CARACAS, Venezuela — A powerful U.S. senator traveled to Venezuela on Wednesday as pressure mounted on President Nicolas Maduro to hand over a Utah man jailed in the turbulent South American country for nearly two years.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois was to meet with members of the government and opposition, a spokesman for his office said. He didn't provide further details.
The Senate's No. 2 Democrat is also expected to meet with Maduro to discuss the imprisonment of Joshua Holt, a Riverton man who is being held in a Caracas prison along with several top government opponents awaiting a trial on what the U.S. has called trumped-up weapons charges.
The rare visit comes as the Trump administration weighs an embargo on Venezuela's oil shipments on top of sanctions it already has imposed on dozens of top officials, including Maduro himself, for what the U.S. considers Venezuela's slide into a dictatorship.
"The Venezuelan people continue to suffer immensely under the Maduro regime's repressive actions," Durbin recently tweeted, supporting sanctions while condemning Maduro's "criminal regime and its complete disregard for democracy."
Durbin's visit follows weeks of backchannel talks over Holt between representatives of the two countries in both Caracas and Washington.
Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also spoke to Maduro by phone to press for Holt's release, according to a Venezuelan official with knowledge of the conversation but who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. Hatch's office refused to comment on the Senator's efforts to secure Holt's release but said they are unrelated to Durbin's travel plans.
A former LDS Church missionary, Holt, 25, travelled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he met online practicing his Spanish. The couple was arrested during a police raid on the housing complex where she had lived.
Venezuelan authorities alleged Holt was stockpiling "weapons of war."
U.S. officials have repeatedly demanded Holt's release on humanitarian grounds, considering the charges against him and his wife, Thamara Caleno Candelo, to be politically motivated.
Maduro is expected to win a second term as president in a May 20 election that the U.S. and Venezuela's largest opposition parties have rejected as being rigged in Maduro's favor, leaving the South American leader few if any allies in Washington from either political party.
Durbin played a key role in Cuba's 2014 release of American Alan Gross, who was held in prison for five years on the communist island.
Holt's parents, Laurie and Jason Holt, have been lobbying American political leaders to to help gain his release, pleading last December for help on humanitarian grounds because he is "in a delicate state." They urged "our leaders in the U.S. government double their efforts in bringing him home before it is too late."
The Associated Press first reported behind-the-scenes dialogue to win Holt's freedom. Caleb McCarry, a top Republican congressional staffer who has known Maduro for 15 years, travelled to Caracas in February to meet with the Venezuelan leader and first lady Cilia Flores to press for Holt's release.
That dialogue prompted a visit to Washington by a trusted ally of Maduro, Gov. Rafael Lacava of Carabobo state, to discuss Holt with lawmakers.
Associated Press writer Scott Smith reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia