Sen. Durbin returns from Venezuela after meeting with president, jailed Utah man


U.S. Senate Minority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) speaks during a news conference February 16, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela — U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) pressed for fair elections and the release of a jailed American during his private meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the senator said Saturday before departing the turbulent country.

Durbin told the Associated Press Saturday that he urged Maduro to uphold democratic rights ahead of Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election, but doubts any changes will be forthcoming.

His four-day trip made at Venezuela’s invitation included a visit with Joshua Holt, who has been jailed in Caracas for nearly two years on what the U.S. considers trumped-up weapons charges.

Durbin, the author of a recent Senate resolution condemning Maduro’s use of food as a “tool of political coercion,” said he took time to walk through parts Caracas, seeing the downtrodden faces of residents struggling to feed themselves. He also talked with doctors not able to get enough medicine to treat patients.

“I was heartbroken by what I saw and heard, particularly regarding the collapse of the country’s ability to feed and medically care for its people and children,” he said in an interview Saturday at the conclusion of his trip.

The government has yet to comment on what was discussed during Durbin’s visit, or that of another lawmaker, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who met with Maduro earlier in the week in a privately-funded trip that wasn’t organized by the State Department.

But the rare visits came as the Trump administration weighs an embargo on Venezuela’s oil shipments on top of sanctions already imposed on dozens of top officials, including Maduro, for decimating the country’s economy, spurring a humanitarian crisis and straying away from democratic practices.

Oil-rich Venezuela is in the throes of a five-year economic and political crisis causing dire shortages of food and medicine, while drawing condemnation from the U.S., as well as many Latin American and European countries.

“This isn’t a matter of Yankee imperialism,” said Durbin, the No. 2 Senate democrat. “He was not happy with my conclusion on that.”

Maduro’s government invited the senator to Venezuela in an effort to initiate dialogue between the two countries that haven’t exchange ambassadors since 2010. Durbin said Maduro made no demands, which he took as a sign that the leader’s request was genuine.

Durbin said Maduro greeted him warmly but doubted that the leader will delay or make any changes to boost confidence that the May 20 presidential election will be free and fair, such as allowing banned opposition parties to participate.

“Democracies don’t exile and imprison their political opponents,” said Durbin. “This is not a democracy when it comes to the political process.”

Durbin also pressed Maduro to hand over Holt, a 25-year-old Utah man who 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.” Asked to release Holt to his care, Maduro told Durbin that he would consider it. “He made no promises,” the senator said.

Durbin visited Holt in the Caracas jail where he and his wife are being held alongside some of the government’s fiercest opponents, describing him as “distraught and saddened” by the drawn-out ordeal but in otherwise good condition.

“They have been held and are being held for some political purpose either to be part of some trade in the future over some issue,” Durbin said.

The senator next returns to Washington to share what he saw and learned with his colleagues in Congress. He said that ratcheting up increasing sanctions against Venezuela is broadly discussed.

“I hope we don’t have to turn to further sanctions,” Durbin said. “That is really in the hands of the Maduro regime.”

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