The US government unveiled a plan on Tuesday to break Venezuela’s political deadlock, inviting President Nicolás Maduro to cede power to a new transitional government in exchange for sanctions relief and humanitarian aid as the impoverished country struggles with coronavirus.
Washington has been attempting to dislodge Mr Maduro since accusing him of stealing a presidential election in 2018. Its campaign of “maximum pressure” involves ever-tougher economic sanctions and criminal charges against key officials but has not yet delivered results.
Coming just days after the Department of Justice charged Mr Maduro in relation to “international narco-terrorism”, the new “Democratic Transition Framework” calls for the establishment of an interim Council of State to rule Venezuela until fresh elections can be held in six to 12 months.
Under the proposal, neither Mr Maduro nor Juan Guaidó, his western-backed rival, would be allowed to sit on the new five-member executive council. It would be made up of two government and two opposition members and they would together choose a fifth person to serve as interim president.
“Both Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó would accept the Council of State as the sole executive during this transitional period,” Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, told a press briefing in Washington.
In return, as soon as the new council took over and all foreign military forces had departed Venezuela — a reference to the Cuban and Russian advisers surrounding Mr Maduro — the US sanctions would be suspended and an international humanitarian aid effort started.
The military high command, whose support is crucial to Mr Maduro, would be allowed to stay in their posts for the duration of the interim government, as would state and local authorities.
Risa Grais-Targow, a Venezuela expert at the Eurasia consultancy in Washington, said: “Maduro is highly unlikely to agree to any plan that sees him out of power, particularly given last week’s indictment, which only increased his own exit costs.”
Speaking after news of the plan for a transitional government, Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s foreign minister, told local radio that the US and the Venezuelan opposition were “wasting time in their labyrinth”. “Nicolás Maduro was elected in May 2018 for a period of six years . . . he would never betray the trust that the people have put in him twice already.”
The US had previously insisted that Mr Guaidó should head any interim government. Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special representative for Venezuela, denied that the plan amounted to a weakening of the Venezuelan opposition leader. “We see this as support for Guaidó,” he said.
Mr Pompeo said that under the proposal, Mr Guaidó would be free to stand in any eventual presidential election: “I think he’s the most popular politician in Venezuela at the moment and if elections were held today I think he’d do incredibly well.”
By contrast, he said: “Nicolás Maduro will never again govern Venezuela and that hasn’t changed.”
The US proposal is similar to one first put forward last year by the Venezuelan opposition during Norwegian-brokered talks with the Maduro government in Barbados. It comes as Venezuela’s long-running political crisis enters a new phase.
The coronavirus crisis has presented a fresh challenge to the Maduro regime, coinciding with a crash in global oil prices which has deprived Caracas of most of its sole source of legal foreign exchange.
Venezuela’s dilapidated health system is ill-equipped to cope with a pandemic, leading to fears of a humanitarian catastrophe unless international aid arrives. Until now the government has registered only 135 cases of the disease, though a lack of testing makes the numbers suspect.
The American proposal did not say what would happen to Mr Maduro if the framework plan were accepted. The Venezuelan president is unlikely to accept any agreement that might result in him being hauled before a US court to face “narco-terrorism” charges.
Any agreement would also require the backing of Venezuela’s key allies, Russia, China and Cuba, who have remained vocal in their support for Mr Maduro.
The Venezuelan president has been in power since 2013 and extended his rule for a second term in 2019 on the basis of what were widely seen as fraudulent elections. Mr Guaidó has been trying to oust him since then, with the support of the US, the EU and most of Latin America.