The remarks provide a rare window into the challenges the Trump administration faces as the momentum to oust Maduro stalls and some of the countries that initially backed the opposition explore alternative diplomatic paths to resolve the crisis.
Pompeo said he was confident Maduro would eventually be forced out, but “I couldn’t tell you the timing.”
He said the difficulty of uniting the opposition has not only played out in “public for these last months, but since the day I became CIA director, this was something that was at the center of what President Trump was trying to do.”
“We were trying to support various religious . . . institutions to get the opposition to come together,” he said.
He expressed regret that during a failed April 30 bid to incite a military uprising, competing interests among Maduro’s enemies and rivals prevented the socialist dictator’s swift exit.
“You should know, [Maduro] is mostly surrounded by Cubans,” Pompeo said. “He doesn’t trust Venezuelans a lick. I don’t blame him. He shouldn’t. They were all plotting against him. Sadly, they were all plotting for themselves.”
The remarks represent a sharp departure from the Trump administration’s official line touting the unity and strength of the opposition led by Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly leader recognized by some 60 countries as interim president.
“This is the first senior official I’ve heard be so publicly candid about the opposition’s weakness and how it may make bringing democracy back to Venezuela so much harder,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Venezuela expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It is a sobering but accurate view,” she added. “They remain divided over how to take on the Maduro regime — whether or not to enter into dialogue, whether or not to engage with the military, whether or not to run a presidential candidate or boycott elections. They don’t even retweet each other.”
The leaked audio comes from a surprisingly frank meeting Pompeo held with Jewish leaders last week in which he also delivered a blunt assessment of the Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.
During the private meeting, Pompeo expressed hesitation about answering particularly sensitive questions, saying “someone’s probably got a tape recorder on, so I won’t say.”
That prompted a leader of the gathering to say, “I want to emphasize that this meeting is off the record.”
The stir over the leaked recording has created a rare moment for Pompeo, whose careful messaging discipline and synchronicity with the president have been key to his survival in an administration famous for high turnover.
Unlike Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, Pompeo has been careful not to stray too far from the president on high-profile foreign policy issues.
In a joking reference to the president’s habit of firing top officials via tweet, Pompeo said that “my time as secretary of state will be fleeting as a historical matter.”
“The president may tweet while I’m here,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Pompeo also conveyed how difficult it would be to bring change to Venezuela even in the event that Maduro were ousted.
“Maduro’s departure is important and necessary but completely insufficient,” he said.
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Pompeo’s remarks were surprisingly unguarded but “absolutely true.”
“The sad truth is that too many in the opposition are more interested in setting themselves up to be the Nelson Mandela figure than in finding a pragmatic path forward,” he said.
A representative of Guaidó disputed the characterization of disunity and said the young leader has brought together a diverse democratic movement.
“Guaidó is the most popular local figure in the country right now. Any poll will tell you that,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Pompeo’s off-the-record remarks. “He’s been able to coalesce a movement to put the fight against Maduro and achieve change. That’s the current status now.”
The State Department declined to comment for this article.
Pompeo said that solidifying Guaidó’s position has taken a long time but that the situation remained “tenuous.”
“We’ve been working, and it took this long to get to where we are today, where you have a leader — tenuous as it may be — who could’ve been arrested while we’re sitting in this room, who has managed to cobble together the opposition,” he said.
Guaidó’s representative said that sustaining Venezuela’s democratic forces has been no small task as Maduro jails some members of the National Assembly while stripping others of their parliamentary immunity against prosecution.
Other high-profile figures in the opposition include María Corina Machado, Henri Falcón and Guaidó’s mentor, Leopoldo López, who “have all been rumored to be jockeying for a leadership profile at one point or another,” Ramsey said.
As the effort to remove Maduro has dragged on, the humanitarian situation has worsened, with a health system in “utter collapse with increased levels of maternal and infant mortality,” according to an April report by Human Rights Watch. The group tracked an uptick in vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and diphtheria, and “high levels of food insecurity and child malnutrition” — all factors that have contributed to an exodus of more than 3.4 million Venezuelans in recent years.
Faced with the dire circumstances, some countries that initially pledged support for Guaidó have begun exploring negotiations with Maduro, ignoring U.S. calls against dialogue. Leaders of European and Latin American countries met at the United Nations on Monday and issued a communique supporting Guaidó, as well as efforts to find a negotiated solution and increase contacts with all sides in Venezuela.
Meanwhile, the United States is stepping up pressure against Venezuela’s backer Cuba, issuing regulations Tuesday that place new restrictions on travel to the country.
In his remarks, Pompeo stressed his view that “Cubans are at the heart of the economic woes” in Venezuela. “I think we’ve got to find a way to disconnect them from Venezuela,” he said. “We’re working our tail off to try and deliver that.”