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U.S. Directs Blame At Cuba For Guaidó's Failed Military Uprising In Venezuela

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Uncertainty over the fate of Venezuela is steadily growing deeper. A few days ago, it looked as if President Nicolas Maduro was about to fall. Opposition leader Juan Guaido tried to trigger a military uprising with the support of his closest ally, the United States. It failed. The leaders of Venezuela's military stuck by Maduro. U.S. officials are trying to figure out what went wrong. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, they're blaming Cuba.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: No one disputes there are Cubans in Venezuela. There is dispute, though, about what they're up to. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton says they're Cuban security forces. He says there are at least 20,000 of them. Cuba says that's nonsense.

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JOHANA TABLADA: There is no Cuban participation in any sort of military or security operations in Venezuela.

REEVES: Johana Tablada is deputy director of U.S. affairs in Cuba's foreign ministry. She doesn't really argue with Bolton's number of roughly 20,000 but says they're civilians.

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TABLADA: Most of them are medical personnel. They do perform a very noble work that is health work, that is humanitarian work. They are also teachers.

REEVES: Supporters of Juan Guaido have long complained about the influence wielded by Cubans in Venezuela.

JOSE TORO HARDY: They are the real power in Venezuela right now.

REEVES: Economist Jose Toro Hardy believes were it not for the Cubans, Venezuela's generals would, by now, have abandoned Maduro.

TORO HARDY: I don't think they believe anymore in Maduro's government. But I believe they are very afraid because they know Cuban intelligence is watching over their shoulders all the time.

REEVES: President Trump seems to agree. The U.S. is tightening sanctions and threatening a full embargo on Cuba unless it pulls all of its forces out of Venezuela. If you ask Venezuelans for details about who these Cubans are and what they do, the reply's often vague.

We've come to meet a retired Venezuelan colonel who says he has firsthand experience of Cuba's role. He's called Jesus but doesn't want his full name broadcast for fear of reprisals. We meet inside a parking garage to avoid being seen. Jesus says during his 30-year career in Venezuela's National Guard, he often came across Cubans embedded within the ranks.

JESUS: (Through interpreter) They slept in our National Guard barracks. They went running at dawn with us. That's why I say I've seen them inside Venezuela's armed forces.

REEVES: Colonel Jesus says he's not sure whether these Cubans were actually military officials, nor does he know how many there were. He is sure, though, that they weren't doctors or teachers.

JESUS: (Through interpreter) What we did know was that they were Cuban government officials.

REEVES: The colonel says two Cuban officials took a particular interest in him. He suspects they were trying to recruit him as an informer.

JESUS: (Through interpreter) I felt that they were spying on me and on my family. I was suspicious because they were trying so hard to be friendly even though I showed no warmth towards them.

REEVES: No Venezuelan soldier had any doubt about what would happen if the Cubans found evidence of disloyalty, says the colonel.

JESUS: (Through interpreter) The first thing they would do is imprison him. There are countless soldiers locked up because of the information these Cuban elements have passed along to the Maduro dictatorship and Cuba's government.

REEVES: When Juan Guaido's call for a military uprising failed last week, the colonel was disappointed but not surprised.

JESUS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He believes the campaign to get rid of Maduro and the Cubans, who he says prop him up, requires more time. Even then, there's no guarantee it will succeed. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.