AP Interview: Maduro reveals secret meetings with US envoy
By JOSHUA GOODMAN and IAN PHILLIPS
Friday, February 15
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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 Donald 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 America’s recognition of his opponent, Juan Guaido, as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
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, 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.
Abrams gave no indication the U.S. was prepared to ease demands 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 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.
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.
“The infected hand of Donald Trump is hurting Venezuela,” Maduro said.
The sanctions effectively ban all oil purchases by the U.S., which had been Venezuela’s biggest oil buyer until now. Maduro said he will make up for the sudden drop in revenue by targeting markets in Asia, especially India, where the head of state-run oil giant PDVSA was this week negotiating new oil sales.
“We’ve been building a path to Asia for many years,” he said. “It’s a successful route, every year they are buying larger volumes and amounts of oil.”
At a petroleum conference in New Delhi, Venezuela’s oil minister Manuel Quevedo suggested the country was open to a barter system with India to get around U.S. sanctions.
“We do not have any barter system with Venezuela. Commercial considerations and related factors will determine the value of trade,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in response to the Venezuelan officials’ comments.
Maduro also cited the continued support of China and especially Russia, which has been a major supplier of loans, weapons and oil investment over the years. He said that the antagonistic views taken by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin runs the risk of converting the current crisis into a high-risk geopolitical fight between the U.S. and Russia that recalls some of the most-dangerous brinkmanship of the Cold War.
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.
His comments came hours after British billionaire Richard Branson announced in a video that he’ll be hosting a concert in the Colombian border town of Cucuta in hopes of raising $100 million to buy humanitarian supplies for Venezuelans.
“With dignity we say ‘No to the global show,’” said Maduro. “Whoever wants to help Venezuela is welcome, but we have enough capacity to pay for everything that we need.”
Opponents say the 56-year-old former bus driver has lost touch with his working-class roots, accusing him of ordering mass arrests and starving Venezuelans while he and regime insiders — including the top military brass — line their pockets through corruption.
But Maduro shrugged off the label of “dictator,” attributing it to an ideologically driven media campaign by the West to undermine the socialist revolution started by Chavez.
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.
“I’m not afraid,” he said, adding that even last year’s attack on him with explosives-laden drones during a military ceremony didn’t shake his resolve. “I’m only worried about the destiny of the fatherland and of our people, our boys and girls….this is what gives me energy.”
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.
Why Maduro is blocking Venezuela-bound humanitarian aid when so many people in his country need it
February 15, 2019
Author: Morten Wendelbo, Research Fellow, American University School of Public Affairs
Disclosure statement: Morten Wendelbo has received funding from USAID, for whom he has carried out a number of studies.
Partners: American University School of Public Affairs provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been strained since the late Hugo Chávez rose to power two decades ago. They got worse when the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the South American country’s president instead of Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro in January 2019.
These tensions could become a full-blown crisis, as has become clear along the Venezuela-Colombia border, where Maduro is blocking the entry of U.S. humanitarian aid. The United States says it is sending US$20 million in food and medical supplies to alleviate suffering at a time when Venezuelans are experiencing widespread malnutrition and lack access to health care. Maduro contends that these shipments are a plot to meddle in his country’s internal affairs – a Trojan horse courtesy of Uncle Sam to undermine Venezuelan democracy.
Although there is no clear evidence of an ulterior motive, history does give Maduro reasons to be skeptical of U.S. intentions. As a political scientist who studies both the political ramifications of international assistance, and Venezuela’s growing instability, I find that humanitarian aid is rarely just about saving lives. In Venezuela, I believe that the U.S.-supplied aid may have substantial political consequences.
A foreign policy tool
USAID, the primary federal aid agency in the U.S., officially operates independently. However, in practice it has worked closely with the State Department, and the Trump administration discussed making it part of the department when Rex Tillerson served as secretary of state.
The U.S. government generally considers aid and development assistance as part of their broader foreign policy. The State Department officially calls USAID an “important contributor to the objectives of the National Security Strategy of the United States.” In other words, USAID’s work abroad is at least partially intended to safeguard American security and promote U.S. interests.
President Donald Trump recently told the UN General Assembly that the U.S. is “only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” a statement that appeared to be a threat to cut off American assistance to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador unless they curb the flow of U.S.-bound asylum-seekers and other immigrants.
The U.S. gives those three countries a total of about $450 million a year in foreign aid and the Trump administration has pledged additional funds to slow the flow of people across the border.
Using aid to advance the national interest is not new.
In 2001, when the war in Afghanistan got underway, the Bush administration used aid to complement the military effort to prevent terrorism. Because Afghanistan had harbored Osama bin Laden and others tied to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, USAID got a broad mandate and billions of dollars to help win the hearts and minds of Afghans. That policy was essentially a bet that once military intervention had defused the hostilities, Afghans would have a more favorable view of the U.S. – reducing the risk that terrorists would use Afghanistan as a launching pad.
USAID has also played an explicit role in attempting to win hearts and minds in Iraq in the early 2000s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and elsewhere.
However, it is probably the agency’s history in Cuba that Maduro has on his mind.
In 2014, a year after Maduro succeeded Chávez, the Associated Press reported that USAID covertly funded and ran the Cuban social network ZunZuneo to help spur dissent in Cuba.
AP reporters identified a series of shell companies the U.S. government used to mask this intervention. They also referenced an internal document that purportedly outlined how the U.S. intended to use the ZunZuneo project to influence Cuban politics.
No other evidence, however, has surfaced to corroborate this story of alleged subversion. Instead, the U.S. government acknowledged funding the project. The program’s secrecy came about not for subversion, but to protect “practitioners and members of the public,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at that time. To be sure, Cubans who admit to working for, or being sympathetic to the U.S., do run risks in a country that locks up some of its dissidents.
As Cuba is one of Venezuela’s most important allies, the Venezuelan media followed the ZunZuneo scandal closely. Venezuela denounced the U.S. for its role with the platform, also known as “Cuban Twitter,” so Maduro is no doubt watching out for what the U.S. may attempt in Venezuela through its use of foreign aid.
I have seen no clear evidence of U.S. intentions to use humanitarian aid to destabilize Venezuela, but USAID’s reputation and Venezuela’s own experience with the U.S. gives Maduro good reasons to fear the worst.
Even if the Trump administration has only the best of intentions, it may not be in Maduro’s interest to let the aid across any of his country’s borders. Humanitarian aid inevitably creates winners and losers – some will reap the benefits of the aid, while others will not.
In a nation where two or more groups are vying for power, that can change the power dynamics. For Maduro, who is still in power, with the Venezuelan military behind him for the time being, any changes caused by the distribution of aid can only weaken his position politically. To Maduro, it is no doubt clear that Guaidó stands to gain most from the humanitarian aid reaching Venezuelans because he can champion the aid as a success of his shadow government.
Humanitarian aid can give the groups that get access to it and can control its distribution leverage against others. In Syria, food aid got into the hands of the Islamic State group, which used the aid to strengthen its rank-and-file fighters, and extort money from communities over which it had control. Food aid also affected the power of different sides in civil wars in Angola, Sudan and Ethiopia, among others.
In my view, the U.S., other nations and aid organizations must take care to avoid letting their assistance get politicized while ensuring that humanitarian assistance actually reaches and benefits the thousands of Venezuelans who need it. Otherwise, these shipments could further destabilize the country, making Venezuelans in need of aid in the first place even worse off.
SOCIALISM — POINT-COUNTERPOINT
Point: ’Socialism’ and Other Bad Words From the Name-Caller-in-Chief
By Dean Baker
We know the way Republicans win elections these days. They call their opponents offensive names.
This is probably a good political tactic. After all, when your party’s agenda is about redistributing as much money as possible to the very richest people in the country, you are not likely to win much support based on your policies. Therefore, we get name-calling.
The latest bad word in the Republicans’ schoolyard taunts is “socialism.” President Trump and his team have decided that they will run around calling Democrats “socialists.”
Their hope is to conjure up images of the stagnation and shortages in the Soviet Union. Or, for those who lack memories of the problems of Soviet bloc economies, they’ll use the economic chaos in Venezuela as a substitute.
Of course, the policies being put forward by the Democrats have nothing to do with the socialist bogeyman Trump is using to try to scare people. They are policies that have deep roots in U.S. history and are, in fact, overwhelmingly popular among voters in both parties.
For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the new representative from Queens, New York, has proposed a marginal income tax rate of 70 percent on income in excess of $10 million. This is the same rate that was in effect under that well-known socialist Richard Nixon. Under Dwight Eisenhower, another prominent socialist, the top tax rate was 90 percent.
It seems that Republicans don’t only dislike the idea of taxing the rich, they don’t even understand it. Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker told a group of fifth graders that AOC wants to have the government take $7 of the $10 that their grandmother pays them for doing chores.
As Representative Ocasio-Cortez explained, this is not the way our tax system works. Her 70 percent tax rate would apply only to income above $10 million. This means that if these fifth graders earned $10,000,010, the government would take $7 out of the last $10. If they earn less than $10 million, they don’t have to worry about it.
