Jason and Laurie Holt are Utah residents and the parents of Joshua Holt.
In September, the White House touted its efforts to free U.S. nationals being held as hostages in countries around the world. As a result of policy changes in the past year, it claimed, the U.S. government is more organized and communicates more effectively with families of hostages. We wish this were true.
Our 24-year-old son, Joshua Holt, is a hostage of the government of Venezuela. Framed by Venezuelan officials on ludicrous weapons charges so he could be leveraged as a political bargaining chip in bilateral discussions with the United States, Josh has been sitting in a small cell in a jail run by the country’s notorious intelligence agency, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), since June. Every time we speak out, prison officials punish and threaten him, denying him access to visitors. They recently forced him to undress and respond to humiliating commands while naked, violating Josh’s Latter-day Saints religious beliefs and practices. The prison has also repeatedly refused court-ordered medical treatment for his deteriorating health.
This is Venezuela: a country where food is scarce, the economy is in ruins and security forces have free rein to do whatever they want. The U.S. government knows this. In its most recent human rights report, the State Department noted that SEBIN prisons haven’t had international oversight since 2013; that arbitrary arrests and detentions in the country are widespread; and that the judiciary is corrupt and politically influenced. We are afraid to speak out because we don’t know what horrors it will bring for Josh. And yet to not speak out carries its own punishment, for it is only through public pressure that we’ve been able to get our government’s attention.
Last year, in the aftermath of scathing criticism from the families of American hostages, the U.S. government announced that it was updating its U.S. hostage recovery policies to improve interagency coordination, better support families in the United States and ultimately bring home U.S. nationals detained abroad. It created the Hostage Response Group to oversee the also newly established Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which consists of top officials from the Departments of Defense, State, Justice and Treasury and the FBI, and ensure that senior administration officials are collaborating and coordinating on hostage cases. It has also designated a special envoy for hostage affairs to coordinate U.S. diplomatic efforts abroad.
Yet because a foreign government and not a terrorist group holds our son, he has not received any of the benefits of these reforms. To the extent we have had access to senior U.S. officials, it is because we have sought them out ourselves. With the help of external advocates such as former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), we have learned how to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of the U.S. government, which involves many unanswered calls and — when we do get someone on the phone — unanswered questions. When we finally asked why other families in similar situations have had access to senior U.S. officials, we were told it was because they asked for it.
Let that sink in: The families who have the most access and most success with our own government are those who understand how to work the system. All of these agencies and entities are supposedly developing and pursuing recovery strategies for Americans, but — more important — they’re allegedly sharing information across agencies and making hostages and their families a priority for senior officials. If our family’s experience is any indication, there is much progress to be made.
Hostages are not just individuals held by terrorist groups and other “bad actors” for ransom or prisoner exchanges. They are also political prisoners held by foreign governments as political pawns. Josh never broke Venezuelan law; he was arrested for being an American, and he has not been freed, despite his innocence, because his U.S. citizenship carries significant weight. Last month, for the second time, a hearing scheduled in Josh’s case was postponed because the judge didn’t show up. This should not be a surprise, given how the Venezuelan government has used its media channels to allege Josh is a “gringo agent” acting on behalf of the United States to destabilize the country. Yet there is nothing for us to do but pray for due process or our government’s intervention in what is clearly a hostage situation.
For months our son has sat in prison, praying that his government will come to his aid, while we have called members of Congress, State Department employees and other U.S. officials to beg them to do more to bring him home. With all due respect, we can do better.