An American missionary held hostage for nearly two years by Venezuela after traveling there to marry a woman he met online cheered the end of his ordeal, saying he is “overwhelmed with gratitude” following his release Saturday and return to U.S. soil with his wife.
Joshua Holt, 26, a Mormon missionary, had been held captive with his wife, fellow missionary Thamara Caleno, since shortly after their wedding in 2016.
The two had been jailed and held without trial after Venezuelan law enforcement accused the couple of stockpiling weapons in their apartment in Caracas, reports NBCNews.
Days before he was freed, Holt had pleaded for the U.S. government’s help in two videos posted to Facebook, according to The New York Times. “I’ve been begging my government for two years,” he said in one video. “They say they’re doing things, but I’m still here.”
His release was perceived as an effort by Venezuela to thaw tensions between the two nations, after the U.S. joined other countries to question the results that elected President Nicolás Maduro last Sunday to another six-year term, NPR reports. Venezuela countered by expelling the top two U.S. diplomats from the American embassy, the Times reported.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah credited Maduro as well as the Trump and Obama administrations for what he said in a tweet were “two years of hard work” to secure Holt’s release. Other lawmakers also had pressed the issue with the Maduro administration over the years.
Holt and his family were welcomed Saturday night in the Oval Office by President Donald Trump and lawmakers who assisted in his diplomatic release.
“You’ve gone through a lot. More than most people could endure,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript of his remarks.
“I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude for you guys, for everything that you’ve done; for the support of my wife through these two years,” Hold said, according to that same transcript. “They were a very, very, very difficult two years. Not really the great vacation that I was looking for. But we’re still together. Starting off a marriage rough, but now we’re going to be together.”
“And I’m just so grateful for what you guys have done, and for thinking about me, and caring about me, just a normal person,” Holt said. “So it really touches me. And thank you.”
Holt encountered his future wife, also a Mormon, when he was searching online for a Spanish speaker to help him with the language, according to NPR. After the pair married with plans to relocate to the U.S. with her two daughters, they were awaiting her visa approval on June 30, 2016, when Venezuelan agents who entered her apartment claimed to find a grenade and an assault rifle, the outlet reports.
The diplomatic breakthrough represented by Holt’s release comes as the U.S. re-evaluates Trump’s canceled nuclear summit with North Korea, the Times reports.
At the same time, White House watchers are wondering about the whereabouts of First Lady Melania Trump, who stood next to her husband on May 10 to welcome home three Americans at Joint Base Andrews but has not been seen in public since then, according to The Washington Post.
Four days later came the surprise announcement that she had undergone a “successful” kidney procedure. Although she returned home May 19, she remained out of the spotlight this past week, which the Post notes is an “unusually long absence” for even the most private presidential spouses.