CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro cast himself as the wily survivor of a dramatic, year-long struggle by the opposition at home and its allies in Washington to unseat him, and said it’s now time for direct negotiations with the United States to end the political stalemate that has crippled this nation of some 30 million.
In an exclusive, extensive interview with The Washington Post – his first with a major U.S. media outlet since the day last February he abruptly pulled the plug on a Univision taping and ejected its journalists from the country – an exuberant Maduro said he had outfoxed his opponents in Caracas and Washington, is comfortably in charge and ready to talk.
He suggested a bonanza could be waiting for U.S. oil companies in this OPEC-member state should President Donald Trump lift sanctions and press the reset button on U.S.-Venezuelan relations.
Yet if anything, his words revealed the vast gulf that still exists between his authoritarian government and the opposition and U.S. officials who call him a dictator. His positions on key issues suggested no quick fix to the brutal humanitarian crisis that has led millions to flee poverty and hunger in this troubled socialist state.
Still, Maduro, the anointed successor of the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, said significant changes could be in the offing if Washington opened a direct channel with him.
“If there’s respect between governments, no matter how big the United States is, and if there’s a dialogue, an exchange of truthful information, then be sure we can create a new type of relationship,” he said. “A relationship of respect and dialogue brings a win-win situation. A confrontational relationship brings a lose-lose situation. That’s the formula.”
The United States and nearly 60 other nations recognize Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader and head of Venezuela’s legislature, as the nation’s rightful head of state after Maduro claimed reelection in a tainted 2018 vote. U.S. officials, the opposition and European powers have decried Maduro’s steps in recent weeks to sabotage the opposition, take control of the legislature – the last democratic institution in the country – and consolidate what they describe as authoritarian power.
The United States has held firm on its position that unless and until Maduro is willing to discuss his exit from the presidential palace, direct talks would likely only strengthen him.
Speaking for more than an hour late Friday in the ornate Miraflores presidential palace, Maduro did not display such willingness. The 57-year-old former union leader, sporting a navy-blue workman’s shirt, called any new presidential vote still years away. He also denied the assertions of U.S. and European diplomats and opposition negotiators that his government offered the opposition a deal including new presidential elections during talks brokered by Norway last year before they collapsed in the fall.
He doubled down on his pledge to hold legislative elections this year – a vote his opponents insist he would use as a tool to further consolidate power.
“What he wants is a fake election, one to produce a puppet National Assembly,” said Leopoldo López, a senior opposition figure and mentor to Guaidó, who is living in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas. “What President Guaidó, the majority of the Venezuelan people and the international community are calling for, is free and fair presidential elections. There will be no solution to the crisis if there is no regime change.”
Maduro suggested his opponents have vastly underestimated him. One significant claim: Maduro said he had learned of the April 30 conspiracy to oust him – the failed plot now spoken of as Venezuela’s “Bay of Pigs” – 10 days before it was sprung. He allowed it to play out anyway, he said, encouraging key loyalists to pose as potential turncoats to discover the extent of the sedition against him.
The plan involved the recruiting of key Maduro loyalists including Supreme Court chief Maikel Moreno, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and other officials, who were meant to back Guaidó’s predawn call for an uprising at a military base and force Maduro out. The plan was initially meant to be sprung May 1, but was moved up a day for reasons still disputed within the opposition. Guaidó appeared with López, sprung from house arrest, at the La Carlota base in Eastern Caracas, but the broader uprising never materialized.
In Maduro’s account, Moreno, Padrino and other key officials whom the opposition thought they had flipped had actually gone running to him with details of the conspiracy.
On April 20, Maduro said, they told him in a senior-level meeting that his spy chief, Gen. Cristopher Figuera, had betrayed him; they recommended Maduro fire him. In two more meetings before the plot was sprung, Maduro told The Post, he laid a trap for Figuera – who ultimately escaped to Colombia and later the United States.
“I let it flow to see how far the tentacles of the conspiracies could get,” he said. “Twenty-four hours earlier, I was going to abort it, but they moved earlier.”
Figuera called Maduro’s account “false.”
“I carried out with my functions normally with Maduro until April 29,” the former head of Venezuela’s SEBIN intelligence agency said. “He had no knowledge of the conspiracy against him. He would never have willingly allowed Leopoldo López to go free.”
Maduro’s account also conflicts with those of others – senior U.S. officials, opposition leaders and influential Venezuelans – familiar with the conspiracy. They claim talks to win over Maduro’s loyalists began many weeks before Maduro claims to have been informed of the conspiracy. So even if Maduro’s account is true, they say, it suggests his loyalists hid the conspiracy for months before sharing it with him.
Maduro’s confidence stands in contrast to the cascading troubles his government still faces. Strict U.S. sanctions including an oil embargo have cut off the nation’s main source of cash – the sale of crude to the United States – and the national coffers are rapidly emptying.
For months, the opposition claims, Maduro has sought to buy off and extort opposition lawmakers into abandoning Guaidó. The plan came to a head this month when lawmaker Luis Parra, allegedly bribed by the government, was abruptly installed to replace Guaidó as head of the National Assembly, while security forces kept Guaidó’s supporters from entering the legislative palace. The National Assembly is key to approving legislation, including new oil deals, that could theoretically provide vital new revenue streams for the Maduro government. It also provides the constitutional legitimacy of Guaidó’s claim to be Venezuelan’s rightful president.
Maduro, his supporters and lawmakers alleged to have been bribed by his government and the Russians are among those few who have recognized Parra. The United States, most Latin American nations and European powers have dismissed the operation as political theater.
Maduro said he remained willing to sit down with Guaidó – but he seemed to dismiss the opposition’s key demand: that he exit in favor of a transitional government that would renovate the Supreme Court and national election councils to call new elections.
“Guaidó is responsible for having lost the National Assembly,” Maduro said. “He and his mistakes. Don’t blame me now. He’s the one that now has to answer to the United States.”
Guaidó did not immediately provide a response Saturday.
Maduro seemed to dismiss his growing international isolation. The Dutch, among others, are seeking to push the European Union into taking a harder stance against his government, and the EU is threatening to begin imposing individual sanctions and travel bans of the kind that already have been slapped on Maduro officials by the United States.
“Do you want me to tell you the truth?” he asked, leaning in. “I don’t care even a little bit about what Europe does, or about what the U.S. does. We do not care at all. We only care about what we do. . . . No matter how many thousand sanctions, they won’t stop us, or Venezuela.”
He made no secret of his immediate plan to survive; he spoke of his deep alliances with the Cubans and the Russians.
He contradicted U.S. claims that Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, is processing 70 percent of Venezuela’s sludgy crude – he placed the amount closer to 20 percent. He dismissed claims that another benefactor, China, had begun to distance itself from his government.
“It’s part of fake reports that Trump is fed about Venezuela. Someone, who knows who, in [U.S. special representative Elliott] Abrams’s office makes up a fake report and sends it to Trump.
“We are more united than ever.”
Maduro said he has made repeated attempts to appeal directly to Trump. The Post has reported that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was present during a phone call Maduro held in late 2018 with then-Rep. Peter Sessions, R-Texas. Maduro said he did not hear Giuliani’s voice, but he knew the former New York mayor was on the call and hoped he could somehow broker a direct pipeline to Trump.
“Of course at the moment, his closeness as Trump’s lawyer was clear,” Maduro said. “We knew he would be able to get him the message. At this point I don’t know because of all that’s happening with Ukraine and the impeachment.”
Maduro repeatedly asserted his view that Trump had been misled by his policymakers, and he seemed baffled that Trump had courted North Korea’s Kim Jung Un but not him.
“I believe Mike Pompeo has failed in Venezuela and is responsible for Donald Trump’s failure in his policy toward our country,” Maduro said. “I think Pompeo lives in a fantasy. He’s not a man with his feet on earth. I think Trump has had terrible advisers on Venezuela. John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Elliott Abrams have caused him to have a wrong vision.”
Abrams said Saturday that Maduro “cannot be trusted to preside over new National Assembly elections this year,” particularly after the government’s security forces blocked Guaidó and other opposition lawmakers from entering the National Assembly on Jan. 5.
But he backed further talks between the opposition and Maduro.
“The United States favors negotiations between the Maduro regime and the democratic opposition under Juan Guaidó to arrange new presidential and national assembly elections that are free and fair,” Abrams said. “Previous efforts have all failed because the regime never took them seriously and instead used them to try to gain time and divide the opposition. When the regime is ready, and engages in serious negotiations with the opposition, the United States will do everything it can do to help those negotiations succeed.”
U.S. officials have been considering more provocative steps to oust Maduro, including a naval blockade of Venezuelan oil destined for Cuba. Maduro said such a step would be “illegal,” but stopped short of calling it an act of war.
“I think that wouldn’t be good for anyone, least of all for the U.S.,” he said. “It would create a lot of tension in the whole Caribbean and it would be bad for the interests of all the governments that are part of that community. I hope it doesn’t happen.”
The United Nations last year documented the torture, arbitrary arrest and killing of government opponents and citizens under Maduro. Maduro called the reports “lies” being spread by “rightist anti-revolutionary media outlets.”
He scoffed at allegations that his government has established agreements with Colombian guerrillas engaged in narco-trafficking and kidnapping on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, or that Hezbollah operatives were operating in Venezuela.
“It makes me laugh,” he said.
If a dialogue with Washington were launched, he suggested the key point of establishing what he, the United States and the opposition would agree were free and fair elections would be difficult to settle.
“I think we have to think more about the big picture,” he said. “The relations in five, 10 years. The relations for the rest of the 21st century.”
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The Washington Post’s Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report.