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Venezuela's Maduro claims secret meetings held with U.S. envoy and vows to stay in power

Venezuela's Maduro claims secret meetings held with U.S. envoy and vows to stay in power
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks at an event in Bolivar city on Friday. (Marcelo Garcia / AFP/Getty Images)

A month into Venezuela’s high-stakes political crisis, President Nicolas Maduro revealed in an Associated Press interview that his government has held secret talks with the Trump administration. He also predicted he would survive an unprecedented global campaign to force his resignation.

While harshly criticizing President Trump’s confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said Thursday that he holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president soon to resolve a crisis triggered by U.S. recognition of his opponent, Juan Guaido, as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

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Maduro said that during two meetings in New York, his foreign minister invited the Washington-based special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, to visit “privately, publicly or secretly.”

“If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I’ll be there,” Maduro said without providing more details. He said both New York meetings lasted several hours.

U.S. officials have not denied Maduro’s claim of talks.

A senior administration official in Washington who was not authorized to speak publicly said U.S. officials were willing to meet with “former Venezuela officials, including Maduro himself, to discuss their exit plans.”

Venezuela is plunging deeper into a political chaos triggered by the U.S. demand that Maduro step down a month into a second presidential term that the U.S. and its allies in Latin America consider illegitimate. His opponent, the 35-year-old Guaido, burst onto the political stage in January in the first viable challenge in years to Maduro’s hold on power.

As head of Congress, Guaido declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, saying he had a constitutional right to assume presidential powers from the “tyrant” Maduro. He has since garnered broad support, calling massive street protests and winning recognition from the U.S. and dozens of nations in Latin America and Europe who share his goal of removing Maduro.

The escalating crisis is taking place against a backdrop of economic and social turmoil that has led to severe shortages of food and medicine that have forced millions to flee the once-prosperous OPEC nation.

Abrams’ appointment as special envoy last month signaled the Trump administration’s determination to take a tougher line on Venezuela.

The hawkish former Republican diplomat was a major voice pushing for the ouster of Manuel Noriega in Panama in the 1980s and also was convicted for withholding information from the U.S. Congress during the infamous Iran-Contra affair. He also played a leading role in managing the U.S.‘s tepid response to a brief coup that toppled Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002.

Two senior Venezuelan officials who were not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly said the two encounters between Abrams and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza came at the request of the U.S.

The first one on Jan. 26 they described as hostile, with the U.S. envoy threatening Venezuela with the deployment of troops and chastising the Venezuelan government for allegedly being in league with Cuba, Russia and Hezbollah.

When they met again this week, the atmosphere was less tense, the Venezuelan officials said, even though the Feb. 11 encounter came four days after Abrams said the “time for dialogue with Maduro had long passed.” During that meeting, Abrams insisted that severe U.S. sanctions would oust Maduro even if Venezuela’s military stuck by him, the officials said.

Abrams gave no indication the U.S. was prepared to ease demands that Maduro step down. Still, the Venezuelans saw the meetings as a sign there is room for discussion with the Americans despite the tough public rhetoric coming from Washington.

At turns conciliatory and combative, Maduro said Thursday that all Venezuela needs to rebound is for Trump to remove his “infected hand” from the country that sits atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves.

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He said U.S. sanctions on the oil industry are to blame for mounting hardships even though shortages and hyperinflation that economists say topped 1 million percent long predates Trump’s recent action.

Amid the mounting pressure at home and abroad, Maduro said he won’t give up power as a way to defuse the standoff.

He also reiterated a refusal to allow humanitarian aid, calling boxes of U.S.-donated food and pediatric supplies sitting in a warehouse on the border in Colombia mere “crumbs” after the U.S. administration froze billions of dollars in the nation’s oil revenue and overseas assets.

“They hang us, steal our money and then say ’here, grab these crumbs’ and make a global show out of it,” said Maduro.

He said he won’t resign, seeing his place in history alongside other Latin American leftists from Salvador Allende in Chile to Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala who in decades past had been the target of U.S.-backed coups.

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