Editorial note: this is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage here.
SALT LAKE CITY — One question never resolved with any satisfaction in the four years since Josh and Thamy Holt were arrested, setting off a crisis between the US and Venezuela, is why. Why were they arrested? Why them?
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 scenic country
A narrow strip of lush green mountains separates the Caribbean Sea from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, a metropolitan area populated by an estimated 3 million residents.
As recently as the 1950s, tourism videos touted the region’s vibrant city life and unbelievable scenery, painting it as a paradise only a flight away.
“Caracas is famous for food [and the] beach,” Thamy Holt said. “Every time — every Sunday, every holiday, the people go to the beach.”
Her sense of Venezuela’s natural beauty was echoed by Laura Gamboa, an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University and an expert on Latin American politics.
“Venezuela’s a beautiful country. Caracas is a beautiful city,” Gamboa said.
She lived in Caracas while doing research in 2014. A native of Colombia, she says the Caracas she witnessed then was a far cry from the Caracas she heard about as a child.
A prosperous past
“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.”
Venezuela wasn’t a country in crisis. It was a place where those things were within reach.
“A lot of that success was built on oil money,” Gamboa said.
Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, accounting for about 18 percent of the planet’s total oil reserves, and the oil fuels the nation’s government.
“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.”
As in many places, the people who drew the short straw were those least equipped to ride out an economic storm: the poor.
The Venezuela crisis
Enter Hugo Chavez.
Chavez named his revolution after Simón Bolivar, a 19th century Venezuelan leader who played a big role in liberating much of South America from Spain. He was inspired by Bolivar.
Chavez first tried to seize power in a failed military coup in 1992, but it established him in the eyes of the downtrodden as someone who would fight for them. He served two years in prison, then re-emerged on the political scene just in time for Venezuelans who felt marginalized to rediscover him.
Chavez blamed the United States for everything that was wrong with Venezuela. Thamy Holt, growing up in Venezuela, said through a translator that she watched this unfold.
“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 remembered.
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.
She describes Chavez’s tactics, embracing the poor and downtrodden, 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.”
Right away after coming to power in 1998, the Chavez government started building projects. But his government didn’t deliver equally on those promises.
“The idea was, ‘We’re going to build buildings that would get us votes,'” Gamboa said.
Chavez became even more popular, according to Brigham Young University Professor Kirk Hawkins, another expert on Latin American politics.
“They were supposed to be all about turning Venezuela into a socialist paradise,” he said. “It was going to be a country with, you know, broadly shared wealth … It was a hope that it would be spread out, that the oil wealth would be enjoyed by everybody. The government would become clean and fair, and that it would operate really — really on behalf of all Venezuelans, and not just the wealthy.”
Instead, corruption clogged the system at multiple levels. And while Chavez was duly elected when he first came to power, the electoral system also became more corrupt and unfair over time.
“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.
Like Gamboa, Hawkins briefly 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.”
Hawkins and Gamboa both still described Venezuela’s electoral process at this time as somewhat fair; opposition officials could win, but it was very difficult for them to do so.
“There was still — actually still a lot of fairness to it,” Hawkins said. “But you could already see signs of this kind of authoritarian creep.”
Electoral fairness deteriorated even more after Chavez died from cancer at age of 58 in Cuba in 2013. His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, took charge as expected.
“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 shortages and a medical crisis
Over time, the Venezuela crisis intensified as bad economic policies started to add up. Simply buying groceries for the family became a political act. One needed to have a card showing membership in the government party in order to shop in the government-controlled grocery stores.
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.
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.”
Gamboa met a man whose knee had been shattered in an accident and needed knee-replacement surgery.
“And the hospital said, ‘Yes, we can perform the surgery, but you’re going to have to bring in the supplies.’ And by supplies, I mean the saline, the needles, the tubes, the screws that they were going to use to rebuild your knee. ‘You’re going to have to find all of these and bring it in.’ It took him three months,” Gamboa said.
“My sense is that a lot of people are dying there from treatable and avoidable things,” Hawkins added.
A refugee crisis in Venezuela
One of the details that has gotten little media attention that KSL learned while researching the Holts’ story is the sheer number of people who have fled Venezuela. It’s been happening during the last 20 or so years, but the exodus ramped up in 2016 and 2017.
“More Venezuelan citizens have fled the country seeking — essentially — asylum elsewhere as have fled Syria,” Hawkins said.
The Syrian Civil War displaced about 5 million people by the end of 2015. But the refugee crisis in Venezuela, which reached 4.5 million people in 2019, is still growing. Both Hawkins and Gamboa believe it now eclipses the number of those who have fled Syria.
“That’s become an enormous challenge for countries around them,” Hawkins said.
“Colombia has received more than one million refugees. And they’re crossing the border with nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Gamboa said.
Gamboa noted this would be the largest refugee crisis in history for any country not currently at war.
“We’re talking about a country that has decreased by ten percent,” Gamboa said. “And by far, the largest refugee crisis in the history of Latin America.”
Tensions with the US
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, Congress approved sanctions on Venezuela, which President Barack Obama expanded through an executive order in early 2015.
The United States declared Venezuela a security threat, which set the stage for a chilly April 2015 meeting between Presidents Obama and Nicolas Maduro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
That year, opposition leaders won a two-thirds majority in the Venezuelan parliamentary elections, a huge blow to the Maduro government. Gamboa and Hawkins said that marked a turning point, at which Venezuelan leaders started to become even more authoritarian.
“Throw away the key”
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.”
But the question remains: Why did government officials detain Josh Holt?
“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 was to marry Thamy, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the Organization of American States, which is a regional forum like a Western hemisphere-only United Nations.
In that speech, Kerry called 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.”
It’s hard to say whether that speech was a catalyst for arresting Josh and Thamy Holt during a raid on their Ciudad Caribia apartment outside Caracas on June 30, 2016. But on the heels of Kerry’s speech, it may not have been difficult for the Venezuelan government to depict Josh Holt as a possible American infiltrator in video aired on state television — especially in light of the perception of past US involvement in South America.
In fact, one video released shortly after the Holts’ arrest did paint the Holts as spies, part of a larger plan.
“We will not allow the dark interests of capitalism, supported by the criminal paramilitary groups, to undermine the stability and peace of our country,” one video, featuring the country’s minister of interior and justice, asserted in Spanish.
KSL showed the video to Gamboa.
“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.”
She and Hawkins both see Josh Holt’s arrest as being convenient for the Venezuelan government — a happy accident on which it could capitalize.
“I think he was just kind of a bargaining chip,” Hawkins said. “He was just a pawn that they could use for this.”
“‘Ah, we caught this gringo, and then we’re going to paint him as a CIA agent and God knows what else,'” Gamboa added. “It’s great propaganda.”
Hope In Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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