Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido casts doubts on Maduro claims of talks with U.S.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido is casting doubt on President Nicolas Maduro's claim that he is overseeing secret talks with the United States.

Maduro said Tuesday talks had been ongoing for months

Venezuela's National Assembly President Juan Guaido says President Nicolas Maduro's claim of secret talks with the U.S. only reflects disarray within the Venezuelan government. (Leonardo Fernandez/The Associated Press)

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido cast doubt Wednesday on President Nicolas Maduro's claim that he is overseeing secret talks with the United States, saying it only reflects disarray within the Venezuelan government.

Guaido spoke a day after Maduro and U.S. President Donald Trump said high-level officials in their respective administrations have been meeting about ending the South American nation's deepening crisis.

In his first public remarks about the matter, Guaido said the Venezuelan government was dysfunctional and that its hardliners would be disappointed to hear about alleged talks with the U.S.

"What's clear are the contradictions of the regime," he said at an event in Caracas. "How many times have we seen how disorganized the regime is? If they've been effective in anything, it's communications, propaganda, lies for years."

Guaido's comments focused on dialogue and foreign diplomacy more than they have in the past, as a delegation of opposition leaders this week travel to Washington to fine tune their strategy for forcing Maduro from power.

Russia's role

Meanwhile, Maduro has sent two members of his government to Russia. Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez recently visited Moscow to fortify military ties, and Vice President Delcy Rodriguez met Wednesday with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in talks aimed at expanding economic, military and other relations between the two nations.

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, who has spent decades researching Venezuela, said these parallel trips demonstrate the critical role that Russia and the United States have taken in Venezuela's conflict.

"They're having their own high level meetings with Russia, while the opposition is in D.C.," Smilde said. "This shows the level that this is a geopolitical conflict."

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have been escalating since early this year when Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared the constitution gives him presidential powers because Maduro's election last year was a fraud. But despite his widespread international backing, Guaido has been unable to loosen Maduro's grip on power and in particular, the military.

Guaido supporters took part in a rally against the Maduro government and to commemorate May Day in Caracas, May 1. (Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

The Associated Press reported over the weekend that the United States has made secret contact with socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello as close allies of Maduro's inner circle seek guarantees they won't face prosecution for alleged abuses and crimes if they cede to growing demands to step down from power.

Maduro said on national television Tuesday that talks had long been underway between officials in his government and the U.S. administration.

"We've had secret meetings in secret places with secret people that nobody knows," Maduro said, adding that all talks had been carried out under his "direct" authorization. "Sure there's been contact and we'll continue having contact."

However, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted Wednesday that Maduro must be removed and that the talks don't involve him. "The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro's back are his departure and free and fair elections," Bolton tweeted.

Maduro, right, speaks with Diosdado Cabello in January. The Associated Press reported on the weekend that the U.S. has made secret contact with the socialist party boss. (Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press)

As he took questions from reporters Tuesday, Trump confirmed his administration is talking to "various representatives of Venezuela" but refused to say whether the White House is specifically talking to Cabello.

"I don't want to say who," he said. "But we're talking at a very high level."

A U.S. official told the AP the goal is not to prop up Cabello or pave the way for him to substitute Maduro, but to ratchet up pressure on the regime by contributing to the knife fight the U.S. believes is taking place behind the scenes among competing circles of power within the ruling party.

Many saw negotiations hosted by Norway on the Caribbean island of Barbados between the Maduro government and its opposition as Venezuela's best chance at resolving the crisis. Then, Bolton unveiled a new round of harsh sanctions this month, which prompted Maduro to pull out.

Smilde and other analysts said that communication between the U.S. and Venezuela unveiled this week is a positive sign.

John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy, said it's unclear to what extent, if any, Guaido is involved in the talks. If the communication is in fact unilateral between the Trump and Maduro administrations, it would make the opposition appear weakened.

"The direct dialogue speaks to the limitations of the opposition," he said.

The development comes just weeks after the U.S. Treasury Department slapped tough new sanctions against the Venezuelan government that would target even foreign companies that do business with the Maduro administration.

Analysts said it's not surprising that a backroom dialogue between U.S. and Venezuelan officials remains active.

"The situation is in such a deadlock that I imagine the U.S. is looking for a way to open other pathways," said Venezuelan analyst Carlos Romero. "Ones that are less belligerent than they've used up till now."