In many ways, politics in Venezuela increasingly resembles politics in North Korea. An authoritarian and corrupt government consolidates power as food supplies dwindle and political opponents are thrown in jail. Problems at home are blamed on a favorite external scapegoat: the United States. To be an American and travel in either country is to risk becoming an unwitting pawn in that propaganda ploy.
The latest American to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is Joshua Holt, 24, of Riverton, Utah.
To hear Venezuela's interior minister tell it, Holt is not only an agent of U.S. intelligence but a dangerous terrorist mastermind hellbent on destabilizing Venezuela with his uniquely American obsession with guns.
"Under different facades, the secret services of the United States are seeking to achieve goals in an unconventional war through interventionist actions that stimulate the formation of criminal paramilitary gangs in housing complexes," Gustavo González López said in a televised address that he used to expatiate on claims about Holt's reason for being in the country. "We won't permit the dark interests of capitalism, backed by the criminal gangs, to suffocate the stability and peace of the country."
News outlets in Venezuela that hew closely to the government line have called Holt "the gringo agent," and their stories mirror González López's in conspiratorial tone, offering the "anatomy of an infiltration." He was arrested June 30.
On the general timeline up until Holt's arrest, his family and González López seem to largely agree. Holt is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spent two years in Washington state learning Spanish on a mission trip. Using online forums, he met other Mormons and practiced his language skills. On one, he found Thamara Caleño, 25, an Ecuadoran Venezuelan woman living in Venezuela. They fell quickly into a virtual romance.
After a rendezvous in the Dominican Republic, the two returned to Venezuela to get married and to prepare to move Caleño and her two children, ages 5 and 8, to the United States. Holt traveled there on a legal visa. The four of them lived in an apartment in Ciudad Caribia, a sprawling residential complex built by Venezuela's socialist government just outside the capital, Caracas.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government claims, Holt was amassing weapons and colluding with "Los Sindicalistas," an armed paramilitary gang. "Holt and Caleño were captured in a clearly defined and specific context," González López said in his address. The gang that he says Holt had become part of is responsible for the assassination of Omar Jesús Molina Marín, a member of the ruling party, "in addition to drug trafficking, contract killings, robberies and burglaries," he said.
Seemingly referencing pictures on Holt's Instagram account of guns he owns, González López cited him as a "trained gunman." González López also claimed that Holt is an FAA-certified pilot, which Holt's family denies.
Acting on intelligence, Venezuelan security forces raided Holt and Caleño's apartment on June 30 and found various "weapons of war," including assault rifles and grenades, as well as ammunition and "strategic maps of Caracas, and computer equipment which would be used to carry out terrorist acts," González López said. At first, only Holt was taken into custody, but later so was his wife. They have been in jail since.
Holt is the 12th U.S. citizen known to be in Venezuelan custody. U.S. Embassy officials have met with him twice since his imprisonment and say that he hasn't been mistreated.
Holt's family and friends are shocked by the allegations, which his mother, Laurie Holt, has called "a big misunderstanding."
"He’s the type of person who was willing to spend two years of his life for a church, to promote God to the people and to take on this new family," Holt’s father, Jason, told the Miami Herald. "He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He’s a saint, is what he is."
Holt's family has organized rallies to highlight his imprisonment and started a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $12,000. Venezuelan news sites have published articles mocking the crowdfunding campaign, saying it has faltered far from its goal and preys on a "romantic" notion that Holt had come to Venezuela only to marry Caleño and then leave.
That Holt is a Mormon also may have worked against him. Hugo Chávez, who was Venezuela's president for 14 years until his death in 2013 and the architect of the country's current socialist order, often spoke with great vitriol about missionaries.
After expelling a missionary group in 2005, Chávez said: "They are gone from Venezuela. They are agents of a truly imperialist penetration. They take sensitive information and are exploiting the Indians. So they leave, and I couldn't care less about the consequences."
The only public account of Holt's arrest that disputes the one given by González López is from an anonymous witness quoted in the Miami Herald. She says there's no doubt Holt was framed. Her version of events starts with security forces conducting a routine early-morning sweep of the apartment building in which she and Holt's family lived. While his apartment was being searched, she says, Holt recorded the event on his phone. The officers grew angry and confiscated the phone.
Two hours later, she said, she and other neighbors watched as about 30 masked security officers carried a black bag up four flights of stairs to the couple’s apartment. While one set of them interrogated Holt’s wife, she said, one officer suddenly came forth and announced that he had found the weapons — in a black bag on the floor.