Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has claimed secret talks between his top officials and the US have been taking place with his express permission.
It comes amid reports this week that American officials were secretly working to oust Mr Maduro from power with the help of his deputy Diosdado Cabello.
The country is suffering from one of the worst economic crises in history which has caused a mass exodus of people and left many of those who remain without basic access to food, health and education services.
US president Donald Trump confirmed on Tuesday that his administration was "talking to various representatives of Venezuela". Mr Trump declined to name the officials, but added "we are talking at a very high level".
Mr Maduro took to national television on Tuesday to say the talks between senior officials from the two countries had been underway for some time.
"We’ve had secret meetings in secret places with secret people that nobody knows," Mr Maduro said, adding that all talks had been carried out under his "direct" authorisation. "Sure there’s been contact and we’ll continue having contact."
Mr Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, poured cold water on that claim Wednesday, saying in a tweet:
As the President has repeatedly stated, to end the pilfering of the Venezuelan people’s resources and continued repression, Maduro must go. The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro’s back are his departure and free and fair elections.
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) August 21, 2019
Reports over the weekend suggested the Trump administration had been covertly approaching members of Mr Maduro’s inner circle with offers of immunity if they withdraw their support for the Venezuelan leader.
According to a Trump administration official, that dialogue was said to focus on Mr Cabello, who reportedly met with a US intermediary in Caracas in July.
America is among more than 50 countries to recognise Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader, as the country’s rightful president.
In his first public remarks about the matter, Mr Guaido referred to Mr Bolton’s remarks and said the Venezuelan government’s hardliners would be disappointed to hear about alleged talks with the US.
"The US has not only an opportunity, but a responsibility, to use leverage it has to try and advance the position of the opposition and try and reach a deal," he said. "It oversteps when it moves in directions that are clearly not aligned with what Guaido is supporting."
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