Pence: Sanctions Remain on Venezuela

An American and his wife held nearly two years in a Venezuelan jail received a hero's welcome at the White House as they returned home Saturday following their release — a move by sanctions-hit Caracas in a bid to spur dialogue with Washington.

But US officials immediately squelched any suggestion that punitive measures against Venezuela would be eased after the release of Joshua Holt, 26, and his wife Thamara Caleno.

"Very glad that Josh Holt is now back home with his family – where he has always belonged. Sanctions continue until democracy returns to Venezuela," Pence said in a tweet.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said "US policy toward Venezuela remains unchanged."

In a statement, he added that "the United States stands steadfast in support of the Venezuelan people and their efforts to return to democracy."

The couple's release followed a two-year effort by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and after Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met in Caracas Friday with Maduro.

The senators joined Holt, his wife, parents, the freed couple's daughter Marian, and other US officials in the White House Saturday night for a meeting with President Donald Trump.

"You were a tough one. That was a tough situation," Trump said.

"You've been very brave, actually."

After expressing her appreciation to the president and US officials Holt's mother Laurie added: "I also want to say thank you to President Maduro for releasing Josh and letting him come home."

Maduro ordered the couple's release as a "gesture" aimed at promoting dialogue between Caracas and Washington, Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez told reporters in Caracas.

He said it was part of "efforts to maintain a respectful dialogue, diplomatic relations of respect, that permit gates to be opened to avoid the aggressions to which (Venezuela) has been subjected."

He apparently was referring to US sanctions, which Washington has tightened since Maduro was reelected on May 20 in elections that the US rejected as a "sham."

The intensified sanctions would complicate Venezuela's efforts to sell off financial IOUs known as "accounts receivable." Senior US administration officials said the instruments had been used to garner much-needed revenue for the cash-starved regime.

Holt, a 26-year-old Mormon missionary from Utah, had traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry Caleno, whom he had met on the internet.

Shortly after they married, the couple was arrested by the Venezuelan intelligence service Sebin, and accused of possessing weapons and plotting to destabilize the Maduro government.

Top officials in the regime labeled Holt a US spy. In December, the Justice Ministry decided to bring the couple to trial, and rejected a petition for his conditional release.

Holt and his wife were being held at a prison in Caracas known as the Helicoide where the Sebin keeps political prisoners.

Earlier this month, he surfaced during a protest by opposition activists jailed in the massive hilltop structure, and appealed for US help in a video posted on Twitter.

"I'm just overwhelmed with gratitude," Holt said in the meeting with Trump.

After Trump strengthened the sanctions, Maduro retaliated by giving the two top US diplomats in the country 48 hours to leave, accusing them of conspiring against his government.

In taking the oath of office on Thursday, Maduro acknowledged that the sanctions are biting and "we have to change this country."

On Friday, human rights monitors reported the release of 20 activists who had been jailed in the western state of Zulia for protesting against the government.

Geoff Ramsey, of the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights, said that by releasing Holt, Maduro "wants the world to know he is willing to talk."

The Venezuelan economy is in shambles. Hyperinflation is expected to hit 13,000 percent this year and dire shortages of food have driven hundreds of thousands of citizens to pour into neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

Maduro has insisted Venezuela is the victim of an "economic war" waged by the conservative opposition and external powers including the United States aimed at toppling him.