March 7, 2018 / 8:07 PM / 5 months ago

As sanctions loom, Venezuelan official seeks U.S. talks over prisoners

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Venezuelan state governor made an unusual visit to Washington this week seeking meetings in Congress to discuss the fate of an American imprisoned in the South American nation, U.S. sources said on Wednesday, as the country faces a possible new round of sanctions.

Rafael Lacava, governor of Venezuela’s Carabobo state, requested meetings to discuss Josh Holt, a Mormon missionary from Utah. He and his Venezuelan wife, Thamara Caleno, have been held since they were arrested in 2016 on weapons charges after Holt travelled to Venezuela for their wedding.

“We are aware that he is here. There are suspicions that the Venezuela government is using the illegitimate detention of Mr. Holt as a bargaining chip to talk about U.S. sanctions,”  a U.S. official said.

“We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Holt and until he is released we continue to insist on regular ongoing consular contacts with him as called for under international law,” the official said.

It is unusual for an official allied with Venezuela’s socialist government, a U.S. adversary, to visit Washington for such meetings.

President Donald Trump’s administration is considering new sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil sector to increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro ahead of an election Washington and its allies consider a sham.

Another U.S. source familiar with the situation confirmed Lacava was in Washington to discuss Holt, but did not believe sanctions would be discussed in Congress since lawmakers would defer to the administration on any such matter.

“While I am not able to speculate on what else might be on Mr. Lacava’s agenda, I want to make very clear that the sole purpose of such meetings would be to encourage the release of Mr. Holt and his wife,” the source said.

“There would be no negotiation, and any claim to the contrary is simply false,” the source said.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and other lawmakers are working for Holt’s release.

“While Senator Hatch prefers to not share details of sensitive meetings related to his nearly two year effort to have Josh Holt released on humanitarian grounds, he is optimistic he is making progress and will continue to work with the State Department and colleagues in the Congress to identify those to meet and work with who can get it done,” Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick, additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell

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