It’s no secret in Washington that the Trump administration is the most inexperienced and inept in foreign policy in recent memory, but what CIA Director Mike Pompeo said a few days ago about Venezuela is incredibly stupid even by Trump government standards.
When asked about the Venezuelan crisis at the July 20 Aspen Security Forum, Pompeo started out – wisely – by obliquely acknowledging past CIA interventions in Latin America, saying with a smile that “I’m always very careful when we talk about South and Central America and the CIA. There are a lot of stories. So I want to be very careful with what I say.”
But then, inexplicably, he did exactly the opposite, giving Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his corruption-ridden regime the greatest propaganda ammunition they could possibly hope for.
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Pompeo told the audience that he was working hard to restore democracy in Venezuela, and added that “I was just down in Mexico City and Bogota a week before last, talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do, so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.”
Shortly thereafter, Pompeo’s remarks were on YouTube. And Maduro – who has been trying for years to blame the CIA for Venezuela’s economic disaster – had a field day.
“U.S. plotting against Venezuela, CIA head confirms,” read a big headline at Telesurtv.net, the Venezuela- and Cuba-sponsored propaganda TV network and digital news site that reaches much of Latin America.
Hours later, Maduro himself was on national television, making the most of Pompeo’s gaffe and lashing out against the Mexican and Colombian governments, which have been active in Latin American diplomatic efforts to restore democratic rule in Venezuela.
“The director of the CIA has said, ‘The CIA and the U.S. government work in direct collaboration with the Mexican government and the Colombian government to overthrow the constitutional government in Venezuela and to intervene in our beloved Venezuela,' “ Maduro said on television.
Venezuela’s dictator – who has allowed his country to be virtually taken over by Cuba – added, “I demand the government of Mexico and the government of Colombia to properly clarify the statements by the CIA.” Mexico and Colombia issued official statements saying that they were not part of any CIA plot to topple Maduro.
But for some of the Venezuelans and Latin Americans who watch Telesur and believe that the CIA is still engaged in the dirty tricks it was known for in Latin America in the 20th century, Pompeo’s words sounded alarm bells.
In the same television speech, Maduro claimed that the Mexican and Colombian “oligarchies” are conspiring with “the North American empire” to take over Latin America’s oil reserves. Never mind that the United States is awash in oil, and that new clean energy technologies are advancing so fast that even Saudi Arabia has announced plans to shift from oil to alternative energy industries.
Following the Cuban script, Maduro desperately needs to blame the United States for his disastrous government and his country’s debacle. According to new International Monetary Fund economic projections, Venezuela’s economy will fall by 12 percent this year, and inflation will reach 720 percent by the end of this year. There are widespread food and medicine shortages, and more than 100 people have died over the past three months in anti-government demonstrations.
There would be nothing wrong if Pompeo went to Mexico and Colombia to share U.S. intelligence information about drug trafficking and links with Islamic terrorists by top Venezuelan officials. That’s what a CIA director is supposed to do.
But Pompeo should have followed his own advice and watched his mouth. Instead of making vague statements that Maduro could use to feed his conspiracy theories, the CIA director should work on a way to release U.S. information about the massive corruption by Venezuela’s ruling elite.
One idea: Pompeo could help disclose who received the $98 million in bribes that, according to U.S. Justice Department records, were paid by the Odebrecht construction firm to top Venezuelan officials in recent years. Offering specific information about corruption would be much better than giving political fodder to the Maduro regime.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.