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Hope In Darkness – Ep. 3 – Full Transcript

Full Transcript – Ep. 3: The Venezuela Crisis

Josh and Thamy Holt are forced to wait four days with no answers about what is going on or why they were arrested. What are the political and economic conditions in Venezuela that exacerbated the situation? We bring in two well-known experts on Latin American politics to sort through what is happening. 

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Ep. 3: The Venezuela Crisis

HOST BECKY BRUCE:

Hope in Darkness is a podcast that addresses sensitive topics, including torture, abuse, and human rights violations. Listener discretion is advised.

BECKY: 

Josh and Thamy Holt found themselves at El Helicoide in the custody of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, or the SEBIN, Venezuela’s main intelligence agency, that also functions as a kind of secret police for the government. The Holts were picked up by members of the OLP, the Operation for Liberation and Protection of the People — paramilitary types charged with cracking down on crime in 2015 by President Nicolas Maduro. Within a few weeks, government officials touted the arrest on state television.

VENEZUELAN NEWSCASTER: 

11:27 de la mañana sean bienvenidos al presente avance informativo…[fade down]

BECKY:   

Venezuela’s Minister of Interior Relations of Justice Peace, Gustavo González López, appeared on the screen detailing the accusations against Josh and Thamy.

GUSTAVO GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

Un saludo a todos los que nos sintonizan en esta hora…[fade down]

TRANSLATION 

A welcome to everyone who’s tuning in this hour. We’d like to inform the country of the advances of an investigation undertaken by the Special Tactics Operations Unit. During a recent operation of the Operación Liberación del Pueblo, the OLP captured a subject of North American nationality identified as Joshua Anthony Holt.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

[fade in]… identificaba como Joshua Anthony Holt…[fade down]

BECKY: 

In addition to the grenade Thamy mentioned, he displayed photos of other items they were accused of having.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

[fade in]…estos sujetos guardaban un fusil de asalto AK-47, un facsímile M4…[fade down]

TRANSLATION: 

Holt and Caleño Candelo were storing an AK-47, a facsimile M4, various munitions, a grenade, maps, and computer equipment in this home where they briefly lived.

BECKY:    

González López highlighted the facts that Josh was American and Thamy, originally from Ecuador — though she lived in Venezuela since the age of five. He raised questions about their travel in the months and years before their arrest. He pointed out they hadn’t known each other very long and implied the marriage was fake.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

La presunta pareja estableció…[fade down]

TRANSLATION:

The supposed couple established a strange and suspicious relationship on the internet.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: 

…a los pocos meses, se conocieron en persona en República Dominicana.

TRANSLATION: 

After a few months, they met in person in the Dominican Republic.

BECKY: 

He said the apartment complex was a hideout for a criminal group, hinting that the Holt’s proximity connected them.

JOSH: 

He had said that I killed some person in April, when I’d never even arrived in Venezuela until June. That I was a military Pilot terrorist from the CIA. I was a CIA boss sent from Obama, to take down the government of Maduro.

BECKY: 

But, why? I’m Becky Bruce, and this is Hope In Darkness, episode three, ‘The Venezuela Crisis.’

ARCHIVAL: 

Venezuela is a bomb that could explode at any moment.

THAMY: 

When you turn your head, you see someone eating in their trash.

PROFESSOR LAURA GAMBOA   

That’s when we start seeing the government postponing elections.

JOHN KERRY ARCHVIAL: 

Venezuelans have the right to express their will in a peaceful and a democratic manner.

BECKY:   

To better understand what happened to Josh and Thamy Holt, you have to go back in time and learn more about how Venezuela became what it is today. It’s a bit of a history lesson, but the context becomes very important. A note — what happens to Venezuela is complicated, and we can’t explain all the nuances of its decline in just this one episode. We also aren’t experts on Latin American politics, but we did reach out to a few people who are.

