A month into Venezuela's high-stakes political crisis, President Nicolas Maduro revealed in an AP interview that his government held secret talks with the Trump administration and predicted he would survive an unprecedented global campaign to force his resignation. While harshly criticizing President Trump's confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said Thursday that he holds out hope of meeting the US president soon to resolve a crisis triggered by America's recognition of opponent Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader. Maduro said that during two hushed meetings in New York between his foreign minister and the Washington-based special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, Abrams was invited to come visit Maduro "privately, publicly, or secretly." More from the interview:
- "If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I'll be there," Maduro said without providing more details. He said both New York meetings lasted several hours. A senior administration official in Washington who was not authorized to speak publicly said US officials were willing to meet with "former Venezuela officials, including Maduro himself, to discuss their exit plans."
- The AP reports Abrams' appointment as special envoy last month signaled the Trump administration's determination to take a tougher line on Venezuela. The hawkish former Republican diplomat was a major voice pushing for the ouster of Manuel Noriega in Panama in the 1980s and also was convicted for withholding information from the US Congress during the infamous Iran-Contra affair. He also played a leading role in managing the US' tepid response to a brief coup that toppled Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002.
- Two senior Venezuelan officials who were not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly said the two encounters between Abrams and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza came at the request of the US.
- The first one on Jan. 26 they described as hostile, with the US envoy threatening Venezuela with the deployment of troops and chastising the Venezuelan government for allegedly being in league with Cuba, Russia, and Hezbollah.
- When they met again this week, the atmosphere was less tense, even though the Feb. 11 encounter came four days after Abrams said the "time for dialogue with Maduro had long passed." During that meeting, Abrams insisted that severe US sanctions would oust Maduro even if Venezuela's military stuck by him.
- Abrams gave no indication the US was prepared to ease demands that Maduro step down. Still, the Venezuelans saw the meetings as a sign there is room for discussion with the Americans despite the tough public rhetoric coming from Washington.
- At turns conciliatory and combative in his interview, Maduro said all Venezuela needs to rebound is for Trump to remove his "infected hand" from the country that sits atop the world's largest petroleum reserves. He said US sanctions on the oil industry are to blame for mounting hardships even though shortages and hyperinflation that economists say topped 1,000,000% long predates Trump's recent action.
- The sanctions effectively ban all oil purchases by the US, which had been Venezuela's biggest oil buyer until now. Maduro said he will make up for the sudden drop in revenue by targeting markets in Asia, especially India, where the head of state-run oil giant PDVSA was this week negotiating new oil sales. "We've been building a path to Asia for many years," he said. "It's a successful route, every year they are buying larger volumes and amounts of oil."
- Maduro also reiterated a refusal to allow humanitarian aid, calling boxes of US-donated food and pediatric supplies sitting in a warehouse on the border in Colombia mere "crumbs" after the US administration froze billions of dollars in the nation's oil revenue and overseas assets. "They hang us, steal our money and then say 'here, grab these crumbs' and make a global show out of it," said Maduro.
- His comments came hours after British billionaire Richard Branson announced in a video that he'll be hosting a concert in the Colombian border town of Cucuta in hopes of raising $100 million to buy humanitarian supplies for Venezuelans. "With dignity we say 'No to the global show,'" said Maduro. "Whoever wants to help Venezuela is welcome, but we have enough capacity to pay for everything that we need."
- He said he won't resign, seeing his place in history alongside other Latin American leftists from Salvador Allende in Chile to Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala who in decades past had been the target of US-backed coups. "I'm not afraid," he said, adding that even last year's attack on him with explosives-laden drones during a military ceremony didn't shake his resolve. "I'm only worried about the destiny of the fatherland and of our people, our boys and girls....this is what gives me energy."
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