Venezuelan officials have been holding “secret meetings” with “high-ranking” US counterparts for months, President Nicolás Maduro has declared.
“There have been contacts with high-ranking US government officials in the [Donald] Trump administration and my government under my express authorisation to try resolving the conflict,” Maduro said in a speech broadcast Tuesday on state television.
Maduro said he was ready to speak directly with US President Donald Trump about Venezuela. He gave no further details on the meetings.
Following those remarks, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said that Venezuelan officials who are reaching out to the United States are actually doing so without Maduro’s permission.
“The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro’s back are his departure and free and fair elections,” he said in a Twitter post. “To end the pilfering of the Venezuelan people’s resources and continued repression, Maduro must go.”
Venezuela Socialist Party Vice-President Diosdado Cabello on Monday denied a report from the Associated Press that he met secretly with a US intermediary.
Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday that the US was in discussion with Venezuelan officials "at a very high level."
"We are in touch. We're talking to various representatives of Venezuela," Trump said.
Maduro has so far survived mass street protests, a failed military uprising and international challenges to his legitimacy as the once-rich, oil-producing country spins deeper into crisis.
Meanwhile, representatives of Venezuela’s opposition who are participating in talks with the government are currently in the US to meet with officials there, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó said earlier.
The Trump administration has thrown its backing behind Venezuela's National Assembly leader, Juan Guaidó, as the legitimate president.
Guaidó, who is supported by more than 50 countries, proclaimed himself acting president in January after the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared that Maduro had usurped power through fraudulent elections last year.
In a message broadcast on radio and television Tuesday, Maduro said he had authorised the back channel talks with US officials.
"For months there has been contact between senior officials of the United States, of Donald Trump, and the Bolivarian government that I preside over," Maduro said.
"Just as I have sought dialogue in Venezuela, I have sought a way in which President Donald Trump really listens to Venezuela," he said.
Washington has been pressuring Maduro through sanctions to step down while publicly prodding members of his inner circle to cut their ties to him before it's too late.
"We're staying out of it, but we are helping it, and it needs a lot of help," Trump said of Venezuela.
"It's an incredible tribute to something bad happening, and the something bad is socialism," he said.
Earlier this year, Guaidó and other opposition leaders held secret talks of their own for two months with high-ranking officials in the Maduro regime, but, according to the Trump administration and the opposition, some reneged on a power-sharing deal at the last minute.
On April 30, Guaidó and his team appeared outside a Caracas airbase before dawn, but the uprising sputtered hours later when top military brass ignored the call to abandon the regime and security forces retook the streets.
Maduro’s regime cracked down on opposition lawmakers in the aftermath and replaced Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, part of the plot and head of the intelligence service, who left the country soon after.
The United States later lifted sanctions for Figuera, who is currently in the US offering details about Maduro’s rule and alleged embezzlement schemes. Figuera and Guaidó believed other top officials were with them, including the president of the Supreme Court and the defence minister.
Earlier this month, Maduro’s government broke off talks with the Venezuelan opposition in Barbados in response to a new batch of US sanctions. Maduro decided not to send his delegation due to “serious and brutal aggression” by the Trump administration, including the illegal blockade of economic and financial activity, the government said.
Even after the cancellation of talks, government and opposition representatives continue to consider elections for lawmakers and the presidency in the coming year or two, according to participants sworn to secrecy. They could even happen as Maduro remains in office, contrary to opposition leader Guaidó’s long-held position, the officials said.
Representatives of Norway, which is sponsoring the talks, met with both sides last week in Venezuela. The government said it seeks to restart talks under a new “mechanism.”
The meetings with US officials have been shrouded in total secrecy, Maduro said.
“There have been secret meetings in secret places with secret people that no one should know about,” Maduro said in the live broadcast.