BREAK

BECKY: 

Venezuela didn’t start out the way we’ve been describing so far. A narrow strip of verdant mountains separates the city of Caracas from the Caribbean Sea. Tourism videos in the 50s and 60s enticed visitors with tales of vibrant city life and epic scenery. A paradise, just a flight away. Tropical resort islands, like the one Josh and Thamy visited on their honeymoon, dot the coast. The country had a lot going for it.

PROFESSOR LAURA GAMBOA:   

Venezuela is as a beautiful country. Caracas is a beautiful city.

BECKY:   

That’s Laura Gamboa, an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University, an expert on Latin American politics, and a native of neighboring Colombia.

GAMBOA:  5

Venezuela was the most long-standing democracy in Latin America, right? I keep telling this to my students. When I grew up in Colombia, people fled to Venezuela. It was never the other way around, right? They were seeking peace and security and prosperity.

BECKY:   

But it didn’t last forever, because — 

GAMBOA: 

A lot of that success was built on oil money.

BECKY:   

And as long as the government had plenty of money from oil, things were great for Venezuela.

GAMBOA:   

But in the 1980s, there are two things that happen. One, Latin America in general sees a recession that destroys economies across the region. Second, oil prices are not as good as they used to be. So, the government no longer has the money to fund everybody, which is what was happening before.

BECKY:   

The people who drew the short straw, Laura says, are always the same — the poor, the low income, the less educated, and so on.

GAMBOA:   

So, they were in a situation in which the economy is declining and representatives are just not doing their job. Democracy is not delivering. So, people just get ready to throw the baby, the bathtub, the water, everything.

BECKY:   

Enter Hugo Chávez, the son of two teachers. He went to military school at the age of 17, then became a communications officer. That led to the creation of his Bolivarian movement, starting with the units he commanded. Chávez named his revolution after Simon Bolívar, a 19th century Venezuelan leader who played a big role in liberating much of South America from Spain. Chávez was inspired by Bolívar. His movement focused on national pride and socialist ideals that he saw as a way to fix corruption and inequality. His first attempt to seize power was a military coup that failed in 1992 but established him in the eyes of the downtrodden as someone who would fight for them. He went to prison, serving two years, and then reemerged on the political scene just in time for Venezuelans who felt marginalized to rediscover him.

CHÁVEZ ARCHIVAL: 

…porque el pueblo venezolano no es un pueblo de cobardes. ¿Quién dijo eso?…[fade down]

GAMBOA: 

Right, and vote for-for this a, for this person, who had just not less than 10 years before launch a coup against a democratically elected government, because he was promising he was going to solve the situation. Even if that meant putting in power somebody that may risk democracy.

CHÁVEZ ARCHIVAL:

En Venezuela…es que llegó la hora del pueblo.

BECKY:   

Thamy watched it unfold.

THAMY HOLT: 

Él supo en una forma astute…[fade down]

TRANSLATION: 

He knew in an astute way how to win over poor people. Venezuela is a country of middle class, lower middle class, and very few of the upper class. Obviously, the upper class was going to vote against him, but there were more poor people. He went to the poor people. 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. If he did this, people were going to go for him, because they were going to get things. The other candidates offered jobs and jobs and jobs, so that you can earn money and buy things. 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 guys was going to give them things, because there were a lot of poor people, he won.

THAMY:   

[fade in] …entonces como era muchas personas pobres…sus votos, el ganó.

BECKY:   

So Chávez came to power in 1998, largely on the vote of the disenfranchised. Right away, his government started building projects, things like housing for people displaced by natural disasters —except they weren’t available to help everyone.

GAMBOA:   

The difference between what Chávez did — if we think about welfare — is, usually what we think about in Europe or like the Scandinavian countries is programs, organized by people who have studied about housing or health or education or whatever it is and have figured out how can we make this money benefit the most amount of people. That’s not how social projects were thought off during Chávez. They’re not…that’s not the way they’re thought of today. The way these resources were distributed had an electoral logic behind. The idea was, we’re gonna build buildings that would get us votes.

BECKY: 

By the way, that didn’t always result in the most quality of structures.

