Pompeo Accuses Cuba and Russia of Propping Up Venezuelan Ruler

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Cuba and Russia on Monday of propping up President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela in the Trump administration’s most explicit argument yet that his government is a dictatorial regime kept alive by two American adversaries.

Mr. Pompeo’s comments came amid a devastating power outage that has plunged many of Venezuela’s most populous areas into darkness, spoiling food in a nation where little is available.

He denied Mr. Maduro’s accusation that foreign powers — a clear reference to the United States — had any role in creating the blackout that has brought the country to the brink of social implosion. Instead, Mr. Pompeo said, the blame lies squarely with Havana and Moscow.

“When there is no electricity, thank the marvels of modern Cuban-led engineering,” Mr. Pompeo said in comments laced with sarcasm. “When there’s no water, thank the excellent hydrologists from Cuba. When there’s no food, thank the Cuban communist overlords.”

He also said the Russian government had used two of its major news media outlets, RT and Sputnik, to “divert attention” while converting Venezuela’s gold reserves into cash.

“The Kremlin is standing with its Venezuelan cronies,” Mr. Pompeo said, “against the will of the people of a sovereign nation to protect a Moscow-friendly regime.”

The United States has previously described Cuba and Russia as Mr. Maduro’s enablers, but never with the specificity Mr. Pompeo offered on Monday. His statements, made at the State Department, came a few hours after the Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on a Russia-based bank that it accused of helping Mr. Maduro’s government circumvent earlier American financial penalties.

The bank, Evrofinance Mosnarbank, is based in Moscow and is jointly controlled by Venezuelan and Russian state-owned companies. The Treasury said the bank’s assets grew more than 50 percent last year, even as the United States escalated its sanctions against Venezuela and as European financial institutions severed ties with Caracas, the capital.

At a moment when President Trump is beginning to accuse potential Democratic rivals of embracing socialism, Mr. Pompeo, a former Kansas conservative congressman who has lost none of his partisan edge, said socialism and cronyism were at the heart of Venezuela’s problems.

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Venezuelans waited in long lines in Caracas, the capital, for food in January.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

“Nicolás Maduro promised Venezuelans a better life in a socialist paradise,” he told reporters. “And he delivered on the socialism part, which has proved time and time again is a recipe for economic ruin. The paradise part? Not so much.”

There has been a running debate inside the State Department and American intelligence agencies over just how much to reveal about secret findings against Russia and Cuba, the latter of which Mr. Pompeo called “the true imperialist power” in Caracas.

Mr. Pompeo said Caracas sends up to 50,000 barrels of oil to Cuba daily, a figure some experts question given the dysfunction in Venezuela. In turn, Mr. Pompeo said, Mr. Maduro benefits from Havana’s “expertise in repression to keep his grip on power.”

“It’s a match made in hell,” he said. Nonetheless, he argued that support is increasing for Juan Guaidó, the previously little-known opposition legislator who is now recognized by the United States and more than 50 other nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

“We wish things could go faster, but I am very confident that the tide is moving in the direction of the Venezuelan people,” Mr. Pompeo said.

As he spoke, the situation in Venezuela grew more desperate. In barely operating hospitals, patients begged doctors to be kept alive.

Monday was the fifth day since Venezuela’s power system went down, plunging most of the country, including Caracas, into sporadic darkness and dampening hopes of imminent resolution.

“We’re going to arrive at a moment when we’re going to eat each other,” said Zuly González, 40, a resident of Caracas’s Chacao district.

The blackout was just the latest crisis to befall a country that seems to have one after another. Hyperinflation and a failing economy led millions to flee before the desperation of recent days. But Venezuela has been further torn since January, when opposition political leaders refused to acknowledge Mr. Maduro’s re-election.

On Thursday, the San Geronimo B substation in the center of the country, which supplies electricity to four out of five Venezuelans from the massive Guri hydropower plant, went down.

President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas over the weekend. The United States has accused Cuba and Russia of propping up his government.CreditReuters

No date has been set to restart the plant and most workers were told to stay home on Monday, said two of the substation’s workers and a manager at the national power monopoly, Corpoelec. Their names have been withheld to protect them from government reprisals.

The nearby San Geronimo A backup substation, which conveys a lesser amount of power from the smaller Matagua hydropower plant, operated intermittently on Sunday. Supplies from Matagua and a few unreliable thermoelectric plants allowed the government to send sporadic power to Caracas throughout the day.

The government said the blackout was caused by an unspecified fault at Guri, which provides 80 percent of the country’s electricity. Mr. Maduro and his ministers have insisted the blackout is the result of sabotage and cyberattacks organized by the United States and the opposition, without providing any evidence.

Outside experts said there was little evidence of a cyberattack or other external trigger to blame. And energy experts, Venezuelan power sector contractors and current and former Corpoelec employees have dismissed accusations of sabotage, saying the blackout was the result of years of underinvestment, corruption and brain drain.

When visited on Sunday, the substation’s usual buzz of high-voltage cross currents had been replaced by total silence. A cow roamed amid the transformers. Several National Guard soldiers and a unit of police commandos were at the substation, but no employees were there.

The substation is vital “to supply the country in a stable way,” said José Aguilar, a Venezuelan power industry expert based in Chicago. Its paralysis means power is unlikely to be restored nationally until Tuesday at the earliest, he said.

The government declared Monday a holiday for schools and public workers.

What caused the blackout has been a source of speculation. A Corpoelec union leader, Ali Briceño, told reporters on Friday that a brush fire under a power trunk line destabilized the grid and caused Guri’s turbines to shut down. The government has struggled to restart the turbines since, he said.

Other experts said the magnitude of the blackout indicated the problem was caused by a major failure inside Guri’s turbines. A Corpoelec supervisor involved in dispatching Guri’s power said he was told by the plant’s managers on Thursday that the plant’s equipment was damaged.

After analyzing power levels across the country, Mr. Aguilar, who consults reinsurance companies on Venezuela’s power sector, said the government has tried to restart Guri four times since the start of the blackout on Thursday.

The latest attempt led to the explosion of a secondary substation near Guri on Saturday.

“Every time they attempt to restart, they fail and the disruption breaks something else in the system, destabilizing the grid yet further,” Mr. Aguilar said.

“Obviously, they are hiding something from us,” he said of the government.

Source: NYT

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