By now you’ve likely heard the explosive news out of Venezuela that the New York Times broke on Friday. Members of the Venezuelan military had, for more than a year, been considering a coup to oust their corrupt dictator, Nicolas Maduro, and had been in secret talks with representatives of the United States seeking our help. Ed analyzed the story yesterday, covering most of the details and explaining why this would likely have been a terrible idea if the Trump administration had decided to play ball with the rebellious military officers. Our rather, um… colorful history of messing around with the governments of Central and South American countries is legendary, and not for positive reasons. Besides, as Ed further noted, Maduro’s socialist empire is already on its way to a slow-motion implosion and doesn’t require a shove from us to finish collapsing.
But now the White House is stuck with the unpleasant chore of having to clean up the mess created by the release of this story. They’re sticking with the line of being willing to listen to any voices interested in restoring some semblance of democracy to Venezuela and saving its starving people from the rolling disaster that Maduro has created. That’s a smart play and probably the best we can hope for at this point, but the story is still causing major problems in that country. Maduro’s wild-eyed claims about an American led conspiracy against him have just gained significant traction and the military officers who might have been willing to attempt regime change will all probably have their heads up on spikes by the end of the week. (Along with God only knows how many other “sympathizers” Maduro decides to point a finger at.)
With all of that in mind, it’s worth asking the question I alluded to in the title. How did this story wind up in the pages of the New York Times and why was it approved? Let’s go back and look at one short section of the article, specifically dealing with Maduro’s ignorance of these developments. (Emphasis added)
It is unclear how many of these details the coup planners shared with the Americans. But there is no indication that Mr. Maduro knew the mutinous officers were talking to the Americans at all.
For any of the plots to have worked, the former commander said, he and his comrades believed they needed to detain Mr. Maduro and other top government figures simultaneously. To do that, he added, the rebel officers needed a way to communicate securely. They made their request during their second meeting with the American diplomat, which took place last year.
Maduro was in the dark about any Washington connection to this plot, not that any real connection existed beyond a couple of meetings resulting in no involvement by the United States. He sniffed out hints of a possible rebellion at home and moved against some of the officers involved, but that was about it. If the story had died there, much of the potential diplomatic damage I mentioned above could have been avoided. If some news outlet in South America or Europe found out about it and broke the story we could have issued a partial denial or at least spun it a bit better, but now the cat is out of the bag.
This wasn’t a plot that the Trump administration cooked up. We were approached by the Venezuelan officers through a complex arrangement where they requested a meeting with an American embassy official in Europe. We agreed to send someone to sit down with them, but only in “listening mode.” We didn’t engage in any discussions of direct American aid in a coup. In the end, the plotters got nothing but well wishes from us and in exchange, we gained insight into what was happening on the ground in Venezuela and possibly a back channel to quickly reestablish relations if Maduro actually wound up being ousted. These types of diplomatic exchanges quietly take place on a regular basis all over the world and this one seems to have been well handled, potentially setting up some future benefits if it was kept quiet. So why were we reading about it in the Gray Lady?
Also, as Ed pointed out yesterday, this isn’t exactly “new news.” The discussions were taking place more than a year ago and were curtailed last winter, probably about the same time that Rex Tillerson left. People obviously knew about it then, but either nobody leaked it to the Times until this month or the newspaper had it earlier and sat on it until September… eight weeks before the elections.
There was a time when the press was able to keep the occasional secret responsibly, particularly when the revelation wouldn’t provide any particularly useful or insightful information for the public but the release could cause potential international problems for the United States. Prior to America’s entry into World War 2, a legion of reporters knew the details of the D-Day invasion, but they kept a lid on it. Heck, some of them landed with the invading troops. But they somehow kept it under wraps.
That wasn’t the case here. There was basically no value to the public in revealing those meetings (which went nowhere), but we lost significant leverage when the news went public. Even the New York Times realized it since they included a quote from a former diplomat overseeing Latin American affairs in the Obama administration, who said this was “going to land like a bomb” in the region. Maduro is the real villain in this story, but the Times didn’t do the country any favors by taking it public. That is unless the “favor” was to try to post another headline designed to make the Trump administration look bad. And they even managed to fail at that because the White House seems to have handled it about as well as was possible under the circumstances.