- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied allegations Monday that the U.S. was responsible for hacking or meddling with Venezuela’s energy grid, asserting massive power outages gripping the South American nation are purely a result of “years and years of neglect” to the grid by Venezuelan authorities.

Mr. Pompeo also pushed back at Trump administration critics who claim the U.S. is engaged in a covert and overt subversion campaign to try and oust Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro from power.

To the contrary, the secretary of state said, it is a small number of nations that support Mr. Maduro who are guilty of “carrying out the very foreign interventionism of which they accuse others.”

He specifically called out Cuba and Russia, claiming the two U.S. adversaries have quietly worked in concert for years to undermine Democracy in Caracas.

The comments during a press conference at State Department headquarters Monday evening came after the White House ramped up U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela to target Russian bank officials accused of providing “illicit” financing to the Maduro government.

Trump administration, which last month declared Mr. Maduro’s presidency illegitimate, continues to hold out hope of that Venezuelan military leaders may soon abandon him and shift their allegiance to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Mr. Trump has been joined in recent weeks by the Organization of American States, as well as several individual South American, European and other leaders in supporting Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president — asserting that the 35-year-old opposition leader will usher in new elections and restore democratic order to years political and economic strife in Venezuela.

The situation was worsened in recent days by a wave of electricity and communications outages around the country, which took hold as Guaido-aligned opposition and Maduro-loyalists held rival demonstrations in Caracas and other cities.

The rallies and outages are playing out against a backdrop in which both sides appear to be preparing for what a growing number of experts predict will be a protracted power struggle. The Associated Press noted over the weekend that both sides have blamed each other for the collapse of the power grid.

Critics of past U.S. interventionist policy in Latin America, including in Panama and Chile, claim Washington has a history of attempting to meddle in Caracas. Backers of late-Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez long accused the CIA of engineering a failed coup against Mr. Chavez in 2002.

With that as a backdrop, some have claimed U.S. operatives are now tamping with the Venezuelan energy grid in hopes the outages might turn more Venezuelans away from Mr. Maduro and toward Mr. Gauido.

When asked Monday evening whether the U.S. has had any role in the outages, Mr. Pompeo responded: “The system has had problems for a very long time.”

A lack of maintenance by the Maduro government “was the cause of the blackouts that have taken place,” the secretary of state said.

It remains to be seen how the electrical grid problems will ultimately impact the political situation on the ground. National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed on Sunday that “momentum is Guiado’s side” to overtake Mr. Maduro, claiming key military commanders once loyal to Mr. Maduro already have “shifted” their allegiance.

“They have not sought to arrest Guaido,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that “Maduro fears if he gave that order, it would not be obeyed.”

“I’m not certain of anything. But I do think momentum is on the side of Guaido,” Mr. Bolton added, claiming that the opposition leader is closer to garnering support from “enlisted personnel in the military and the junior officers [and] the top officer corps” than is being reported by news organizations.

National security sources, meanwhile, warn that the situation in Venezuela risks devolving further into a kind of proxy war between the United States and Russia.

In a statement Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department said Evrofinance Mosnarbank, a Moscow-based financial institution jointly owned by Venezuela and the Russian government, has helped circumvent international economic sanctions and deliver money to Mr. Maduro.

The bank, Treasury officials said, delivers money to the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, and the money is then funneled to the Maduro regime.

“With this action, we are targeting a financial institution involved in facilitating illegitimate transactions that prolong Maduro’s usurpation of democracy,” Treasury said in its statement. “As Maduro’s isolation grows, so do his desperate attempts to expand his corrupt network. Maduro’s enablers, including those in Russia, are facilitating the continued theft of Venezuela’s assets, allowing members of the illegitimate Maduro regime to line their pockets at the expense of the Venezuelan people.”

• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article.

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