U.S. Counts on Global Crises to Press Again for Power Shift in Venezuela
WASHINGTON — The United States is seizing on Venezuela’s economic pain and the coronavirus threat to push a new plan for a power-sharing government in Caracas until presidential elections can be held this year.
The proposal, to be released on Tuesday in Washington, offers to ease American sanctions intended to pressure President Nicolás Maduro and his loyalists over the past year.
But it also demands that Mr. Maduro relinquish power as officials from his administration and the main opposition party, led by Juan Guaidó, create a short-term government that the United States hopes can assure fair elections.
There is no indication that Mr. Maduro is prepared to step down. He has resisted Trump administration threats and entreaties to do so since a January 2019 revolt against his self-declared victory in widely disputed presidential elections in 2018.
But the United States is counting on an energy dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia that has resulted in plummeting prices of oil — a lifeline export for Venezuela’s cratering economy — and the International Monetary Fund’s rejection of a $5 billion coronavirus response loan to convince Mr. Maduro that his time is up.
“If any good can come out of those, maybe it is the combination of pressures on the regime that leads them to negotiate seriously,” Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s envoy for Venezuela policy, said in an interview on Monday.
He said the Trump administration had for several months been discussing with allies how to break the stalemate in Venezuela, and “we would have gone forward with this anyway.”
In Venezuela over the weekend, Mr. Guaidó also called for a power-sharing government to address the coronavirus threat after the monetary fund refused a loan two weeks ago when its member states split over the legitimacy of Mr. Maduro’s presidency. The United States and most of the West recognize Mr. Guaidó, the head of the Venezuelan Parliament, as the country’s interim president, while Russia, Iran, China and Cuba are steadfast allies of Mr. Maduro’s.
Mr. Guaidó said the temporary government “must be broad and include all the political and social sectors necessary to confront this grave emergency that is coming to us.” However, he maintained that it could not include Mr. Maduro or those of his supporters who, like the embattled president, were charged with drug trafficking last week by the United States.
With a power-sharing government, Mr. Guaidó said in a statement, international organizations may consider loaning Venezuela at least $1.2 billion to counter the pandemic, which he said could force people to “choose between dying from the virus or from hunger.”
The United States’ plan is based on proposals that were discussed last year between the sitting government and the opposition before negotiations broke down over whether Mr. Maduro would leave power. At the time, Mr. Maduro’s negotiators had also insisted that the United States lift sanctions against the government that have sought to cut off its oil exports and estrange it from the rest of the world.
Mr. Abrams said some sanctions against specific people in Mr. Maduro’s administration could be lifted as their roles in a power-sharing government shifted. But he said the most bruising financial penalties — including those that freeze the sitting administration’s assets and properties — would remain until Mr. Maduro steps down and the temporary government is empowered.
“Until that objective is achieved, our pressure will continue, and it will build steadily,” concluded a 12-point summary of the plan that the State Department shared with The New York Times on Monday.
It also demands the resolution of legal protections for opposition officials whose immunity was stripped by Mr. Maduro’s administration, and that foreign security forces leave Venezuela so that a power-sharing government is not influenced by any threat they may pose. Mr. Abrams said there were an estimated 2,500 Cuban intelligence officials in Venezuela to support Mr. Maduro and called it “simply impossible” for democratic efforts to succeed while they remain.
But Mr. Abrams was careful to say that the plan was an opening offer for talks between the two sides, “not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” and that no single issue was a deal breaker — except the demand for Mr. Maduro’s departure.
He said he presented the plan on Monday to allies among the 57 countries that recognized Mr. Guaidó’s presidency, in Europe and Latin America.
But perhaps the only opinion of the plan that matters is that of Mr. Maduro, who has already weathered mass domestic protests, obliterated revenues that have rebounded in some places and broad condemnation for creating one of the world’s largest refugee populations.
Mr. Abrams insisted that the proposal was not a desperate attempt to dislodge Mr. Maduro, after more than a year without any progress.
“Even Maduro must recognize that he has no solutions for Venezuela,” Mr. Abrams said.
He said the plan was intended to persuade the country’s military, government workers, business leaders and others “to realize that they need a solution.”
“And this is a solution,” Mr. Abrams said, “and Maduro is an obstacle.”