Conservatives on Capitol Hill and throughout Washington's foreign-policy community are outraged over a State Department decision to give nearly $1 million to a Washington think tank to help mediate a dialogue between Venezuelan opposition leaders and the Maduro regime.
Critics view the mediation effort as an attempt by State Department bureaucrats to undermine President Donald Trump's sanctions against the Venezuelan government, which were imposed to punish President Nicolas Maduro for unraveling the country's democratic processes.
They worry that Maduro will use the U.S.-sponsored dialogue as evidence that even the United States wants the opposition to compromise with his government, according to two congressional sources.
Maduro on Sunday moved to further consolidate power by barring some of his biggest political opponents' from running in next year's presidential election.
State issued a statement Monday condemning Maduro's action, arguing that the "Venezuelan people deserve the right to express their views and consent to governance through a free and fair democratic process that is open to all candidates."
The statement said the Venezuelan government and members of the opposition are set to meet in the Dominican Republic on Thursday to discuss the 2018 presidential election's timeline and process.
"We call on the government of Venezuela to agree to a timeline that allows for free, fair, transparent and internationally observed presidential elections," the State Department said.
The State Department confirmed that it provided the nearly $1 million grant as a way to promote "non-violent conflict resolution in Venezuela."
""The U.S. government works with civil society to promote good governance, democracy, human rights, humanitarian assistance, and transparency around the world," a State Department spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
"The State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations supports stabilization efforts worldwide through a Peace Process Support Network, a group of academic institutions and NGOs that supports research, analysis, and program assistance to promote peaceful resolution of disagreements," she added.
Tom Shannon, the undersecretary for political affairs who also serves as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's right-hand man, has put too much onus on the opposition for failed attempts at beginning a dialogue and faulted it for its poor negotiating skills rather than the duplicity of the Maduro government, according to critics.
"This is a waste of taxpayers' money because it will never really accomplish anything—and will only give the Maduro government yet another way to avoid more international pressure to enact democratic reforms," a congressional source said.
Jose Cardenas, a former State Department official during the George W. Bush administration who now consults on Latin America issues, said he worries that any U.S.-sponsored mediation efforts could further embolden Maduro.
"If you monitor these issues like I do, you see that the only ones left really pushing for the dialogue are the Venezuela state television station and the Cuban state media," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "You get an idea right away whose interests are being served by this dialogue."
Shannon signed off on the $900,000 grant from State's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization to the Atlantic Council in November. A secret meeting at the State Department between Shannon and Venezuela's foreign minister in July set off alarm bells on Capitol Hill—especially because it occurred one week before another Maduro-controlled election that gave him more power.
The decision to give the money to the Atlantic Council, in particular, is causing additional consternation, Cardenas said, because the think tank was a big proponent of President Obama's historic attempt to normalize relations with Cuba.
"So it doesn't engender a lot of trust from decision-makers on Capitol Hill" who oppose the thaw with Cuba, he added. "Trump has done more on Venezuela in 12 months than the Obama administration has done in eight years."
He called efforts to forge the divide between the Venezuelan government and opposition leaders the "proverbial Charlie Brown with the football routine."
"Every time the opposition goes for it, they yank the football away. It's a game, it's a stalling technique that the Maduro government plays to try to alleviate pressure within Venezuela."
The Atlantic Council declined to respond to questions about whether the funds were aimed at setting up a mediation between opposition leaders and the Venezuelan government. Instead, the think tank issued a lengthy statement from Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
Marczak said the Center follows the Venezuelan crisis very closely and "seeks to contribute toward a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Venezuela."
"Given the gravity of the situation, we have stepped up our analysis and events—all of which seek to encourage a peaceful solution and engage new stakeholders that can influence the on-the-ground situation," he said.
He also said the Council backs the sanctions against the Venezuelan government and views them as a "critical tool to help create the conditions that will force a change in behavior," he said.
"Sanctions should, among other things, move the Venezuelan government to recognize that a continuation of the status quo is not possible," he said.
The Trump administration in August imposed an additional round of sanctions on Venezuela in an effort to further isolate the Maduro regime for cracking down on democratic protests across the country.
Opposition leaders denounced the results of a series of elections in Venezuela this year that dismantled the country's democracy and cemented Maduro's leadership.
Update Dec. 14, 10:28 a.m.: This post has been updated with comment from the State Department.