CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Wednesday cast doubt on President Nicolás Maduro’s claim that he is overseeing secret talks with the United States, saying it only reflects disarray within the Venezuelan government.
Guaidó spoke a day after Maduro and President Donald Trump said high-level officials in their respective administrations have been meeting about ending the South American nation’s deepening crisis.
In his first public remarks about the matter, Guaidó said the Venezuelan government was dysfunctional and that its hardliners would be disappointed to hear about alleged talks with the U.S.
“What’s clear are the contradictions of the regime,” he said at an event in Caracas. “How many times have we seen how disorganized the regime is? If they’ve been effective in anything, it’s communications, propaganda, lies for years.”
Guaidó comments focused on dialogue and foreign diplomacy more than he has in the past, as a delegation of opposition leaders this week travel to Washington to fine tune their strategy for forcing Maduro from power.
Meanwhile, Maduro has sent two members of his government to Russia. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López recently visited Moscow to fortify military ties, and Vice President Delcy Rodriguez met Wednesday with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in talks aimed at expanding economic, military and other relations between the two nations.
David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, who has spent decades researching Venezuela, said these parallel trips demonstrate the critical role that Russia and the United States have taken in Venezuela’s conflict.
“They’re having their own high level meetings with Russia, while the opposition is in D.C.,” Smilde said. “This shows the level that this is a geopolitical conflict.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have been escalating since early this year when Guaidó, 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.
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.”
However, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted Wednesday that 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.
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.”
A U.S. 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.
Many saw negotiations hosted by Norway on the Caribbean island of Barbados between the Maduro government and its opposition as Venezuela’s best chance at resolving the crisis. Then, Bolton unveiled a new round of harsh sanctions this month, which prompted Maduro to pull out.
Smilde and other analysts said that communication between the U.S. and Venezuela unveiled this week is a positive sign.
John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy, said it’s 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.”
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.