Many Democrats are also proposing to expand the Medicare program to cover everyone. Perhaps Medicare now fits in the Republicans’ definition of “socialism,” but it is a hugely popular program with both Democrats and Republicans.
The idea of extending health care coverage has, until recently, been a major goal of both political parties. Richard Nixon had a plan for universal health care coverage that was much more far-reaching than the Affordable Care Act, which the Republicans have spent a decade hating on.
Getting to a universal Medicare-type program will be a big change and we will almost certainly not get there all at once. But, the idea of ensuring that every American has decent health care is not one that most people in the United States consider radical. Only Republican politicians seem to view it that way.
The same applies to Democratic plans to make college free, or at least more affordable. Again, this was once a widely shared goal of both political parties. The GI Bill of Rights, which allowed tens of millions of former troops from poor or middle-class backgrounds to attend college, had wide support across the political spectrum. Now we learn from Donald Trump and other Republican leaders that all of these people were socialists.
The idea of addressing global warming and other environmental hazards also is not exclusively a Democratic one. Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Endangered Species Act. Theodore Roosevelt famously fought to preserve public lands more than 100 years ago.
In short, there is a long bipartisan heritage for the ideas that Democratic leaders are now pushing. These proposals are intended to help the vast majority of the people in the country who have been left behind in the last four decades.
By contrast, the Republican agenda of tax cuts for the rich and the deregulation that allows them to plunder whatever they want is just not very popular. Therefore, we get name-calling.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Counterpoint: Socialism Is Un-American
By David W. Almasi
Late-night talker Stephen Colbert thinks Halloween is a good example of socialism. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that socialism is more tricks than treats.
“On Halloween, kids literally go door to door to get free candy from the neighbors because the kids don’t have it and the neighbors do,” Colbert said. “That’s socialism.”
In reality, socialism would be the homeowners association collecting everyone’s mandatory candy “donation” and passing it out equally. Plenty of my neighbors don’t participate each Halloween. Those who do give out a wide range of treats, from full-size candy bars to a few tiny Tootise rolls. There are even spoilsports giving out dental floss and toothpaste. And people come here from other neighborhoods looking for more candy.
But there is a warning about socialism to be learned from Halloween. There are always stories about unattended bowls of candy, with notes to “take just one,” that are plundered by a few isolated tricksters.
In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump pushed back at demands that we adopt more redistributionist policies to “spread the wealth around,” as Barack Obama advocated. Instead, Trump said — to great applause — “we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
One lawmaker sitting on her hands during that applause was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who asserted, “I think he’s scared” of socialism.
Of course he is! Anyone who isn’t already afraid of socialism should look at the “Green New Deal” that AOC has introduced. In 10 short years, she wants to completely move us from the fossil-fuel and nuclear sources that generated more than 80 percent of our electricity in 2017 to renewables that generated only 17 percent. She wants every building in America renovated — from the Freedom Tower in New York City to your house — to meet her energy-efficiency demands. She seeks to diminish the number of planes, cars and even cows.
The Green New Deal expands beyond the environment to include government-run universal health care and even “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.” Unwilling!
These are not just the dreams of a naive freshman member of Congress. Her Senate co-sponsor is Edward Markey, who has served on Capitol Hill for more than 40 years. And the Green New Deal has been embraced by presidential aspirants such as Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
This Green New Deal is a big deal. It could cost trillions, and radically affect peoples’ lives and livelihoods. Even if it goes nowhere, the enthusiasm for it tips the hand of the liberal caucus.
Of course this makes President Trump scared about the prospect of socialism in America.
Look what socialism did to Venezuela. Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro turned what was once the wealthiest country in South America into a dystopian state where crime is high and supplies are low. Energy production in this oil-rich country is down. Zoo animals are being eaten while the military is physically blocking humanitarian aid from crossing the border.
Yet socialism remains popular among American liberals. There are those who claim Venezuela is not “real” socialism, and they hanker they can do it correctly in the United States. But it’s already failed here.
For the last nine years the Panera Bread restaurant chain operated several Panera Cares locations across America that had no set prices. Customers could pay as much or as little as they liked. The expectation was that the richer clientele would subsidize poorer patrons. On February 15, the last Panera Cares location closed. Panera management said the model is “no longer viable.” Other charities sent their needy over. People who weren’t needy took advantage of it. Security concerns became an issue. Panera will remain charitable, but in a more controlled manner.
Socialism doesn’t work — not even on Halloween. Free markets foster the innovation that promotes prosperity. That’s what President Trump is promising to resist.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David W. Almasi is vice president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a research and communications foundation dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.