AP Interview: Maduro reveals secret meetings with US envoy

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro said in an AP interview Thursday that his foreign minister recently held secret talks in New York with the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, even as the Trump administration was publicly backing an effort to unseat the Venezuelan president.

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While harshly criticizing Donald Trump's confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said he holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president soon to resolve a crisis over America's recognition of opponent Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader.

Maduro said that while in New York, his foreign minister invited the Washington, D.C.-based envoy, Elliott Abrams, to come to Venezuela "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 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 the 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.

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."

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. He said that backing from 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 called boxes of U.S.-supplied humanitarian aid 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. "With dignity we say 'No to the global show.' 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 the late Hugo 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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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed.

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This story has been amended to correct the day that Juan Guaido declared himself interim president.