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US, Venezuela Socialist Boss Talk      08/19 06:18

   The U.S. has made secret contact with Venezuela's socialist party boss as 
close allies of President Nicols 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.

   BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- The U.S. has made secret contact with Venezuela's 
socialist party boss as close allies of President Nicols 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 
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 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 
Maduro's approval or not.

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

   The administration official said that under no circumstances is the U.S. 
looking to prop up Cabello or pave the way for him to substitute 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 Maduro and support a transition plan.

   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 Cabello 
was somehow betraying Maduro, saying that 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 authorized to discuss political 
affairs publicly.

   A person familiar with the July encounter said 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 Guaid, who the U.S. and dozens of other countries recognize 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 Maduro, who accused Guaid of 
celebrating the U.S.' "brutal blockade." Neither 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 Maduro from future 
prosecution. The U.S. has repeatedly said it would offer top socialists relief 
from sanctions if they take "concrete and meaningful actions" to end Maduro's 
rule. In May, it quickly lifted sanctions against Maduro's former spy chief, 
Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, after he defected during a failed military 
uprising.

   As head of the constitutional assembly, Cabello has the power to remove 
Maduro, a position that could come in handy in any negotiated transition. But 
to date he's run the institution, which the U.S. considers illegitimate, as a 
rubber-stamping foil to the opposition-controlled congress, showing no signs of 
possible deception.

   It's not clear who initiated the contact with Cabello. But the U.S. official 
said Cabello was talking behind the back of the embattled socialist despite his 
almost daily displays of loyalty and frequent harangues against President 
Donald Trump.

   An opposition politician briefed on the outreach said Defense Minister 
Vladimir Padrino and Interior Minister Nstor Reverol are among those in 
indirect contact with the Americans, underscoring the degree to which Maduro is 
surrounded by conspirators even after an opposition-led military uprising in 
April was easily quashed. The politician spoke on the condition of anonymity 
because they aren't authorized to discuss the talks. The AP was unable to 
verify the opposition politician's account.

   Cabello has long been seen as a rival to Maduro, someone who has more 
pragmatic economic views and is less ideologically aligned with communist Cuba. 
He sat to the right of Hugo Chvez when the late socialist designated Maduro, 
to his left, to be his successor in his last public appearance before dying of 
cancer in 2013.

   By all accounts Cabello was not among the high-placed officials who were in 
on a plot to remove Maduro in April, when Guaid and his mentor Leopoldo Lpez 
appeared on a bridge in eastern Caracas surrounded by a small contingent of 
armed troops. Since the uprising's failure, the retired army lieutenant has 
seen his influence in the government and security forces expand, with the 
appointment of close allies to head the army and the feared SEBIN intelligence 
police.

   He also remains popular with the Chavista base, having crisscrossed the 
country the past five years with a much-watched program on state TV that is a 
vehicle for pounding the opposition and U.S.

   "A fraternal salute, brother President," Cabello said in the most-recent 
program, where Maduro called in as a special guest. "We have no secrets, no 
lies here. Every time we do something we will inform the people, so that with a 
clear conscience they can take informed decisions and fix positions."

   The U.S. has tried to negotiate with Cabello before. In 2015, Thomas 
Shannon, who was then counsellor to Secretary of State John Kerry, met with 
Cabello in Haiti to pave the way for legislative elections that the opposition 
won by a landslide.

   But until now, the Trump administration has shown deep scorn for Cabello, 
hitting him with sanctions last year for allegedly organizing drug shipments 
and running a major graft network that embezzled state funds and invested the 
stolen proceeds in Florida real estate. The U.S. also believes he discussed a 
plot to kill Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has called him 
"Venezuela's Pablo Escobar."

   "Cabello is one of the worst of the worst inside of Venezuela," said 
Fernando Cutz, a former senior national security adviser on Latin America to 
both President Barack Obama and Trump. "If the strategy is to try to negotiate 
with the mafia boss, he's your guy. But that's a strategy that carries some 
heavy risks."


(KR)

 
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