GAMBOA: 

Building a good building could take more than an election cycle. So, if it takes more than an election cycle, it’s not going to work for us. So, they are built as fast as they can. Right? So literally, I’ve seen pictures of buildings that had sinks that were upside down. I’ve seen pictures of houses that are cracked in the middle. The problem is the people who are receiving the sinks, had so little to begin with, that a building with a sink upside down is better than what they had before.

BECKY: 

The strategy gained Chávez a lot of followers, chavistas.

PROFESSOR KIRK HAWKINS: 

They were supposed to be all about turning Venezuela into a socialist paradise though, right? I mean…and the emphasis was on the paradise.

BECKY: 

Brigham Young University Professor Kirk Hawkins is also an expert on Latin American politics.

HAWKINS: 

It was going to be a country with, you know, broadly shared wealth. There was a hope that it would be spread out, that the oil wealth was to be enjoyed by everybody, that government would become clean and fair. That it would operate really on behalf of all Venezuelans and not just the wealthy.

BECKY: 

The problem was that wealth never really got shared the way Chávez promised. There was corruption at multiple government levels, things continued to become more and more unfair.

GAMBOA: 

Venezuela’s democracy began backsliding, but it really was…it was still a democracy, an increasingly flawed one, but a democracy, nonetheless. Up until 2006, 2007, when Chávez had finally taken over every single state institution.

BECKY:

That’s everything from Congress, to the courts, to broadcasting licenses, and yes, the electoral council.

GAMBOA: 

And so, by 2006, really Venezuela had elections, the opposition was allowed to compete, but it was allowed to compete in a situation in which it was really hard to defeat the incumbent.

BECKY: 

Kirk saw this in action when he lived in Venezuela doing research.

HAWKINS: 

So, typical example, I remember in 2010 when I went down to see the legislative elections, I was really shocked at how many government buildings had election advertisements for Chávez tacked up to the outside of them. Something that, you know, we’ve said that’s really…that’s wrong. Government agencies don’t get to campaign on behalf of anybody. But they did, and it was really evident, it was everywhere. It was pretty surprising.

BECKY: 

But the people still had a choice to a certain extent.

HAWKINS: 

There was actually still a lot of fairness to it, but you could already see signs of this kind of authoritarian creep.

BECKY: 

It got worse after the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013. His hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro took charge as expected.

HAWKINS: 

The elections under Chávez, including his own presidential re-election, there was a mostly fair victory. I mean, there was advertising, unfair advertising in his favor. Government resources would have been used for his campaign in ways that were illegal. But even with that, he’d beat his opponent pretty handily. The voting on election day was probably fine. Since then, under Maduro, that’s changed a lot. So, no one has any confidence now that a count would be fair. That the government wouldn’t just make up numbers. No one thinks of Venezuelan elections as credibly democratic anymore. They’re not free. They’re not really competitive.

THAMY: 

Y al punto que Maduro llegó…[fade down]

TRANSLATION: 

And at the point that Maduro arrived, that was the first time it was shamelessly an electoral sham, because it didn’t go to him. It went to other candidates. That was the first time and then it continued and continued and continued.

THAMY: 

[fade in] …y continuaron y continuaron y continuaron.

BECKY: 

Elections weren’t fair, corruption was rampant, and bad economic policies started to add up. It became very difficult even to find food.

GAMBOA: 

And the only way to find cheap food is the one distributed in government grocery stores. And so, if you want to buy in those grocery stores, you need to have your card that shows that you’re a member of the government party.

BECKY: 

In 2016, there were a series of riots over the lack of food.

GAMBOA: 

These can be massive. We’re talking about, like, opposition-organized protests all over Caracas or outside Caracas more commonly. Or they can be just local fights over lines. Right? And who cut in line or who didn’t, or I’ve been in line all morning and sorry the food is over, more like localized type of riots and stuff like that. That happens when you have a lot of people who are in need.

BECKY: 

One of the first documented reports we could find about food riots was dated May 15, 2016. About a month before Josh landed in Caracas, an opposition leader addressed the crowd of protesters.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: 

Venezuela is a bomb that exploded any moment. We don’t want the bomb to explode and because of that, we call on everyone to mobilize in favor of a recall referendum in 2016.

