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Maduro Reveals US Envoy Meetings       02/15 06:50

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

   CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A month into Venezuela's high-stakes political 
crisis, President Nicolas Maduro revealed in an Associated Press interview that 
his government held secret talks with the Trump administration and 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 opponent Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader.

   Maduro said that during two hushed meetings in New York, his foreign 
minister invited the Washington-based special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott 
Abrams, to come 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.

   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 

   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 

   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 

   "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."


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