Utahn who spent two years in Venezuela prison responds to Americans’ release

Mar 9, 2022, 1:53 PM | Updated: 2:31 pm
el helicoide caracas...
From Venezuela to Florida and Texas and then again to Massachusetts, immigrants were promised work in the states. Photo: Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah man who spent two years in a Venezuela prison, Josh Holt, has mixed feelings about the release of two Americans from that country. State Department officials confirmed the release Wednesday morning. 

In May, Holt will mark four years since the day he walked free from the infamous Venezuela prison El Helicoide, a story detailed in the KSL podcast Hope In Darkness

Americans released from Venezuela prison 

The State Department announced the release of Gustavo Cardenas, one of the so-called Citgo 6, and Jorge Alberto Fernandez, describing the men as “unjustly detained.” 

The full statement follows. 

We welcome the release of U.S. citizens Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Alberto Fernandez, both of whom had been unjustly detained in Venezuela. They have recently arrived back in the United States, accompanied by Roger Carstens, our Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

We express our deepest appreciation to our many partners around the world who joined us in calling for their release. While we welcome this important positive step we continue to press for the release of all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals in Venezuela and around the world.

In an interview with KSL on Wednesday, Holt noted we don’t know how many Americans remain in Venezuelan custody. But Cardenas and Fernandez are not the only ones. KSL is aware of at least eight others: the remaining five U.S. nationals known as the Citgo 6, a former Marine arrested while traveling in the region, and two former Green Berets accused of taking part in a plot to depose Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro. 

Freedom at what cost? 

Josh Holt wonders what the true cost of the release of Cardenas and Fernandez will be. Part of the reason it took so long for Holt’s release to come through was political. Namely, the number of “hardliners,” particularly in Congress, who disliked the idea of negotiating with Maduro or his authoritarian regime. 

“It’s difficult, to tell you the truth,” he said. “Now we are negotiating with not only my captors but with terrorists, from what I can see.” 

Holt feels happy for Cardenas and Fernandez. But, he hopes Venezuela did not treat them as mere pawns in a high-stakes geopolitical game. 

“It makes it harder for me to understand where we’re going as a country and where we’re at right now, and what our next motives are going to be,” Holt said. “If we’re just doing this so that we can hurry and give that 10% [of oil imports] to a different country and not to Russia, and that’s it, then it’s not worth it.” 

Conditions at El Helicoide

Holt was held at one of the more notorious prison facilities in Venezuela, El Helicoide, a sprawling three-sided pyramid in the heart of the capital, Caracas. His nearly two years there came on false charges for which he never stood trial. His captors frequently denied basic medical care to Holt. And he had to provide his own food, which was scarce.

Holt believes the conditions at El Helicoide and other Venezuela prison facilities became even worse after he earned his freedom. His release came just after a violent prison uprising. 

“From that point on, it’s just gotten darker and darker, and there’s just more restrictions on things because they don’t want a situation like [the uprising] to happen again,” he said. 

Outside of the Americans still held in Venezuela, the country continues to detain an unknown number of political prisoners. 

“Persistent concerns include brutal policing practices, poor prison conditions, impunity for human rights violations, lack of judicial independence, and harassment of human rights defenders and independent media,” Human Rights Watch wrote of Venezuela in 2021.

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