BECKY:   

At the same time, inflation climbed out of control. Wages couldn’t keep pace.

GAMBOA:

I actually made the math of what a minimum wage, as of October of last year, was in dollars, and it’s 7 dollars a month. The basic food basket costs 189 dollars a month. People just don’t have the money to buy anything.

BECKY: 

Thamy, who lived in Venezuela most of her life, saw it firsthand. She had the means to get food — when it was available.

THAMY:   

It’s not like here. You go to the market. You take whatever you want and go back to your house. No. So, I just need to go to the line and make a huge line. Like, one-mile long maybe, and I get food.

BECKY: 

She also remembers seeing people rummage through the garbage.

THAMY: 

When you turn your head, you see someone eating in the trash.

BECKY TO THAMY: 

They’re hungry.

THAMY: 

Yes.

BECKY: 

People were starving, and they were dying because they couldn’t get their needs met in other ways.

HAWKINS: 

You have to think of what happens in a country when suddenly nobody can get medicine anymore that they need. You know, what if you have diabetes? 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. What happens if you get a cut and a little infection, and there’s no more antibiotics anywhere? Well, you might die from your infection.

BECKY: 

When Laura lived in Caracas in 2014, lifesaving medication — even for conditions like HIV and epilepsy — were hard to get.

GAMBOA: 

I met a person who needed knee surgery. He had been in an accident and his knee was shattered, like he couldn’t walk. And the hospital said, “Yes, we can perform the surgery, but you’re gonna have to bring in the supplies.” By supplies, I mean, the saline, the needles, the tubes, the screws that we’re going to use to rebuild your knee. You’re gonna have to find all of these and bring it in. It took him three months.

HAWKINS: 

My sense is a lot of people died there from treatable, avoidable things.

GAMBOA:

On top of that, the fact that people that are malnourished that cannot get the food they need, well, chances are they’re gonna get sick, way more often than people who are well fed.

BECKY: 

Tensions were starting to boil over.

BREAK

BECKY:  

By 2014, just a year after the death of Chávez, people were very angry over shortages of food and other goods, inflation, and increasing violence. Protests erupted in the streets. Clashes between students, protesters, and the government resulted in thousands of arrests and dozens of deaths. Tensions with the U.S. were on the rise, too. Venezuela’s government ordered three U.S. diplomats out of the country in February 2014 over accusations they were inciting violence. At the end of that year, U.S. lawmakers approved sanctions on the country, in response to human rights violations. Those sanctions got expanded in early 2015, through an executive order from President Obama. It targeted individual Venezuelan leaders considered responsible for those human rights abuses, barring them from entering the US and freezing their assets. The U.S. even declared Venezuela a security threat. A chilly meeting between President Obama and Nicolas Maduro took place in April, as reported by ABC’s Arlette Saenz, at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

ABC ARCHIVAL: 

Prior to their meeting, Maduro extended an olive branch of sorts to the president while also saying he could not be trusted. [Spanish Speaking] I respect you, but I don’t trust you, Maduro said of President Obama. If you want to talk, let’s talk. If you don’t want to, that’s okay.

BECKY: 

The sanctions did nothing to help the shortages of food on the ground in Venezuela and are seen by many as amounting to U.S. support for opposition leaders, who managed to win a two-thirds majority in the Venezuelan parliamentary elections that year. That was a huge blow to Maduro and his government. Good news for freedom, right? Not exactly.

GAMBOA: 

This system is no longer functioning for the government. It’s functioning for the opposition, but not the government. So, what ends up happening is that the government decides to get rid of elections altogether. Right? So that’s when we start seeing the government postponing elections, or if the opposition manages to win, creating new bodies that would effectually take over the power of the bodies the opposition control. So, for example, the opposition controls the Congress, so the government came up with this bogus national Constitutional Assembly that takes precedence over Congress, and they cracked down on the opposition a lot harder.

BECKY: 

By the summer of 2016, Maduro declared a state of emergency, and the opposition called for a recall election to remove him.

