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.
Neither Maduro nor Trump mentioned anything about Guaidó, whom the United States and more than 50 other nations recognize as Venezuela’s rightful president. 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 referred to a tweet Wednesday by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said 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.
However, 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.”
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said the U.S. involvement could be critical in breaking the monthslong stalemate but that the Trump administration nonetheless should be careful not to overstep the delicate boundaries at play.
“The U.S. has not only an opportunity, but a responsibility, to use leverage it has to try and advance the position of the opposition and try and reach a deal,” he said. “It oversteps when it moves in directions that are clearly not aligned with what Guaidó is supporting.”
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.
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.
Cabello said at a socialist party event Monday that he’s long stood welcome to talk to anyone, so long as Maduro approves of the exchange.
“I meet with the owners of the circus,” he said, in an apparent reference to the U.S. “Not with those who work for them. The opposition works for them.”
Shifter and other analysts said that any communication between the U.S. and Venezuela 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.