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Maduro Seemed Ready To Leave Venezuela, Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Says


The U.S. has been backing efforts to topple Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo now tells CNN that there was a moment today when it seemed Maduro was ready to leave.


MIKE POMPEO: He had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay. We think the situation remains incredibly fluid. We know that there were senior leaders inside the Maduro government that were prepared to leave. They told us as much over the past few weeks.

CHANG: Pompeo says Maduro was headed to Havana and says his advice to him now would be, quote, "fire up the plane." Joining us now to talk about all this from the State Department is NPR's Michele Kelemen. Hey, Michele.


CHANG: So how much do you gather that the U.S. knew in advance about what was going to happen today?

KELEMEN: Well, they certainly knew that this week was going to be pivotal because there were promises of big protests actually tomorrow for the beginning of May. But it's hard to say that they actually knew about how everything was going to unfold today. They've certainly been out there in force backing up Juan Guaido, trying to encourage these other military people to defect and to join sides with Guaido. But it's not clear how much they actually knew, that this was going to be the moment today.

CHANG: Now, we just heard Pompeo say that there were senior leaders that seemed ready to break ranks with Maduro. What do we know about that?

KELEMEN: That's right. And we also were briefed a little bit earlier today from the special representative on Venezuela, Elliott Abrams. And he told us that there were three people - the Venezuelan defense minister, the head of the military intelligence agency and the president of the Supreme Court - that they had been in negotiations to support a transition to Juan Guaido and that they would keep their jobs under this deal. And he says so far, they have not kept that promise. Now, he said the U.S. wasn't involved in those talks but did know about them.

CHANG: And what has been the message to Russia during today's developments?

KELEMEN: Mostly that the Russians have been unhelpful in all of this. But it's also kind of a dangerous moment. I mean, the Russians back Nicolas Maduro; so do the Cubans. And it does put the U.S. on a kind of dangerous footing with Russia here. There have been some contacts with the Russians today, but we don't really know at what level.

CHANG: OK. Now, national security adviser John Bolton spoke earlier today, too, and he said, quote, "all options are on the table" with regard to helping Venezuela's opposition. Does that include help from the U.S. military, you think?

KELEMEN: Well, the U.S. certainly doesn't rule that out. We hear all the time that all options are on the table. When Secretary Pompeo was pressed on CNN about this, he said he won't talk about triggers or red lines but that the U.S. is determined to help Juan Guaido restore, you know, the constitution.

Now, remember; the United States joined about 50 other nations around the world in recognizing Guaido as the interim government - the interim president. They say that, you know, Nicolas Maduro is illegitimate and that Guaido, according to the constitution, is the legitimate leader. And Elliott Abrams told us today, you know, no matter what happens today, if this fizzles out, if he leaves, whatever happens today, the U.S. will still recognize Juan Guaido as the interim president and not Nicolas Maduro, who they say has lost legitimacy and should leave.

CHANG: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.