Reports of secret US-Venezuela talks to oust Maduro draw skepticism

Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent
Photograph: ARiana Cubillos/AP

He is one of the most influential and infamous figures in Venezuelan politics – a hardcore Chavista who uses his weekly talkshow to preach permanent revolution and excoriate the evil empire up north.

But two reports in the American media now suggest Diosdado Cabello, Nicolás Maduro’s number two official, has been engaged in “secret communications” with US officials designed to force Hugo Chávez’s successor from power.

Observers of Venezuelan politics greeted Sunday’s reports – from the Associated Press and Axios – with skepticism.

“I’m not convinced it is true,” said Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at the Chatham House thinktank.

“I think what the US is trying to do is some sort of psy ops thing, trying to rattle people within Maduro’s administration. They are trying to get inside Maduro’s head and stoke paranoia within the inner-circle,” Sabatini added.

“But there’s a whiff of desperation here … the fact that they are talking so openly about it really doesn’t seem to be a particularly good negotiation strategy.”

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said he did believe there had been exchanges between Cabello and Trump representatives.

“But the fact that we now know about them suggests that whatever channel existed has been closed,” he added.

Axios claimed that in recent months Cabello, the 56-year-old head of Venezuela’s pro-Maduro constituent assembly, had been communicating with Trump’s top Latin America adviser, Mauricio Claver-Carone. Some Trump officials considered that a positive sign suggesting Maduro’s circle was “gradually cracking”.

The Associated Press claimed Cabello had met someone “in close contact with the Trump administration” in Caracas last month and that a second meeting was planned. By engaging with Cabello it said the US hoped to intensify an internal “knife fight” supposedly raging at the pinnacle of Maduro’s administration.

Maduro has been fighting for his political life since January when a young opposition leader called Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president and received the backing of more than 50 governments, including the US and UK.

Cabello has yet to directly address claims he was talking to Washington, although an aide told the Associated Press he would only do so with Maduro’s permission.

On Monday Cabello shared a tweet mocking the allegations with his 2.3 million followers. “Diosdado met in SECRET with a gringo SECRET agent to agree a SECRET plan to topple Nicolás, who knows nothing about this, because if he did know it wouldn’t be a SECRET,” it said.

Any move to involve Cabello in Venezuela’s post-Maduro political future – or offer him immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes - would be highly controversial among government opponents.

“He is widely detested. He’s seen as this central hub of corruption in the regime,” said Ramsey.

However, Ramsey said that with Venezuela’s crisis dragging on US officials seemed aware “bitter pills” might have to be swallowed to secure Maduro’s downfall.

Sabatini said the suggestion the US was negotiating with a man accused of human rights abuses and “all sorts of illicit activities” was troubling. “Diosdado is probably not a man who should be negotiated or bargained with.”