Seems like old times, or at least that’s how this will be seen in South America if true. The New York Times reports that the Trump administration met clandestinely with rebellious Venezuelan military officers looking to stage a coup to overthrow Nicolas Maduro. Nothing came of the meetings, but this leaves the US in a very shaky — and familiar — position:

The Trump administration held secret meetings with rebellious military officers from Venezuela over the last year to discuss their plans to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro, according to American officials and a former Venezuelan military commander who participated in the talks.

Establishing a clandestine channel with coup plotters in Venezuela was a big gamble for Washington, given its long history of covert intervention across Latin America. Many in the region still deeply resent the United States for backing previous rebellions, coups and plots in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil and Chile, and for turning a blind eye to the abuses military regimes committed during the Cold War.

The White House, which declined to answer detailed questions about the talks, said in a statement that it was important to engage in “dialogue with all Venezuelans who demonstrate a desire for democracy” in order to “bring positive change to a country that has suffered so much under Maduro.”

The catalyst for the US interest was the humanitarian crisis, according to the NYT, for which Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson mentioned the potential of a military coup. However, interest in action certainly didn’t carry very far.  The plotters met three times with a US envoy asking for secure communications systems for coordination of the coup. That’s hardly a major investment — it’s not a demand for weapons, for instance — but all three times the request got shot down by “senior officials” in DC.

If there was no real interest in even that mild level of intervention, meeting with the rebels makes little sense. Maduro has been busily digging his own Castro-socialist grave with the demolition of Venezuela without our help in the matter. Thus far he’s been able to maintain power in part by accusing his political opponents of being agents of the United States, a charge that his predecessor Hugo Chavez repeatedly made as well. Eventually, though, this system will utterly collapse with or without US intervention. For political purposes both inside and outside of Venezuela, it’s far better to have no American fingerprints on it, or even a hint of US manipulation.

This news will make that charge stick and will wrongfoot the legitimate opposition as well as the officers involved in the coup plot. Furthermore, it will likely make other countries in South America more apprehensive about helping Venezuelans who want to get rid of Maduro. By now Maduro has become a menace to all of his neighbors, but the last thing any of them want is to be seen as pawns for Washington DC.

In cases like these, perhaps especially in South America given the history, we either have to intervene forcefully or not at all, and preferably the latter. Playing footsie delivers the worst of both worlds — demolishing the credibility of Maduro’s opposition and making our allies suspicious of both our motives and our fortitude. This might end up providing Maduro a lease on life for another couple of years, at least, and stretching out the misery for the suffering Venezuelans even longer than that.

Addendum: It’s worth noting that the timing described by the NYT seems to indicate that the US lost interest in this idea at roughly the same time Tillerson left the State Department and Mike Pompeo took over. The contacts started last autumn and the last took place “early this year.” Tillerson left at the end of March. Pompeo has a long track record of experience in intelligence and diplomacy and likely would have understood better what a bad idea this was in the first place. That’s a correlation and not necessarily a causation, but the timing is certainly interesting.