When President Trump said last August that the United States was considering a “military option” to address the crisis Venezuela, it was easy to dismiss his frightening comments as improvisational bluster.
But it turns out they carried more weight than almost anyone knew.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that in the months after the president’s comments, Trump administration officials met with a faction of rebel Venezuelan military officers who wanted to depose President Nicolás Maduro, the quasi-authoritarian president who has presided over the country’s descent into economic ruin. Though open to hearing the rebels out, the U.S. eventually refused to assist them with their coup planning. Then, the Maduro government caught wind of the incipient plot and arrested many of its key figures — though there is no evidence the government was aware of an American connection.
The paper interviewed 11 current and former Trump administration officials, as well as a Venezuelan military commander who was involved in the meetings.
The Venezuelan officers told the American officials that they were part of a group within the military, consisting of a few hundred soldiers, that wanted to oust Maduro. Attempts to connect with the American government had gone nowhere under the Obama administration, but the plotters found more success when they reached out after Trump’s incendiary comments. (The AP reported last month that days before hinting at military action, Trump had to be talked out of invading Venezuela during a White House meeting.)
After overcoming skepticism that the Venezuelans were setting them up, the American officials agreed to send a diplomat to meet with the plotters several times in strict “listening mode” between fall 2017 and early 2018. But according to that official, the Venezuelans did not have a real, concrete plan to take down Maduro; instead, they mostly sought advice from the Americans on how to go about it.
A former Venezuelan commander said that the U.S. didn’t follow through on his side’s requests, which included obtaining secure radios so that the rebels could coordinate securely during and after their coup.
In the end, the rebels delayed their plot three times before being found out.
The U.S. has a long history of meddling in Latin American countries to promote its own interests, often aligning with brutal dictators in Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in the process. The brush with Venezuelan rebels shows that Washington’s habit of making friends with unsavory characters hasn’t changed much: One of the officers officials met with, the Times reports, had previously been accused by the U.S. government of “torturing critics, jailing hundreds of political prisoners, wounding thousands of civilians, trafficking drugs and collaborating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” the violent anti-government rebel group.
Amid widespread economic turmoil and an exodus of Venezuelans fleeing to neighboring countries, Maduro recently survived an assassination attack via drone shortly after winning re-election. He often accuses the United States of plotting against him, and the Times report will certainly provide him with fodder to back up his claims.