Venezuela’s senior leaders charged Sen. Marco Rubio and the CIA of plotting to topple the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
With their country descending into crisis, Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada and Carlos Ron, the chargé d'affaires of the Embassy of Venezuela, accused Rubio and CIA Director Mike Pompeo of secretly conspiring against Caracas so that Washington can install new leaders amenable to U.S. interests.
“What this group is trying to do with Venezuela is basically divide the government, recognize other leaders and foment a conflict with the Venezuelans,” Ron told a small group of reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”
The South American country with the world’s largest oil reserves is spinning out of control, its economy in tatters and its people starving as oil revenues plummet. Tensions reached a tipping point this week ahead of a July 30 vote to change the Venezuelan constitution and strip lawmakers of power. The government argues the change is needed to stabilize the country, but U.S. leaders see it as a move toward a “full dictatorship.”
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In a nearly two-hour discussion at the Venezuelan residency in Washington, the Venezuelan officials — including interim Ambassador to the Organization of American States Carmen Velasquez — criticized U.S. threats of sweeping sanctions targeting Venezuelan oil if the vote isn’t called off.
Ron said the American people are not hearing the full story and accused the United States of unfairly attacking a democratically elected government.
He said relations with the United States have long been challenging, but that tensions have escalated under President Donald Trump, citing sanctions against Venezuela Vice President Tareck El Aissami and threat of an embargo against Venezuelan oil.
“At this moment, relations are not good,” Ron said.
Rubio, who has the ear of the White House, warned of a “very strong response” from Trump if Venezuela goes through with the “fraudulent vote.” He plans to deliver a list of Venezuelan officials to the White House Tuesday that will include the names of people he hopes the Trump administration will issue sanctions against prior to the vote.
“I hope every day this week the administration will take action to make clear that we’re not going to stand by and watch democracy be totally demolished by the Maduro regime,” Rubio said.
Moncada said the vote will take place. Speaking to the group of reporters, he said the clearest indication of the United States’ real intentions came just five days ago when Pompeo addressed the Aspen Institute security forum.
During a Q&A, Pompeo signaled CIA’s desire for a new government in Venezuela and acknowledged having conversations about the issue in Colombia and Mexico.
Pompeo told the group the United States has a deep interest in a stable and democratic Venezuela and that he was “hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there”.
“I was just down in Mexico City and in 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.”
Moncada’s voice grew animated discussing Pompeo’s remarks, calling it proof of a coordinated plot.
“There is a secret operation by the Central Intelligence Agency to split up a democratically elected government,” Moncada said.
On Tuesday, Maduro reiterated claims that Pompeo was plotting a coup-like effort along with Colombia and Mexico.
“The governments of Colombia and Mexico deny it,” Maduro told a meeting of transportation workers, according to state-run VTV television. “What need does the head of the CIA have to say things like that? He's saying it because he's the boss, he feels like the boss, he tells the truth. And the lies of the governments of Mexico and Colombia, which follow him like sheep, were exposed.”
The CIA declined to comment. Neighboring Colombia rejected Moncada’s accusations.
“Colombia has never been interventionist and we deny the existence of any action or activity that would attempt to interfere in Venezuela," the Foreign Ministry said in a release late Monday.
The two nations share a 1,300 mile border, and Venezuelans frequently cross the frontier in search of food and medicine.
“What happens in Venezuela either hurts or benefits us,” Colombia’s foreign ministry said. “As we have said in the past, our only interest in terms of the current situation that Venezuela is going through is that Venezuelans need to reach a negotiated and peaceful solution.”
It’s not the first time Rubio and Pompeo’s names together have raised alarm in Venezuela. Under questioning from Rubio during a May Senate hearing on worldwide security threats, Pompeo warned that large caches of weapons in Venezuela were at risk of falling into the wrong hands because of the turmoil.
“It is a real threat,” Pompeo said.
Despite the accusations, Moncada and Ron left the door open for more discussions to avoid the sanctions. They said the two sides remain in communication, but that the United States needed to respect Venezuela’s sovereignty. Ron emphasized oil sanctions would not only hurt the Venezuelan government, but it would also hurt the Venezuelan people.
“We don’t want this conflict,” Ron said. “We don’t want this tension. What we want is a dialog, but with respect. Not with threats. Venezuela is not going to sit down together at a table under threat.”
Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.