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Maduro comments on secret US meetings in interview

AP, CARACAS

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in an interview with The Associated press on Thursday said that his foreign minister recently held secret talks in New York with US Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, even as US President Donald Trump’s administration was publicly backing an effort to unseat Maduro.

While harshly criticizing Trump’s confrontational stance toward his government, Maduro said that he holds out hope of meeting Trump soon to resolve a crisis over the US’ recognition of Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president.

While in New York, Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Arreaza invited Abrams, who is based in Washington, to come to Venezuela “privately, publicly or secretly,” Maduro said.

“If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I’ll be there,” Maduro said without providing more details.

Both New York meetings lasted several hours, he said.

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

Two senior Venezuelan officials who were not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly said that the encounters between Abrams and Arreaza came at the request of the US.

The first one on Jan. 26 they said was hostile, with Abrams 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 on Monday, the atmosphere was less tense, even though the encounter came four days after Abrams said that the “time for dialogue with Maduro had long passed,” they said.

During that meeting, Abrams insisted that severe US sanctions would oust Maduro even if Venezuela’s military stuck by him, the officials said.

Abrams gave no indication that the US was prepared to ease its demand that Maduro step down, they said, adding that the Venezuelans still saw the meetings as a sign that there is room for discussion with the US, despite the tough public rhetoric coming from Washington.

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

The US’ sanctions on the oil industry are to blame for mounting hardships, Maduro said.

However, shortages and hyperinflation that has topped 1 million percent long predate Trump’s actions, economists said.

The sanctions effectively ban all oil purchases by the US, which had been Venezuela’s biggest oil buyer.

Maduro said that he would 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.”

He 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.

Backing from Russian President Vladimir Putin runs the risk of converting the current crisis into a high-risk geopolitical fight between the US and Russia that recalls some of the most dangerous brinkmanship of the Cold War, he added.

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