Erik Prince, a private security mogul with ties to the Trump administration, held secret talks in Caracas last month with Venezuela’s vice president after briefing at least one senior U.S. official on his plans, according to people familiar with the situation.
Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater — who earlier in the year had pitched a plan to topple the nation’s socialist leader Nicolas Maduro — proposed a business deal and urged freedom for six imprisoned Citgo executives in the meeting with Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, according to one of the people.
A few days ago, the Citgo employees were transferred to house arrest from prison, where they’d languished for two years. It’s unclear why they were moved or if Prince’s request played a role. Citgo is the U.S. arm of Venezuela’s state oil company.
The trip was Prince’s initiative, not the administration’s, but he let at least one senior official know about it. It’s unclear whether he was carrying an official message or going mostly to drum up business.
A person briefed on the meeting said Prince suggested sending personnel to train the nation’s police force as well as protecting judges and political candidates to help pave the way for new presidential elections.
Prince’s trip may be the latest sign of a shift in Washington’s Venezuela policy as President Donald Trump loses confidence that opposition leader Juan Guaido can ever overthrow Maduro. It also marks a U-turn for Prince, whose earlier plan called for thousands of soldiers-for-hire to oust Maduro after the U.S. recognized Guaido, as Venezuela’s rightful leader in January.
Maduro was later briefed on Prince’s visit, the people said, suggesting a potential back channel between two leaders who’ve castigated each other in public. Rodriguez, one of Maduro’s closest aides, is sanctioned by the U.S. government, and discussing any business with her without permission is against U.S. law.
Messages seeking comment left for Prince at two of his companies weren’t answered, nor were those for Rodriguez. Jorge Rodriguez, her brother and the information minister, replied, “no comment.” The White House didn’t immediately respond.
Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Venezuela, said the department had no knowledge of Prince’s meeting.
“Neither the meeting nor any offers made were on behalf of the United States Government and on their face such offers would appear to violate U.S. sanctions,” he said by email. “The United States fully supports Juan Guaido and looks forward to his re-election as president of the National Assembly. He is the leader of the opposition and the symbol of democratic change for Venezuelans; he personifies their struggle to restore democracy to their country.”
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence met with senior officials to re-examine the White House’s yearlong push for a democratic transition in the nation. After failing to usurp Maduro in a spring uprising, Guaido is losing political capital. Earlier this month, the Venezuelan legislature launched an investigation into potential influence-peddling among opposition lawmakers. On Jan. 5, the National Assembly is set to vote on whether Guaido remains its president.
Prince, heir to a billionaire fortune and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, made a name for himself as a private security contractor. During the Iraq War, the U.S. government hired Blackwater to provide security for State Department operations there. In 2007, Blackwater employees shot and killed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, drawing global condemnation.
One of his top clients is the Chinese government. He’s also been questioned in investigations of Russian meddling into the 2016 elections over whether he tried to establish a back channel between the Trump administration and the Kremlin. China and Russia remain two of Maduro’s most powerful backers.
Prince, a prominent Trump donor, has also worked with former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon on an effort to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border among other projects.
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