GAMBOA: 

That’s when we start seeing people getting shot in the streets. I was reading a report this morning, we’re talking about 500 people who have been disappeared. We’re talking about selective killings. That’s when we start seeing full blown repression. Venezuela is today, the second most authoritarian country in Latin America. The only country that is more authoritarian than Venezuela is Cuba.

BECKY: 

All of that is to say, Venezuela was already very much in crisis long before Josh got there, and things were pretty bad right as he arrived. But the question remains, why did government officials detain Josh Holt?

HAWKINS: 

Unfortunately, Josh’s case isn’t unique, although it is unique in the sense that in this case, 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 there’s a score to settle, they’ll just plant the evidence and take him and throw them in jail. Sometimes, you know, throw away the key as well.

BECKY: 

Josh landed in Caracas on June 11. On June 14, two days before he got married, then Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the Organization of American States, a regional forum — sort of like a Western Hemisphere-only United Nations. Its primary function in recent years has been monitoring elections. In that speech, Kerry called on Venezuela to release the country’s political prisoners.

KERRY ARCHIVAL: 

To respect freedom of expression and assembly, to alleviate shortages of food and medicine, and to honor its own constitutional mechanisms, including a fair and timely recall referendum. That is part of that constitutional process.

BECKY: 

Was this speech a catalyst for what would happen on June 30? It’s hard to say. But in the course of producing this podcast, we found that government video broadcast in Venezuela shortly after Josh and Thamy’s arrest. The implication was that Josh was a spy, an American agent sent to destabilize Maduro’s government.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

Bajo distintas fachadas, los servicios secretos de los Estados Unidos…[fade down]

TRANSLATION: 

Under different facades the secret services of the United States have tried to use methods of unconventional warfare to meddle in our affairs. They encouraged the formation of these criminal paramilitary groups to destabilize the objectives conquered in the revolution.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

[fade in]…para ir desestabilizando los objetivos conquistados en la revolución…[fade down]

BECKY: 

We played the video for Laura, as propaganda goes, she says, it’s pretty effective.

GAMBOA: 

There’s people who genuinely believe this story, at least in a little part, because it has happened elsewhere.

BECKY: 

She’s talking about US intervention in multiple South American countries over the last century or so. During the Cold War, United States leaders saw a threat from the rise of populist and socialist governments in South America. They worried that more Latin American countries might follow Cuba’s lead and expel foreign powers and become allies of the Soviet Union. This intervention took a number of forms. Americans trained Guatemalan troops in a civil war that resulted in thousands of civilian casualties. The CIA supported Chile’s, Augusto Pinochet, a general who overthrew a democratically elected Marxist president, only to establish a dictatorship of his own. That regime was later blamed for at least 3000 murders and 10s of thousands of human rights abuses. There’s also at least some evidence that the US knew or approved of a coup attempt that resulted in the temporary removal of Hugo Chávez in 2002. Short lived because his loyalists quickly restored him to his position. At multiple points in the years following, the Chávez government, and more recently the Maduro government, have accused the US of more attempted coups and even attempted assassinations.

THAMY: 

Entonces ya para 2010, ya todo lo que pasaba en Venezuela era culpa de Estados Unidos…

TRANSLATION: 

Around 2010, everything that happened in Venezuela was the fault of the United States. If there wasn’t food, it’s because the U.S. didn’t let food in. If there wasn’t money, the United States was ensuring our money wasn’t worth anything.

BECKY: 

It made being an American in Caracas a potentially risky proposition. Laura had a brush with this herself in 2014 during the onset of the anti-government protests.

GAMBOA: 

One of the things one person told me was that I was in a very precarious situation. Because I was a political scientist from a US based institution who was Colombian. And that if I got caught, they would parade me as a right-wing fascist, CIA agent, and you had enough information to make that plausible.

