The Trump administration launched its latest effort to oust embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday, leveraging the coronavirus pandemic to apply additional pressure.
“The United States has long been committed to finding a solution to the man-made crisis in Venezuela,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “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.”
Speaking at the State Department, Pompeo outlined a plan to establish a transitional government and, “if the conditions of the framework are met,” lift sanctions on Venezuela. The Maduro government rejected it almost immediately.
The US hopes its newly proposed framework will facilitate a democratic transition in Venezuela, more than a year after initial attempts to force Maduro from power. Those conditions include “the departure of foreign security forces and elections deemed free and fair by international observers,” Pompeo said, an apparent reference to Russian forces.
The ‘man-made crisis’
Pompeo presented the plan as the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the globe, with the World Health Organization reporting 129 cases in Venezuela as of Tuesday. The country is already reeling under sanctions and the Maduro regime’s corruption and economic mismanagement, which have created a cauldron of soaring crime, hunger, poverty and inflation and an exodus of refugees.
The terms of the new framework call for the immediate release of all political prisoners. However, it is unclear what the proposal would mean for the six US-based Citgo executives who have been detained without trial for more than two years.
Pompeo on Tuesday reiterated calls for the men – Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira – to be released, particularly because of the risks of the pandemic. Earlier this month, their families expressed fear and concern about the health and well-being of their loved ones amid reports of coronavirus cases in the prison where they are being held.
“With as many people in there, if there are cases that are testing positive, a spread would be pretty easy, and that’s what we’re all terrified about,” said Carlos Anez, the son of Toledo. “We’re terribly afraid of losing one or more of them in there.”
Some of the families have expressed disappointment and anger that the State Department has not done more to free the men. The Trump administration’s special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said Tuesday that he understood their frustration.
“I think we’re doing everything we can, but I think if I were in their shoes, I would be frustrated, I would be anguished and I’d be speaking out too,” he told reporters at the State Department.
Under the plan unveiled Tuesday, Venezuela’s National Assembly would create a “Council of State,” which would serve as the governing body until presidential elections are held. The president of that council would not be permitted to run in those elections, Pompeo said.
Maduro’s longevity has been due, in part, to the continued allegiance of the military, and the US plan pointedly tries to peel it away by offering “guarantees” that the “military high command (Defense Minister, Vice Defense Minister, CEOFANB Commander, and Service Chiefs) remains in place for the duration of the transitional government.” The framework offers the same pledge to state and local authorities.
‘The most popular politician’
Neither Maduro nor opposition leader Juan Guaidó could serve on that council, but Pompeo said the US would continue to back Guaidó, whom the US and dozens of other countries support as the rightful leader of Venezuela. Pompeo also said Guaido would be permitted to run in an eventual election, which he hoped would be in six to 12 months.
“I think he’s the most popular politician in Venezuela. I think if there were an election held today, I think he’d do incredibly well. But more importantly, we continue to support him,” Pompeo said.
Abrams projected that Guaidó would win any election. “If our transition plan were adopted, there would be a transitional government for however long, nine months, 12 months, to hold an election, in which I think it’s pretty logical Juan Guaidó would be the candidate of the democratic parties,” he said.
“We want Guaidó to be free to run for president,” Abrams said. “And under our plan, he is. And according to the polls I’ve seen, he’s very likely to win.”
Pompeo said the framework the US introduced Thursday had been developed in coordination with Guaidó.
“When we put together this pathway to democracy, we worked closely with him,” Pompeo said. “He was aware of how it was we were presenting this. We all, Juan Guaidó and his entire team, understand that Nicolás Maduro must go. We must get this democracy started. We have now introduced this pathway to achieve that. We continue to remain enormously supportive of the work that the rightful president of the Venezuelan people, Juan Guaidó, is engaged in.”
The framework for a transitional government comes as a targeted campaign of sanctions against Maduro and his interests has failed to yield the desired outcome. Last week, the Justice Department unveiled criminal charges against the embattled leader and more than a dozen other Venezuelan officials.
On Tuesday, Maduro’s government had already rejected the proposal. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told Colombia’s Blu Radio that decisions about Venezuela “are made in Caracas, in the Miraflores (Presidential) Palace, under the Venezuelan Constitution” and that there were no plans for Maduro to step down.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, CNNE’s Florencia Trucco and CNN’s Claudia Dominguez contributed to this report.