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Blackwater founder Erik Prince held secret talks with top Venezuelan official – sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Erik Prince, the controversial private security executive and prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, made a secret visit to Venezuela last month and met Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, one of socialist leader Nicolas Maduro’s closest and most outspoken allies, according to five sources familiar with the matter.

The visit, described by one source as “outreach” by Prince to Maduro’s government, came just eight months after the founder of the private security firm Blackwater floated a plan to deploy a private army to help the Venezuelan opposition topple Maduro.

It was unclear what Prince, the brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, discussed with Rodriguez. The meeting was first reported by Bloomberg.

A meeting with Rodriguez, who is under U.S. sanctions, could raise questions about whether Prince might have run afoul of U.S. law, which prohibits Americans from virtually any business dealings with sanctioned individuals and specifically with the Venezuelan government. The Venezuelan vice president’s office also oversees the country’s national intelligence service.

The White House declined to comment when asked if U.S. officials had advance word of Prince’s visit or whether it was seen as a possible line of communication with the Maduro government. In January, Washington recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president and began ratcheting up sanctions and diplomatic pressure in an effort to oust Maduro. He remains in power.

Prince’s spokesman Marc Cohen declined to comment. Rodriguez did not respond to questions via text message. Her brother, Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Five sources told Reuters that Prince, a businessman known for his right-wing views, visited Caracas around Nov. 20 or 21 and met with Rodriguez, a leader of Venezuela’s ruling socialist party who was appointed as vice president by Maduro last year.

“It was something more than a private business trip,” one Venezuelan source in Washington who has contacts with both the opposition and Maduro’s government said of Prince’s visit.

Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Aram Roston; Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis