CARACAS, Venezuela – US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, less than a week after the re-election of the Socialist leader, a vote condemning the US and he chased away the best American diplomats in the country.
The visit appeared to be an attempt by Senator Bob Corker to press for the release of Joshua Holt, a US citizen who was detained for two years in a prison in Caracas without trial for alleged arms smuggling.
Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, was seen live on state television as he shook hands with Maduro and was greeted by First Lady Cilia Flores Presidential Palace. He left an hour later, and neither the senator nor the president made any statements.
Maduro easily won a second, six-year term in Sunday's election, which was criticized by the US and other nations as a "pretense" after several years, his main rival being excluded from running. Following his victory, Maduro drove US Chargé d'etat Todd Robinson and his deputy to alleged conspiracy to sabotage by forcing the opposition parties to boycott the elections, which had had the lowest voter turnout for decades.
Corker was accompanied by an adjutant, Caleb McCarry, who led a close associate of Maduro Backchannel talks earlier this year to seek the release of Holt.
Holt, a 26-year-old from Utah, traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry a woman online when he was looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish. He was arrested after police said she had found an assault rifle and grenades in a raid on the public housing estate where the couple lived. He denied the charge.
Shortly after Corker's meeting with Maduro, social media in Venezuela began to speculate that Holt and his wife Thamara Caleno were released as a gesture of goodwill to improve relations, much as North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un did he released three American prisoners.
On a previous visit to Caracas in 2015, Corker was shunned by Maduro after being promised a meeting with the President. On his return to Washington, Corker cursed the government of Maduro and said that his "deficient economic policies and political system" had taken Venezuela on a "destructive path".
Corker's office made no immediate comment about the nature of his last visit.
Last month, US Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-strongest Democrat in the Foreign Relations Committee, met Maduro to demand Holt's release.
The Maduro government seeks US contacts to prevent the threat of crippling oil sanctions, which could further damage an economy that is already staggering with hyperinflation and widespread scarcity.
US Senator Marco Rubio, an outspoken critic of Maduro, who has President Donald Trump's hearing for Venezuela, downplayed Corker's visit.
"Any US senator can meet whoever he wants," Rubio tweeted. "But no matter how many senators the dictator @NicolasMaduro meets with him, the US sanctions will disappear as Maduro leaves and democracy returns."
Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez described Maduro's conversation with Corker as a "very good meeting, good news for the Venezuelan people", but gave no details of what the two were discussing.
A close associate of Maduro, leader of the Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello, accused Holt of being the CIA spy chief in Latin America after the prisoner appeared in a video last week requesting help during a riot of inmates in the country Prison of Caracas, where he and dozens of Maduro's opponents are being held to speak his life.
Before leaving Thursday on orders from Maduro Venezuela, Robinson had unsuccessfully tried to see Holt
. On Friday, however, US officials were allowed to enter the prison, as a message from Holt's mother, Laurie Holt, on her Facebook Page shows. She said her son was "in a good mood," except for the discomfort of dozens of mosquito bites on his body and face. She said his visitors had given him insect repellent.
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