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U.S. proposes transitional government for Venezuela, without Maduro or Guaidó

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/31/2020 Anthony Faiola, Carol Morello
Nicolas Maduro wearing a suit and tie: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks at a news conference this month at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. © Manaure Quintero/Reuters Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks at a news conference this month at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.

The Trump administration said Tuesday it would lift tough 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 plan, 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 deal that would guarantee Maduro’s socialists — if not Maduro himself — a seat at the table of a transitional government.

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U.S. officials insisted Tuesday they did not support any particular political party in Venezuela. But the move nevertheless appeared to be an attempt to set up new elections in which the U.S.-backed Guaidó, but not Maduro, 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 win 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 any willingness to leave power, and the U.S. offer seems unlikely to change that as long as his inner circle and military backing holds. Analysts say the U.S. indictments last week of the 57-year-old authoritarian leader and several other government officials on narcoterrorism charges could encourage his inner circle to close ranks around him.

The proposal was anything but 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 toxic mix of a broken economy, political repression and a mounting pandemic that has plunged Venezuela into a deep national malaise. U.S. officials have long suggested as much to key Maduro supporters through back channels, but had never done so publicly until the proposal Tuesday.

The U.S. offer comes as Guaido’s U.S.-backed opposition movement 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. Analysts called a breakthrough now less likely than it was then.

“This plan effectively tries to bake in who can and who can’t be part of a negotiated transition, which is going to make any negotiations that much harder,” said Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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 take responsibility and accept the offer made by the international community.”

Yet within the opposition, there was skepticism that Maduro or those around him would take the deal. Maduro seemed to signal a harder line Tuesday. His attorney general issued a summons for Guaidó to appear for questioning Thursday in connection with allegations of a violent plot to overthrow Maduro.

“I am 90 percent, if not to say 99 percent, sure that [the Maduro government] will not accept,” said Iván Simonovis, Guaido’s security commissioner. “These are things that need to be done, so they can’t say they weren't offered an alternative.”

The U.S. plan calls for elected members of the National Assembly, from both sides, to sit on five-seat “council of state” that would preside over the country until elections could be held in 6 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 Truth Commission would investigate “serious acts of violence” as far back as 1999. All would be covered by an amnesty law — with the important 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.

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 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 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.

anthony.faiola@washpost.com

carol.morello@washpost.com

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