Trump administration officials reportedly met secretly with Venezuelan military officials over the last year to discuss plans to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.
The New York Times reported that the talks were the latest developments in the US government’s backchannel work in Latin America that could damage foreign relations — even though officials did not ultimately go through with the coup.
The White House declined to comment specifically on the talks to The Times, but said in a statement that it valued “dialogue with all Venezuelans who demonstrate a desire for democracy” to “bring positive change to a country that has suffered so much under Maduro.”
One of the officials identified in the report as part of the meetings is known to US officials as a corrupt officer, The Times reported. The officer and his counterparts have reportedly been accused of torturing critics, jailing political prisoners, drug trafficking, and collaborating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which the US has deemed a terrorist organization.
The Times, citing an anonymous senior administration official, said US officials decided to pursue the meetings because they felt it was important to be in touch with the forces who were plotting the movement as Venezuela’s national condition continued to disintegrate. But it’s unknown what information was exchanged between the two parties.
Trump has suggested he was considering military intervention in Venezuela in the past, which boosted Maduro’s position within the country by vilifying US involvement and identifying Trump’s motives as wanting to pursue Venezuela’s once-rich oil reserves.
“You cannot lower your guard for even a second, because we will defend the greatest right our homeland has had in all of its history, which is to live in peace,” Maduro said at the time, before continuing to condemn the “supremacist and criminal vision of those who govern the US.”
The Times report suggests its revelation of these secret meetings could have a similar effect.
Maduro was elected despite outcry from nearly a dozen nations, and has grown more unpopular as Venezuela continues in an economic tailspin, experiencing hyperinflation, severe power cuts, and food and medicine shortages.
Most recently, Maduro used an August 4 drone attack to attack political rivals and crack down on potential rebellion from within his military. Maduro called on President Donald Trump to hold the “terrorist group” responsible for the attack, for which several opposition leaders and former officials have been arrested with little evidence.
The US was previously tied to a 2002 coup in Venezuela that was unpopular among citizens and neighboring nations after it only briefly deposed former President Hugo Chavez and set off years of sharp political discord within the country and fiery swipes against former President George W. Bush.
Christopher Woody contributed reporting.