Trump administration officials held several secret meetings with Venezuelan military officers plotting to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro, the New York Times reported Saturday, citing American officials and a former Venezuelan military officer.
While the White House claimed in a statement to the Times that establishing a back channel in a region the U.S. has interfered in many times in the past was a democracy-building effort, one of the military commanders involved in the talks happens to be on the U.S. government’s own sanctions list.
“He and other members of the Venezuelan security apparatus have been accused by Washington of a wide range of serious crimes, including torturing critics, jailing hundreds of political prisoners, wounding thousands of civilians, trafficking drugs and collaborating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States,” the Times reported.
While the coup plans ultimately did not move forward, the revelation that the Trump administration was willing to cooperate with rebellious military officers is unlikely to be well received in the region.
Deepening political and economic upheaval in Venezuela is threatening the stability of the entire region, as food and water shortages and spreading diseases have started to spill over the country’s borders.
Maduro’s economic mismanagement and use of strong-arm tactics to suppress his critics in the public and the press — he even held a “bad news” awards ceremony that was eerily reminiscent of Trump’s attacks on the media — has sparked significant backlash.
While the country falls into disarray, several high-ranking government officials and businessmen with ties to Maduro have plundered the national oil company and taken advantage of lax U.S. laws to stash their stolen fortunes in America, as ThinkProgress’ Casey Michel recently detailed.
While Venezuelan military officers seeking to overthrow Maduro tried to reach out to the Obama administration and reportedly were rebuffed, they found an audience with the Trump administration.
According to the Times report, during the secret meetings that began last fall and stretched into this year, the officers asked American officials for encrypted radios; the request was ultimately denied but talks reportedly continued.
TRUMP on Aug. 11, 2017:
“We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option.”
Asked if it would be U.S.-led:
“We don’t talk about it. … A military option is certainly something that we could pursue.”pic.twitter.com/DMhuKxAyz1
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) September 8, 2018
While Trump claimed that he was “not going to rule out a military option” for Venezuela in August of last year, the former Venezuelan military commander who spoke with the Times and was present for the secret talks said an American military intervention was never discussed. “I never agreed, nor did they propose, to do a joint operation,” he said.
In his new book, Fear, Bob Woodward reportedly recounts another episode from last summer in which Trump approached then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster about the U.S. invading Venezuela to overthrow Maduro. “McMaster did his best to dissuade Trump — and thought he had succeeded — until Trump raised the possibility publicly at a media appearance and in a meeting with Latin American leaders at the U.N. General Assembly,” the Washington Post wrote this week.