Trump, Maduro Confirm Secret Talks as Opposition Stays Mum

Analysts said it's not surprising that a backroom dialogue between U.S. and Venezuelan officials remains active

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a rally in support of the government in Caracas,  May 20, 2019.
Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

As President Donald Trump and Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolás Maduro confirmed secret talks between their governments, one key player appeared to be left on the sidelines: The opposition.

Comments by both the U.S. and Venezuelan presidents on Tuesday each revealed that high-level officials in their respective administrations have been meeting about ending the South American nation's deepening crisis.

But neither mentioned anything about opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who the United States and more than 50 other nations recognize as Venezuela's rightful president.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said the U.S. involvement could be critical in breaking the monthslong stalemate but that the Trump administration nonetheless should be careful not to overstep the delicate boundaries at play.

"The U.S. has not only an opportunity, but a responsibility, to use leverage it has to try and advance the position of the opposition and try and reach a deal," he said. "It oversteps when it moves in directions that are clearly not aligned with what Guaidó is supporting."

Guaidó has not directly addressed the high-level U.S.-Venezuela exchange, but said Tuesday that he's been working since earlier this year toward a pacific transition. He is expected to deliver remarks Wednesday.

"We're not going to ease off even for a moment," he wrote on Twitter.

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have been escalating since early this year when Guaidó, who is the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared the constitution gives him presidential powers because Maduro's election last year was a fraud. But despite his widespread international backing, Guaidó has been unable to loosen Maduro's grip on power and in particular, the military.

The Associated Press reported over the weekend that the United States has made secret contact with socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello as close allies of Maduro's inner circle seek guarantees they won't face prosecution for alleged abuses and crimes if they cede to growing demands to step down from power.

As he took questions from reporters Tuesday, Trump confirmed his administration is talking to "various representatives of Venezuela" but refused to say whether the White House is specifically talking to Cabello.

"I don't want to say who," he said. "But we're talking at a very high level."

On Wednesday, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Maduro must be removed and that the talks don't involve him.

"The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro's back are his departure and free and fair elections," Bolton tweeted.

However, Maduro said on national television Tuesday that talks had long been underway between officials in his government and the U.S. administration.

"We've had secret meetings in secret places with secret people that nobody knows," Maduro said, adding that all talks had been carried out under his "direct" authorization. "Sure there's been contact and we'll continue having contact."

The socialist leader said that he's ready to meet with Trump himself to normalize relations, an offer he's made before.

An administration official told the AP the goal is not to prop up Cabello or pave the way for him to substitute Maduro, but to ratchet up pressure on the regime by contributing to the knife fight the U.S. believes is taking place behind the scenes among competing circles of power within the ruling party.

Cabello has shied away from discussing any details of the meeting, but said at a socialist party event Monday that he's long stood welcome to talk to anyone, so long as Maduro approves of the exchange.

"I meet with the owners of the circus," he said, in an apparent reference to the U.S. "Not with those who work for them. The opposition works for them."

Shifter and other analysts said that any communication between the U.S. and Venezuela is a positive sign but noted that the exact substance of the talks and how close either side is to reaching a resolution remains to be seen.

John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy, said it's also unclear to what extent, if any, Guaidó is involved in the talks. If the communication is in fact unilateral between the Trump and Maduro administrations, it would make the opposition appear weakened.

"The direct dialogue speaks to the limitations of the opposition," he said.

The development comes just weeks after the U.S. Treasury Department slapped tough new sanctions against the Venezuelan government that would target even foreign companies that do business with the Maduro administration.

Analysts said it's not surprising that a backroom dialogue between U.S. and Venezuelan officials remains active.

"The situation is in such a deadlock that I imagine the U.S. is looking for a way to open other pathways," said Venezuelan analyst Carlos Romero. "Ones that are less belligerent than they've used up till now."