratitude for you guys, for everything that you've done."
The Venezuelan government has long insisted that the 26-year-old former Mormon missionary was a U.S. provocateur and agent, hoarding weapons and conspiring against the socialist administration. And there were few signs it might be willing to let him or his Venezuelan wife, Thamara Caleño, go.
Their sudden release Saturday caught their families off guard.
"I'm shaking," Laurie Moon Holt, Joshua’s mother, told the Miami Herald, on her way to Washington from Utah. “I haven't cried yet. It doesn't seem real. When he is in my arms I can fall apart then."
Reached in Caracas early Saturday, Caleño's family said they had received no previous advisory from their lawyers or the government.
"We don't know the reason they might be released or why," a family member said.
Venezuela’s minister of communications, Jorge Rodriguez, said Venezuelan and U.S. diplomats had been negotiating the release for months. And he said Holt’s freedom was a sign of "peace" and "national reconciliation."
He also said that President Nicolás Maduro hoped the gesture would help "avoid the aggression" that Venezuela has been "subjected to" — a reference to the punishing financial and economic sanctions that the United States has slapped the country with.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, uploaded a video of Holt, Caleño and her daughter arriving in the United States, wrapping their arms around his parents.
On Sunday, Maduro won a new six-year term as president in an election that has been condemned as fraudulent by the international community and has left him more isolated than ever.
Nicmer Evans, a Venezuelan political analyst, said Holt's reversal of fortune comes as Maduro is trying to find legitimacy after that vote — and relief from a barrage of international sanctions.
In particular, Maduro is likely hoping that the U.S. will stop stripping visas and freezing the assets of current and former Venezuelan officials — actions that are eroding Maduro's internal support network.
“It’s clear that Maduro handed over a kidnapped hostage,” Evans said. “The question is, what did the government of the United States offer in exchange for the release of this hostage? That’s the most important question.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said Holt's release had been "unconditional."
"He was a hostage who was not involved in Venezuela politics & had done nothing wrong," Rubio wrote on Twitter. "...There was 'no quid pro quo or agreement to ease U.S. sanctions tied to' his release."
Holt and his family have always maintained his innocence, saying he traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry Caleño, a fellow Mormon whom he met on a religious dating site.
The two were arrested just days after their marriage when the apartment they were sharing with her children was raided. The police said they found a hand grenade and automatic weapons at the home, but eyewitnesses told the Miami Herald that the evidence had been planted.
Holt's plight grabbed White House attention early in the Trump administration. And a number of politicians and diplomats have traveled to Caracas in recent months to try to negotiate his release. Hatch had been a vocal advocate for Holt and his family.
On Friday, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Committee, Sen. Corker, met with Maduro who called the encounter "fruitful, deep and productive."
That meeting came after Maduro on Monday announced that he was ejecting the United States' top-ranking diplomat, Todd Robinson, who had spoken up strongly for Holt. Washington and Caracas have been at odds for years and haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Holt drew international attention last week during a riot at the Helicoide prison where he and dozens of people considered political prisoners are being held.
At the time of the riot, his mother said she and her husband were worried that their son might not make it out of Venezuela alive.
“Josh has almost been killed multiple times and we’ve gotten lucky because he’s had guardian angels watching over him,” Laurie Holt said. “But next time he might not be so lucky. And if he’s killed over there, Maduro has to know that the United States will not be happy about it, and there will be a price to pay.”
While Holt got lucky Saturday, human rights groups say his fellow inmates at the Helicoide have been facing reprisals. Family members of other political prisoners on Saturday said they haven’t been allowed to see their loved ones, or take them food and water for the past two days.
“While the government promises to free political prisoners from the Helicoide…it’s prohibiting the delivery of food and water to the male political prisoners,” Alfredo Romero, the head of the Foro Penal advocacy group said. The organization says there are currently 346 political prisoners in Venezuelan jails.