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Maduro, Trump Confirm Secret Talks     08/21 06:15

   CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- As President Donald Trump and Venezuela's 
socialist leader Nicols Maduro confirmed secret talks between their 
governments on Tuesday, one key player appeared to be left on the sidelines: 
The opposition.

   Comments by both the U.S. and Venezuelan presidents each revealed that 
high-level officials in their respective administrations have been meeting 
about ending the South American nation's deepening crisis.

   But neither mentioned anything about opposition leader Juan Guaid, who the 
United States and more than 50 other nations recognize as Venezuela's rightful 
president.

   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 Guaid is supporting."

   Guaid has not directly addressed the high-level U.S.-Venezuela exchange, 
but said Tuesday that he's been working since earlier this year toward a 
pacific transition. He is expected to deliver remarks Wednesday.

   "We're not going to ease off even for a moment," he wrote on Twitter.

   Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have been escalating since early 
this year when Guaid, who is the 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, Guaid 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."

   In a nationally broadcast appearance hours later, Maduro said 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."

   The socialist leader said that he's ready to meet with Trump himself to 
normalize relations, an offer he's made before.

   An administration 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 has shied away from discussing any details of the meeting, but 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 but noted that the exact substance of the talks 
and how close either side is to reaching a resolution remains to be seen.

   "Whether they'll actually produce an agreement is unclear," he said.

   John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy, said 
it's also unclear to what extent, if any, Guaid 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.

   "There are no good faith negotiations with Maduro and his cronies," U.S. 
National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted earlier this year.

   Despite the harsh rhetoric, 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."


(KR)

 
 
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