The devil is in the details.
A secret backchannel led by a veteran Republican Senate staffer and a flamboyant Venezuelan official nicknamed “Dracula” broke through hostile relations between the two governments to secure the release of American prisoner Joshua Holt, who traveled to the South American country for love and ended up in jail, without a trial, for two years.
A week ago the chances of Holt’s long ordeal ending any time soon looked slim.
On the eve of Venezuela’s May 20 presidential election, the Utah native appeared in a clandestinely shot video from jail railing against Nicolas Maduro’s government, saying his life had been threatened in a prison riot. In retaliation, he was branded the CIA’s spy boss in Latin America by the head of the ruling socialist party. Hours earlier Maduro expelled the top American diplomat over the refusal of the U.S. to recognize his re-election.
But the arrival in Caracas on Friday of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led to a surprise breakthrough. Maduro handed over Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, to Corker in what his government said was a goodwill gesture to promote dialogue and mutual respect between the two antagonistic governments.[…]
Although Corker sealed the deal in a few tense hours in Venezuela’s collapsing, crime-filled capital, the push to secure Holt’s release began months earlier by Corker’s top Latin American policy aide, Caleb McCarry, who both Corker and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, credited with leading the painstaking, behind-the-scenes negotiations.
McCarry leveraged a 15-year-old relationship with Maduro from their time together in the Boston Group, an informal gathering from across the political spectrum — Democrats, Republicans, socialists and capitalists — from both countries that worked discreetly to repair relations between the two countries following a coup in 2002 against then-President Hugo Chavez.
Relationships formed in the now-defunct group were also instrumental in securing the release of another American accused of spying, documentary filmmaker Tim Tracy, who spent a month in a Venezuelan jail in 2013.
McCarry secretly traveled to Venezuela in February to discuss Holt’s imprisonment with Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores. The U.S. Embassy was kept at an arm’s length, for fear of derailing the talks, although the initiative was backed by Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon, who also knew Maduro from his days as political officer in Caracas at the outset of Hugo Chavez’s revolution in the 1990s, several senior U.S. officials said.
Holding McCarry’s hand throughout the delicate talks was “Dracula” — Rafael Lacava, the governor of central Carabobo state and a trusted ally of Maduro who also was close to the Boston Group members.
Shortly after McCarry’s visit, Lacava traveled to Washington in March to speak with several lawmakers including Hatch, Corker, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., according to several senior U.S. officials. All the officials agreed to discuss details of the negotiations only on condition of anonymity.
However, after word of Lacava’s visit was leaked by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has Trump’s ear on policy toward Venezuela, the administration refused to meet with Maduro’s envoy. Rubio warned that Lacava, who embraces the nickname Dracula for his habits of tweeting and patrolling around his state late at night in a Batmobile-like vehicle, was reportedly involved in money laundering, making him too toxic for a White House bent on punishing such criminal activity.