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 — A 2002 retreat in which a future Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer shared a beer with the future president of Venezuela set the stage for the eventual freedom of Josh and Thamy Holt from a notorious Caracas prison.
It’s a detail explored publicly for the first time in the podcast “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story.”
The latest episode of the podcast details the improbable coming together of a cast of characters who had no reason to interact in real life — and how their work helped open the door for the Senate staffer to connect with Josh Holt.
Senate staffer who helped Josh Holt
Caleb McCarry was serving as senior professional staff member to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when officers arrested Josh and Thamy Holt in 2016.
“How I got involved with this is when I got asked to meet with Josh’s mother,” McCarry said.
McCarry’s lengthy resume has some impressive credentials: He was President George W. Bush’s Cuba transition coordinator; served as a staff member for the House Foreign Affairs Committee; worked on democracy projects in Guatemala and Haiti; and also did extensive work with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Central America.
These days, he does diplomatic and interagency outreach for the US International Development Finance Corporation.
But in 2016, he worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Laurie Holt, Josh’s mother, traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for her son.
A high level meeting
Laurie Holt’s trip resulted in a high-level meeting at the office of now retired Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. McCarry wasn’t there, but the Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs, Ambassador Tom Shannon, was.
“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 the meeting inside Hatch’s office, someone suggested Shannon reach out to McCarry to see if he could help. That led to the Senate staffer’s meeting with Laurie Holt.
“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 year before he met Laurie Holt, McCarry laid the groundwork for his own unique connection to Venezuelan officials — back in 2002.
Oil and a failed coup
In 2002, those opposed to the government of then-President Hugo Chavez attempted to oust him from power in Venezuela.
Over time, Chavez sought to reform the oil industry in his country, in part to address falling oil prices but also to keep
Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.), under government control. Opposition leaders wanted to see PDVSA privatized. They disliked the control Chavez gradually exerted over more and more government agencies and businesses.
Those who opposed the Venezuelan government launched a coup d’etat targeting PDVSA. A trade union called a general strike in April 2002, followed two days later by a march in Caracas. Upward of a million Venezuelans took to the streets to oppose Chavez.
Things turned violent when opposition marchers encountered Chavez supporters outside the presidential palace; a shootout killed 19 people from both sides.
Venezuela’s military high command demanded Chavez resign. He refused; the military arrested him. But Chavez would be out of office for just 47 hours; interim President Pedro Carmona tried to undo many of Chavez’s past reforms, which angered Chavistas or Chavez supporters. When they learned Chavez never resigned as they had thought, they seized control of television stations and demanded his return to power.
Carmonas resigned; Chavez was back in power.
The Boston Group
The failed coup set the stage for McCarry’s involvement in the Josh Holt case. Chavez believed the United States was behind the attempt to oust him.
“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.”
Two members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, asked McCarry to figure out how to get a delegation from Venezuela to Massachusetts to meet with US representatives. The goal was to repair the relationships between the two countries as well as between the two political rival sides in Venezuela.
It became known as the Boston Group. The Venezuela delegation included people both from the Chavez government and the opposition.
“Among the participants in that program — we had a couple of iterations of it — it turned out, was Nicolás Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores,” McCarry said.
McCarry got to know the future president and first lady of Venezuela well enough that he felt he could speak plainly and openly with them.
“I was pretty hard-line in those days, and so I certainly had some direct conversations with Maduro about Chavismo [the political ideology of Chávez] 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.”
McCarry had a beer with future Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Enter the Batman
Chavez groomed Maduro to replace him, which happened when Chavez died in 2013.
“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 wanted to know if the Boston Group, which worked to repair US-Venezuelan relations many years before, could help mend fences between Venezuela’s opposition and government leaders. He wanted to talk to Maduro to bring the two sides together with the Boston Group’s help, but he didn’t have a direct connection.
“He and I used to say, ‘If only we could talk to Nicolás, we’re pretty sure that we could — you know, that he would understand because he knows the Boston Group,” McCarry said.
Diaz-Blum suggested they reach out to Rafael Lacava, the governor of Venezuela’s Carabobo state.
Lacava goes by the nickname Dracula, seeing himself as a sort of real-life Batman, complete with a homemade Batmobile knockoff. He frequently makes late-night patrols to thwart black-market dealings.
In 2002, Dracula was not part of the Boston Group, but he had served in the National Assembly with Diaz-Blum. He agreed to try to help connect Diaz-Blum and McCarry with Maduro. It ultimately didn’t work, but the connection became important in 2018 when McCarry needed again to try to reach out to Maduro.
Batman arranges a meeting
In early 2018, even though he didn’t know Lacava well, McCarry traveled to Caracas. He didn’t tell the self-proclaimed Batman he wanted to talk about Josh and Thamy Holt with President Maduro until he arrived.
Lacava was nervous but drove to Maduro’s home to set up the meeting. To Lacava’s surprise, Maduro agreed to talk about the case. Diaz-Blum accompanied them as a show of support.
“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.”
McCarry said both Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores were present when they walked in.
“President Maduro said, ‘Caleb, you look just alike, only you’re quite a bit wider than you used to be,'” McCarry said with a laugh.
He relaxed a little, sensing the relationship was still friendly. Next, McCarry and Diaz-Blum began the meeting by sharing photos from the original 2002 Boston Group retreat.
“[Maduro] commented on each one and reminisced about that experience,” McCarry said.
They didn’t have much time, but McCarry and Diaz-Blum felt they needed to build goodwill and re-establish a rapport with Maduro.
“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.
Visiting the prison
Finally, McCarry addressed the topic he really wanted to talk about: Josh and Thamy Holt. He read a letter from Sen. Orrin Hatch pleading for the couple’s release.
“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.'”
Diaz-Blum, Lacava and McCarry traveled together to El Helicoide, the notorious prison that was Josh and Thamy Holt’s home for nearly two years.
McCarry delivered another letter from Hatch — this one, addressed to Josh Holt.
Lacava, Diaz-Blum, McCarry and Holt met briefly. In that time, the Senate staffer asked Josh Holt to lead the group, which now included a prison official, in prayer.
“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.
At the end of the meeting, Josh Holt gave the Senate staffer a hug.
“Get me out of here,” he whispered in McCarry’s ear.
McCarry went back to Washington empty-handed, but with those words echoing in his ear.
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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