US officials met secretly with Venezuelan military officers who were plotting a coup against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, both a current and a former US official confirmed to CNN.
American officials met with the renegade Venezuelan military officers several times over the last year after the Venezuelan officers made contact, but Washington ultimately decided against supporting the coup, the two sources said.
The US did not provide the Venezuelan officers with any support and the plans for the coup ultimately fell apart, the sources said.
The Trump administration’s discussions with the Venezuelan military officers about a potential coup were first reported Saturday morning by the New York Times. The current and former US officials confirmed to CNN that report is accurate.
The White House declined to comment on the meetings between US officials and Venezuelan military officers, but said in a statement the US continues to support “a peaceful orderly return to democracy in Venezuela.”
“U.S. policy preference for a peaceful, orderly return to democracy in Venezuela remains unchanged. The United States government hears daily the concerns of Venezuelans from all walks of life – be they members of the ruling party, the security services, elements of civil society or from among the millions of citizens forced by the regime to flee abroad. They share one goal: the rebuilding of democracy in their homeland,” said National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis. “A lasting solution to Venezuela’s worsening crisis can only arise following restoration of governance by democratic practices, the rule of law, and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms.”
CNN also reached out to the press office of Venezuela’s Ministry of Defense, who said they will not comment until they are given instructions to do so.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza responded to the news through his verified Twitter account, saying the Maduro government denounces efforts to intervene in the Latin American nation.
“We denounce before the world the intervention plans and the support to military conspiracies by the US government against Venezuela. In the US’s own media came to light new and crass evidence,” Arreaza tweeted.
President Donald Trump has previously discussed the possibility of a military option in Venezuela.
“We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option,” Trump said last August.
Asked about the possibility of a military intervention in response to the mounting crisis in the country, the President said that is something the US “certainly could pursue.”
Taking military action against Venezuela would be a dramatic escalation of the US’s so-far solely diplomatic and sanctions-focused response to the political and economic crisis roiling the South American country.
In August 2017, Trump asked several advisers about the possibility of invading Venezuela, CNN reported in July.
Details about the meetings
The Times’ report included details from the secret meetings, citing 11 current and former US officials and a former Venezuelan military commander sanctioned by the US government who was involved in the secret meetings.
The Venezuelan military commander is one of many on the US government’s list of sanctioned Venezuelan officials accused of serious crimes, according to the Times.
The former commander told the Times at least three factions within the Venezuelan military were plotting against the Maduro government.
The Times reported that one such rebel group made initial contact with the US government through an American embassy in a European city’s capital.
White House officials back in Washington were at first worried that the meeting request was a setup in order to record a US official appearing to conspire against Maduro’s government, the Times reported.
But US officials finally felt the meetings were worth the risk as they watched the crisis in the Latin American country worsen, the Times reported.
Trump’s administration sent a career diplomat with instructions to attend the meetings “purely on listening mode” and not to negotiate, a senior administration official told the Times.
From their first meeting held abroad in fall 2017, the diplomat made the assessment that the Venezuelan rebels did not appear to have a detailed plan, but instead were hoping the American government would provide guidance or ideas, the Times reported.
The former Venezuelan commander told the Times that the officers never sought US military intervention: “I never agreed, nor did they propose, to do a joint operation,” he told the newspaper.
During a second meeting last year, the officers requested encrypted radios for secure communication, the Times reported.
But senior officials declined the request, according to the newspaper.
A third meeting was arranged early this year, however discussions resulted in zero promises of material support or clear signs that Washington supported the rebels’ plans, the Times reported.
Attempts to stage a coup by Venezuelan rebels
According to the Venezuelan commander, the rebels attempted several times to stage a coup.
They were considering striking last July, when the election was held to replace the National Assembly with a new pro-Maduro legislative body called the National Constituent Assembly, the Times reported.
The plans to stage a coup moved to March, then later the May 20 election. However, both attempts were thwarted after the plans leaked, according to the Times.
The Times reported that it’s unclear the amount of detail the Venezuelans shared with the Americans, yet there is indication that Maduro was aware of the secret meetings.
Once the richest country in Latin America, Venezuela has plummeted into an economic and humanitarian crisis where its people are living with food shortages, overcrowded hospitals, inflation and political turmoil. The chaos and ongoing crisis have triggered a mass exodus of Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighboring countries, ratcheting up tensions in the region.
Last month, Maduro survived an apparent assassination attempt after several drones armed with explosives flew toward him during a speech at a military parade.
CNN’s Abel Alvarado, Claudia Dominguez and Eli Watkins contributed to this report.