BECKY:   

So, it wasn’t too difficult for the Venezuelan government to depict Josh as a possible American infiltrator in its propaganda.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

No permitirnos que los intereses oscuros de capitalismo, soportado por…[fade down]

TRANSLATION: 

We will not allow the dark interests of capitalism, supported by these criminal paramilitary groups to undermine the stability and peace of our country. Nor will we allow that this unconventional war foment hate and disdain toward the leaders of this Bolivarian Revolution. Nor will we allow attacks, occupations, and displacements of our successes and conquests of our people, our fatherland, destined always for independence.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

[fade in]…de nuestra patria destinada definitivamente a la independencia..[fade down]

BECKY: 

He dismissed the U.S. as a whole, denouncing American ideals and culture and Josh, specifically.

GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ:

[fade in]…el estadounidense Holt ha dejado evidencia…[fade down]

TRANSLATION: 

Holt the American has left a lot of evidence in his social media pages about his love of guns. Typical of the culture of many Americans whose country makes and distributes more weapons than any other country in the world, and where acts of terrorism for racial, homophobic and religious reasons are common.

GAMBOA: 

In 7 minutes, you have shown that there is an American living in a place where nobody would expect him to be living in. 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.

GAMBOA: 

Both Laura and Kirk see Joshua’s arrest as being somewhat convenient for Venezuelan officials.

HAWKINS: 

I think he was just kind of a bargaining chip. They saw him as an hey, you know, here’s somebody we can hold here, and maybe there will be a nice moment to let him go. You know, we can just use it that way. That’s my awful concern is they treated him that lightly. He was just a sort of a pawn that they could use for this.

GAMBOA: 

We caught this gringo and then we’re gonna paint him as a CIA agent, then God knows what else. It’s great propaganda.

BECKY: 

One of the details that has gotten very little press that we learned while researching Josh’s story is the sheer volume of people who have fled Venezuela. It’s been happening over the last 20 or so years, but the exodus ramped up in 2016 and 2017.

HAWKINS: 

More Venezuela citizens have fled the country seeking essentially asylum elsewhere as have fled Syria.

BECKY: 

The Syrian civil war displaced some 6 or more million people within Syria, and another 5 million to other countries. It got much more attention in the news than the situation we’re describing in Venezuela.

HAWKINS: 

That’s become an enormous challenge for countries around them.

GAMBOA: 

Colombia has received more than 1 million Venezuelan refugees. And they’re crossing the border with nothing, literally nothing.

HAWKINS: 

I mean, this is…a lot of people have left the country, millions of Venezuelans have left the country.

GAMBOA: 

We’re talking about 5 million refugees, roughly speaking. We’re talking about a country that has decreased by 10%. We’re talking about the largest refugee crisis in history, in a country with no war. And by far the largest refugee crisis in the history of Latin America.

BECKY: 

We asked Laura whether the state of affairs in Venezuela is a story about socialism — or about abuse of power.

GAMBOA: 

I do think that Venezuela is a story about a strong man, an authoritarian government and not a story about socialism. Because honestly, really what is going on with the economic policies in Venezuela is not that they’re for welfare. The problem with the economic policies is that they’re aimed at gaining voters. Not at creating a welfare state. And you can put that or not, but I strongly believe it.

BECKY: 

Thamy feels a sense of loss for her former home.

THAMY: 

It’s sad, but the government…they are destroying our country.

BECKY: 

Next time on Hope in Darkness.

JOSH: 

So, I remember taking all my clothes off other than just my underwear and just laying on this disgusting brown pad thing that they gave me. And I just knew. I was like, okay, you know what? 45 days, I can do this.

BECKY: 

Hope in Darkness is written and produced by me, Becky Bruce. Additional producing and editing came from Nina Earnest. Sound mixing by Trent Sell. Our executive producer is Sheryl Worsley. Original theme composed by Michael Bahnmiller. Additional voice work provided by Rebecca Cressman and Alex Kirry. Special thanks to Josh and Thamy Holt and their family for sharing their experiences and story. You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram at Hope Darkness pod or online at hopedarkness.com and your feedback is always helpful. Drop us a rating or review wherever you listen. Hope in Darkness is a KSL podcast.

Dive deeper into the Josh Holt story.