The U.S. is engaged in talks with senior socialist party official and alleged “drug kingpin” Diosdado Cabello about the possibility of removing Nicolás Maduro from power in exchange for future immunity, according to a report from the Associated Press.
The agency reports that someone close to the Trump administration met Cabello in Caracas last month to discuss the issue, with a second meeting likely to take place in the coming weeks.
Cabello, who is widely seen as the second most powerful man in Venezuela as the Head of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), and has long been a fierce ally of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez. However, his leadership of the ANC, which is itself a fraudulent lawmaking body, gives him the right to remove Maduro from power and potentially instigate a transition to democracy.
He is currently sanctioned by the State Department as part of their wider efforts to remove the Maduro regime from power, with the U.S. accusing him of being “directly involved in narcotics trafficking activities” as well as “personally [profiting] from extortion, money laundering, and embezzlement. He is also understood to have been involved in a plot to kill Sen. Marco Rubio, who has described him as the “Pablo Escobar of Venezuela.”
The official said that “under no circumstances” was the U.S. planning to see Cabello replace Maduro at the helm of power, but instead 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.”
In public, Cabello is also a fierce supporter of Maduro, recently giving him a “fraternal salute” on state television. “We have no secrets, no lies here,” he said on his weekly show Con El Mazo Dando. “Every time we do something we will inform the people, so that with a clear conscience they can take informed decisions and fix positions.”
Although Cabello refused to comment on the claims, an aide of his rejected the idea that he was betraying Maduro, arguing that he “would only meet with Americans with the president’s permission and if it contributes to lifting sanctions he blames for crippling the oil-dependent economy.”
However, the source also told the agency that other senior officials including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Interior Minister Néstor Reverol were in “indirect contact” with Washington, underlining the possibility that his allies may eventually turn on him.
Earlier this month, the U.S. slapped their latest round of sanctions on the Venezuelan regime by freezing all their U.S. based assets and those of individuals or entities providing material support to the regime. Previous rounds of sanctions have targeted the country’s state-run oil industry, Petroleum of Venezuela (PDSVA), with oil being the country’s largest export.