The United States has opened up secret communications with Venezuela’s socialist party boss, as members of President Nicolas Maduro‘s inner circle seek guarantees they would not face retribution if they cede to growing demands to remove him, a senior US administration official has told the Associated Press news agency.
Diosdado Cabello, who is considered the most powerful man in Venezuela after Maduro, met last month in Caracas someone who is in close contact with the Trump administration, said the official. A second meeting is in the works but has not yet taken place, according to the report published late on Sunday.
The AP withheld 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 are not authorised to discuss the talks, which are still preliminary. It is not clear whether the talks have Maduro’s approval or not.
As president of the country’s Constituent Assembly, Cabello, 56, is a major power broker inside Venezuela. He has seen his influence in the government and security forces expand as Maduro’s grip on power has weakened.
But he has 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 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 was not authorised to discuss political affairs publicly.
A person familiar with the July encounter said Cabello appeared savvy and arrived at the meeting with the US-backed envoy well-prepared, with a clear understanding of Venezuela’s political problems.
As Venezuela’s crisis grinds on, a predictable pattern has emerged where Juan Guaido, 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.
Earlier this month, the US slapped fresh sanctions that seize all of the Maduro government’s assets in the US and threaten 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 Guaido of celebrating the US’s “brutal blockade”.
Cabello, the Venezuelan military and the US government are not 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, General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, after he defected during a failed military uprising.
As the head of the Constitutional Assembly, Cabello has the power to remove Maduro, a position that could come in handy in any negotiated transition.
It is 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 Nestor 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 are not 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 Chavez when the late socialist designated Maduro, to his left, to be his successor in his last public appearance before dying of cancer in 2013.