He is variously known as a drug trafficker, a thug, a loyal revolutionary and the power behind the throne in Venezuela.

But his friends and enemies agree on one thing: Diosdado Cabello is one of the most important links in the chain holding up President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

So when news emerged this week that Mr Cabello had met a US intermediary for secret talks about a possible solution to Venezuela’s long-running political crisis, all sides rushed to put their own spin on the development.

Venezuela has slid into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with up to a quarter of its population fleeing abroad as refugees. Years of misrule by the hard-left government have shrunk gross domestic product by more than half and destroyed oil production. Sweeping US sanctions have choked most remaining economic activity.

Propped up by Russia, Cuba and China, Mr Maduro’s government is clinging to power after what was widely seen as a rigged election last year. It has refused opposition demands for fresh elections and an interim government headed by Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly and the man recognised by the US and more than 50 other mainly Western nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

The stalemate between Mr Maduro and Mr Guaidó has persisted throughout this year, dashing US hopes of an early end to the crisis and forcing Washington to consider other ways of achieving a breakthrough, such as covert talks with the regime.

Trump administration officials have talked before about contacts with other high-ranking Maduro government members. But they hailed news of a meeting with Mr Cabello as a breakthrough, saying it signified growing disarray at the heart of the Chavista government. According to Associated Press, which first reported the contact, it took place in Caracas last month, and a second encounter is planned.

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“There have been multiple talks with over half a dozen officials in competing centres of power around Maduro,” said one senior US official. “He should wake up to the fact that these conversations are about a transition to end his power grab.”

“The constant themes in all conversations were: how to get out of the crisis, how to find an exit for Maduro, and how to save their own skins and those of their families, not necessarily in that order.”

Not surprisingly, Mr Maduro did not see it that way. Speaking during the opening of a bus terminal in the Caribbean port of La Guaira on Tuesday, the Venezuelan leader joked about revealing a secret to his audience before confirming that talks between his government and the Trump administration had taken place during the past few months “under my express and direct authorisation”.

Looking relaxed and confident, Mr Maduro said that if Mr Trump ever wanted to talk seriously about a plan to solve the Venezuela conflict, he was always open to it.

“Whether or not Maduro knows about the conversations, it’s clever of him to indicate that he does,” said one former senior US official with experience in Venezuela. “The whole purpose is to let his supporters know that the Americans have given up on the Venezuelan opposition and are now talking to him.”

Vanessa Neumann, Mr Guaidó’s envoy to the UK, said the Venezuelan opposition was pursuing a multipronged strategy to end the crisis, and the latest contacts between Mr Cabello and the US were part of that. “We will do anything it takes. We will go anywhere and talk to anyone,” she said. “The race is on to see who betrays whom. The regime will be broken by a lack of loyalty.”

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Those close to developments in Caracas said Mr Cabello is a particularly important figure not just because he is head of the National Constituent Assembly, a rival parliament set up by Mr Maduro after the opposition won the formal parliament, or because of his media reach via a weekly television programme. His military credentials as a former soldier who fought alongside Hugo Chávez also matter to the powerful armed forces, whose confidence he enjoys.

Noting that Washington had negotiated successfully with Mr Cabello before, when he agreed in 2015 to hold national assembly elections, which were subsequently won by the opposition, the former senior US official said: “I do think a deal is there to be done. The issue is that Maduro and his government are not going to rely on guarantees made by the US or the [opposition] for their security and wellbeing.”

“Both sides are trying to use these revelations against the other,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Only they will know exactly what was discussed but the fact both Maduro and Trump have admitted being in touch is an implicit recognition of the need for some kind of meaningful, bigger negotiations to resolve the crisis.”

Mr Cabello is believed to want to lead Chavista forces in any future elections, which poses problems for a US administration that has publicly denounced him as a drug trafficker, a money launderer and an embezzler. Instead, Washington is hoping that Mr Maduro’s government will crumble amid internal divisions. John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, has compared the key figures in the regime to “scorpions in a bottle, staring each other down, waiting to see who stings first”.

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But after so many false dawns for opposition hopes in Venezuela, observers are cautious. “It could be hyperactive paralysis,” said Nicholas Watson, who leads Latin America political risk coverage for consultancy firm Teneo. “Lots of parts moving but nothing is actually happening.”

Additional reporting by Gideon Long in Bogotá

Via Financial Times