U.S. talks secretly to Venezuela socialist boss

The US has made secret contact with Venezuela’s socialist party boss as close allies of President Nicolas 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Cabello out of concern the person could suffer reprisals. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the talks, which are still preliminary. It’s not clear whether the talks have Mr. Maduro’s approval or not.

Mr. Cabello (56, is a major power broker inside Venezuela, who has seen his influence in the government and security forces expand as Mr. Maduro’s grip on power has weakened. But he’s also been accused by U.S. officials of being behind massive corruon, drug trafficking and even death threats against a sitting US senator.

The administration official said that under no circumstances is the U.S. looking to prop up Mr. Cabello or pave the way for him to substitute Mr. Maduro. Instead, the goal of the outreach is 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.

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

Mr. Cabello did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But an aide said the U.S. has been increasingly knocking on his door, desperately looking to establish contact.

The aide rejected the notion Mr. Cabello was somehow betraying Mr. Maduro, saying that Mr. 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 Mr. Cabello appeared savvy and arrived to the meeting with the U.S.-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 authorized to discuss the matter.

As Venezuela’s crisis grinds on, a predictable pattern has emerged where Juan Guaido the U.S. 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 U.S. sanctions.

This month, the U.S. slapped a new round of sanctions that seizes all of the Maduro government’s assets in the U.S. 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 Mr. Maduro, who accused Mr. Guaido of celebrating the U.S.’ “brutal blockade.”

Neither Mr. Cabello, the Venezuelan military or U.S. government are a party to those talks.

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