US calls on Maduro and Guaidó to stand down in Venezuela transition plan

By Julian Borger

The US has proposed a political transition plan for Venezuela, offering to lift sanctions if the president, Nicolás Maduro, and his opponent, Juan Guaidó, step aside and pass power to an interim government made up of their supporters.

Under the “democratic transition framework”, all political prisoners would be released, and all foreign – principally Cuban – forces would leave. A five-member council of state would be selected, with two members chosen by the opposition, two by Maduro’s Socialist party, and the fifth member picked by the other four. The military high command would remain in place.

“The hope is that this set-up promotes the selection of people who are very broadly respected and known as people who can work with the other side,” the US special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told the Associated Press.

The US and EU would then lift sanctions on the current leadership. Broader sanctions on the country’s oil business would be lifted after all foreign forces had left the country. All sanctions would be lifted after free elections, to be held within six to 12 months.

The proposal comes five days after the US indicted Maduro and top members of his government and army for drug trafficking and money laundering, and as Venezuela faces blanket sanctions, a collapse in the price of oil, its main export, and the coronavirus pandemic, with a crippled health system.

“The United States has long been committed to finding a solution to the manmade crisis in Venezuela,” the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said. “The urgency for this has become all the more serious in light of the Maduro regime’s failure to adequately prepare for and address the global Covid-19 pandemic. This framework demonstrates our commitment to helping Venezuela fully recover and ensures that the voice of the Venezuelan people is respected and included.”

Sceptics of the plan said it provided few incentives for the incumbent officials to give up power, days after they were charged with serious offences and multimillion-dollar rewards put on their heads.

Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House foreign affairs committee, said: “Essentially, Maduro regime officials are being told on one hand that nothing they do will stop the US [Department of Justice] from pressing charges against them while on the other hand, they are being asked to agree to a transition government for unrelated sanctions relief.”

“The people of Venezuela cannot afford such a ham-handed approach. It’s time to get serious about our Venezuela policy,” Engel said.

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the deal was very similar to what was discussed by Maduro and Guaidó representatives in Oslo and Barbados last summer, with one major difference.

“Coming less than a week after indicting all the main figures of the Maduro government it would seem the Trump administration is trying to hardwire in who they think should be part of a transition,” Smilde said on Twitter. “This was a main point of contention during last summer’s negotiations, with the US reluctant to endorse any transition plan that allowed Maduro to preside over new elections.”

Briefing journalists on the new plan, a senior administration official said the US was prepared to negotiate with Maduro about the terms of his departure from office.

But the official referred to the fate of Gen Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, who was indicted on drug smuggling charges in 1988 and then removed in a US invasion the next year.

“History shows that those who do not cooperate with US law enforcement agencies do not fare well, “ the official said. “Maduro probably regrets not taking the offer six months ago. We urge Maduro not to regret not taking it now.”