WASHINGTON -- A little known bureau of the U.S. State Department is giving nearly $1 million to a Washington think tank to promote peace in Venezuela and start identifying the building blocks for a new democratically run government.
But critics already see it as an effort by State to train the opposition at dialogue that undercuts President Donald Trump's push to force Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to restore democracy.
"It's a waste of taxpayer money," said one congressional source familiar with the program. "They've tried to dialogue repeatedly and it hasn't worked. It just buys Maduro time."
The State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations paid $900,000 to the Atlantic Council in September with instructions to "promote non-violent conflict resolution" in Venezuela.
The council said the year-long project's aim is to draw more international attention to the crisis, show the public what Venezuela could look like under new leadership and provide the opposition and other stakeholders the tools needed to work more cohesively together.
But the effort is already generating no small amount of controversy. According to people inside the U.S. government who favor a harder line against Maduro, the Atlantic Council spending is an effort by State to train the opposition to negotiate and prepare for a future if the government collapses while other parts of Trump's administration have insisted on a sanctions-driven strategy.
With encouragement from South Florida Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, Trump has been increasing pressure on Maduro to restore Democratic institutions to the nation sitting on the world's largest oil reserves but now crumbling under the weight of a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.
The Trump administration has followed suit, imposing a mix of personal and economic sanctions, including ones in August that largely blocked the South American country from being able to get much needed capital.
Venezuela has accused Washington of being the opposition's puppet master. Just this week, Venezuela's Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez threatened to discontinue talks with members of the Venezuelan opposition unless Washington lifted its sanctions.
The State Department wouldn't address specific questions, including the amount or recipient of the funding, but said the goal is to work with organizations outside the government to "promote good governance, democracy, human rights, humanitarian assistance, and transparency around the world."