Reports that the United States is in secret negotiations with the No. 2 man in Venezuela caught by surprise several of the most well-versed experts in the Latin America country, with some describing the effort as naive and others as proof that Washington is running out of ideas in its fight against the regime of Nicolás Maduro.
According to an exclusive story published Sunday night by The Associated Press, Washington has begun secret talks with Diosdado Cabello as well as with other senior officials of the regime, some of whom are trying to get assurances that they will not suffer reprisals if they agree to requests to abandon Maduro.
The article was based on the statements of a senior U.S. official whose identity was not disclosed. The source said the talks were not meant to encourage Cabello to overthrow Maduro so Cabello could take over.
”The goal of contact [with Cabello] is to increase the pressure on the regime by contributing to the fight that the United States believes is going on behind the scenes between rival power circles within the ruling party,” the story said.
”Similar contacts are being made with other senior Venezuelan officials ... and the White House is just listening to what it would take to betray Maduro and support a transition plan,” the story added.
Experts, however, warned that nothing good can be expected from negotiations with Cabello, who is being investigated in the United States on suspicion that he is one of the top drug lords of Venezuela and once planned an attempt on the life of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
“The idea that [Cabello] can play a constructive role in Venezuela is a sign that the current team that is leading the policy is running out of ideas,” said Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
It is doubtful that the U.S. can give Cabello guarantees that he would not end up behind bars if the regime collapses, espcially if U.S. prosecutors have already filed sealed charges against him. U.S. authorities have been investigating him for drug trafficking for more than a decade, Noriega said.
Multiple Venezuelan witnesses have told U.S. law enforcement authorities that Cabello is the real head of the so-called Los Soles Cartel, a criminal organization composed of military officers and senior officials of the regime who control drug-trafficking operations in Venezuela.
When sanctioning Cabello in May 2018, the U.S. government declared that the Venezuelan leader was involved in a series of criminal operations.
”In addition to money laundering and illegal mineral exports, Cabello is also directly involved in drug trafficking activities,” the Treasury Department said in a statement at the time.
”Working with [former] Venezuelan executive vice president Tarek El Aissami ... Cabello organizes drug shipments that move from Venezuela through the Dominican Republic and then to Europe,” the statement added.
Noriega, who for years warned of the danger that the government of Hugo Chávez represented when very few were paying attention in Washington, said he fears that some U.S. officials seem to believe that the “narco-regime” that controls Venezuela can be persuaded to hold elections they would lose.
Noriega also said he has doubts about the idea that sectors of the Venezuelan government are willing to overthrow Maduro.
”I think those are illusions,” he said. “There are internal divisions and rivalries among the regime’s leaders, but they are entrenched and know that they either stay together or they hang separately.”
Douglas Farah, a journalist and researcher frequently cited in Congress on issues involving the Maduro regime, said it is very difficult to believe that anything useful can be negotiated with Cabello, saying Cabello would use any diaogue as a maneuver to gain time or to delay more U.S. sanctions.
Cabello has been gaining power in recent months as Washington and the international community have taken steps to isolate and punish Maduro, supporting interim president Juan Guaidó as the legitimate head of state of the oil country.
“Cabello has gained a lot of ground in the last year with sanctions at the expense of Maduro, at the expense of El Aissami, and at the expense of others. If one sees appointments in strategic areas, in ports and airports, in intelligence, and in other key areas, one sees that they are Diosdado’s people,” Farah said.
He added that it is even possible for Cabello to accumulate even more power than Maduro within the Caracas regime, which he described in a recent report as a gigantic criminal conglomerate that operates in multiple countries with dozens of partners and hundreds of ghost companies.
Precisely because of that criminal connection, Washington should not fall into the illusion that it can hold fruitful talks with Cabello, said analyst and military expert Vladimir Petit.
”Reviewing the history of Latin America in recent times, today we have nothing more similar to what is happening in Venezuela than what we saw in Medellin in the years of [drug kingpin] Pablo Escobar,” said Petit, adding that the regime is controlled by heads of criminal gangs that control corruption, smuggling, extortion and drug trafficking.
And to be able to deal seriously with someone with that kind of mentality, the U.S. has to make it prohibitive for Cabello not to negotiate, Petit said.
First, there has to be a “possible and credible lethal threat at the door” so that Cabello really feels the need to negotiate, Petit said. And second, the offer has to overcome the benefits Cabello and others are already enjoying.
Since drug trafficking operations already generate hundreds of millions of dollars from one month to the next, creating the conditions for negotiations means that the regime’s leaders have to be virtually against the wall.
”You can’t negotiate with a criminal if you don’t have his foot on his neck,” Petit said.
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM