The Trump administration said Tuesday that it would lift sanctions against Venezuela if both President Nicolás Maduro and his political nemesis, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, stepped aside and agreed to a transitional government guided by both the ruling socialists and opposition lawmakers.
The deal, announced as Venezuelans confront grave danger from the global coronavirus pandemic, is the first road map to relief from some of the harshest sanctions ever imposed by Washington. Described by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference in Washington, it amounts to a power-sharing arrangement that would guarantee Maduro’s socialists – if not Maduro himself – a seat at the table of a transitional government.
U.S. officials insisted Tuesday that they did not support any particular political party in Venezuela. But the move appeared to be an attempt to set up new elections in which the U.S.-backed Guaidó could run. The Justice Department indicted Maduro and several members of his inner circle last week on narcoterrorism charges, and the administration announced a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s capture or conviction.
“We want Guaidó to be able to run for president,” said Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative to Venezuela. “And according to the polls I’ve seen, he is very likely to win.”
Washington is facing calls from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and others to ease economic sanctions in the midst of the pandemic. Maduro’s attempts to obtain an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund to fight the coronavirus have been rejected based on his contested status as Venezuela’s head of state.
Maduro has not hinted at willingness to leave power, and the U.S. offer seems unlikely to change that, as long as his inner circle and military backing hold. Analysts have said the indictments last week of the 57-year-old authoritarian leader and several other government officials on narcoterrorism charges are likely to encourage his inner circle to close ranks around him.
Maduro’s government quickly rejected the U.S. offer.
“It is precisely the Trump administration that must step aside by lifting unilateral coercive measures,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said in a lengthy communique. Maduro’s attorney general, meanwhile, issued a summons for Guaidó to appear for questioning Thursday in connection with allegations of a violent plot to overthrow Maduro.
But the proposal was never meant as an olive branch to Maduro. It appeared instead to be a message aimed at his fellow socialists, as well as the military power structure, that they could defuse Venezuela’s long political crisis and hold on to some power if they turned against him. Doing so, U.S. officials argued, would end the mix of a broken economy, political repression and a mounting pandemic that has deepened Venezuela’s national malaise. U.S. officials have long suggested as much to key Maduro supporters through back channels, but hadn’t done so publicly until the proposal Tuesday.
Guaido’s U.S.-backed opposition movement, meanwhile, is running out of steam. Even before Maduro instituted a coronavirus lockdown, the numbers of supporters turning out for Guaido’s street protests had fallen sharply.
Similar terms were discussed by government and opposition negotiators during peace talks hosted by the Norwegians last year. U.S. officials then appeared skeptical of such a deal, and analysts called a breakthrough now less likely than it was then.
“This is an important statement, but it comes about six months too late,” said Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director at the Washington Office on Latin America. “This is the same proposal that the opposition made when the Norwegian government was facilitating credible negotiations with the Maduro regime last summer. The talks fell through in part because of a lack of clear U.S. support.”
Guaidó backed the plan Tuesday.
“We are taking the right steps to save Venezuela,” he wrote on Twitter. “It is time, as I wrote yesterday, for the usurper to take responsibility and accept the offer made by the international community.”
The U.S. plan calls for elected members of the National Assembly, from both sides, to sit on a five-seat “council of state” that would preside over the country until elections could be held in six to 12 months. The president of the transitional government would not be able to run in those elections. Maduro and Guaidó would accept the council of state as the sole executive body during the traditional period.
The deal would require other major concessions, including the release of all political prisoners and an overhaul of the supreme court and electoral council, both of which Maduro now controls. Importantly, the military power structure could remain in place, as is, as would local governors and mayors. A commission would investigate “serious acts of violence” as far back as 1999. All would be covered by an amnesty law – with the exception of those charged with “crimes against humanity.”
In exchange, Venezuela would receive sanctions relief, a pledge of substantial humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, and help restoring its critically broken power and water grids. U.S. sanctions would be lifted only after a transitional government had been established and “foreign security forces” – an apparent reference to Cuba’s tactical agents on the ground – had left Venezuela.
U.S. officials suggested that they would not like to see Maduro running in a new election.
“Nicolás Maduro will never govern Venezuela,” Pompeo said.
Yet Abrams suggested that Maduro’s candidacy would be left up to Venezuelans, and that Washington would respect the outcome of a free and fair vote, even if Maduro ran and won – an outcome he described as unlikely, given Maduro’s deep unpopularity at home. He said personal sanctions aimed at Maduro could potentially be lifted if he were no longer president, but the U.S. indictment against him would remain.
The Trump administration has strongly backed Guaidó, the president of the opposition-led National Assembly, who declared Maduro a usurper last year after tainted elections and declared himself Venezuela’s rightful leader. In the months since, Washington has ratcheted up pressure on Maduro – severing diplomatic ties, blocking the government from U.S. financial markets and imposing a crippling oil embargo that has accelerated a collapse of the nation’s most important source of income. U.S. officials backed a failed plot by the opposition last April to oust Maduro by turning leading members of his government against him.
Guaidó outlined a similar plan, suggesting that the opposition must be prepared to share power. He said he could bring in $1.2 billion in international aid if an “emergency government” could be formed.
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Faiola reported from Miami. Morello reported from Washington. Ana Vanessa Herrero contributed from Caracas.