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US talks secretly to Venezuela socialist boss

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By PTI Updated: Aug 19, 2019 11:07 pm
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Bogota, Aug. 19 (PTI/AP): The US has made secret contact with Venezuela’s socialist party boss as close allies of President Nicol s Maduro’s inner circle seek guarantees they won’t face prosecution for alleged abuses and crimes if they cede to growing demands to remove him, according to a senior Trump administration official.

Diosdado Cabello, who is considered the most-powerful man in Venezuela after Maduro, met last month in Caracas with someone who is in close contact with the Trump administration, the official told The Associated Press.

A second meeting is in the works but has not yet taken place.

The AP is withholding the intermediary’s name and details of the encounter with Cabello out of concern the person could suffer reprisals.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorised to discuss the talks, which are still preliminary. It’s not clear whether the talks have Maduro’s approval or not.

Cabello, 56, is a major power broker inside Venezuela, who has seen his influence in the government and security forces expand as Maduro’s grip on power has weakened.

But he’s also been accused by US officials of being behind massive corruption, drug trafficking and even death threats against a sitting US senator.

The administration official said that under no circumstances is the US looking to prop up Cabello or pave the way for him to substitute Maduro.

Instead, the goal of the outreach is to ratchet up pressure on the regime by contributing to the knife fight the US believes is taking place behind the scenes among competing circles of power within the ruling party.

Similar contacts exist with other top Venezuelan insiders, the official said, and the US is in a listening mode to hear what it would take for them to betray Maduro and support a transition plan.

Cabello did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But an aide said the US has been increasingly knocking on his door, desperately looking to establish contact. The aide rejected the notion Cabello was somehow betraying Maduro, saying that Cabello would only meet with Americans with the president’s permission and if it contributes to lifting sanctions he blames for crippling the oil-dependent economy.

The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorised to discuss political affairs publicly.

A person familiar with the July encounter said Cabello appeared savvy and arrived to the meeting with the US-backed envoy well prepared, with a clear understanding of Venezuela’s political problems.

The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorised to discuss the matter.

As Venezuela’s crisis grinds on, a predictable pattern has emerged where Juan Guaid , who the US and dozens of other countries recognise as Venezuela’s rightful leader, has been unable to woo the military and take power but Maduro lacks enough strength to apprehend his rival or rescue the collapsed economy amid ever-tightening US sanctions.

This month, the US slapped a new round of sanctions that seizes all of the Maduro government’s assets in the US and threatens to punish companies from third countries that continue to do business with him.

Talks sponsored by Norway between the opposition and government have been slow-going and were suspended this month by Maduro, who accused Guaid of celebrating the US’ “brutal blockade.”

Neither Cabello, the Venezuelan military or US government are a party to those talks.

To break the stalemate, some conspirators are looking to the US to devise a plan to protect government insiders who turn against Maduro from future prosecution.

The US has repeatedly said it would offer top socialists relief from sanctions if they take “concrete and meaningful actions” to end Maduro’s rule.

In May, it quickly lifted sanctions against Maduro’s former spy chief, Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, after he defected during a failed military uprising.

As head of the constitutional assembly, Cabello has the power to remove Maduro, a position that could come in handy in any negotiated transition.

But to date he’s run the institution, which the US considers illegitimate, as a rubber-stamping foil to the opposition-controlled congress, showing no signs of possible deception.

It’s not clear who initiated the contact with Cabello.

But the US official said Cabello was talking behind the back of the embattled socialist despite his almost daily displays of loyalty and frequent harangues against President Donald Trump.

An opposition politician briefed on the outreach said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Interior Minister N stor Reverol are among those in indirect contact with the Americans, underscoring the degree to which Maduro is surrounded by conspirators even after an opposition-led military uprising in April was easily quashed.

The politician spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorised to discuss the talks.

The AP was unable to verify the opposition politician’s account.

Cabello has long been seen as a rival to Maduro, someone who has more pragmatic economic views and is less ideologically aligned with communist Cuba.

He sat to the right of Hugo Ch vez when the late socialist designated Maduro, to his left, to be his successor in his last public appearance before dying of cancer in 2013.

 

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By PTI Updated: Aug 19, 2019 11:07:56 pm