The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed lifting Venezuela sanctions in exchange for a power-sharing deal, with members of the opposition and President Nicolas Maduro's Socialist Party forming a transitional government in the run-up to early elections.
With the South American nation squeezed by low world oil prices, a spreading coronavirus pandemic and a US economic pressure campaign, Washington shifted to a more toned-down approach aimed at promoting fair elections as soon as this year to end the political crisis there.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally announced the administration's "Democratic Transition Framework" for Venezuela, which offers for the first time a "sequenced exit path" from tough US sanctions, including on the vital oil sector, if Maduro and his allies cooperate.
But it will be no easy task to draw Maduro onto a path of political reconciliation with opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as the legitimate interim president.
Maduro has held onto power despite repeated US efforts to oust him and shown no willingness to seriously negotiate an end to his rule. As such, Tuesday's announcement could be seen as a bid by the administration to cut its losses and move on.
The initiative comes less than a week after the US government took a more confrontational tack, indicting Maduro and more than a dozen other current and former top Venezuelan officials on charges of "narco-terrorism," accusations he dismissed as false and racist.
Maduro's staying power has become a source of frustration for President Donald Trump, US officials have said privately. Maduro retains the backing of the military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.
But the Trump administration hopes an energy dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia that has contributed to the plunging price of oil - Maduro's main financial lifeline - and the growing coronavirus threat will help make Maduro and his loyalists more pliable.
"The regime is now under heavier pressure than it has ever been," US Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told Reuters earlier. "Maybe this pressure will lead to a serious discussion within the regime."
The US proposal, which Abrams said was approved by Trump, calls for Maduro to "step aside" and for the opposition-controlled National Assembly "to elect an inclusive transitional government acceptable to the major factions." Under the plan, Guaido would also step down during the transition.
Though the administration has never wavered in public about its support for Guaido, he has struggled to maintain the street protests of his first few months as the opposition's main leader, and ordinary Venezuelans have increasingly expressed disappointment at his failure to achieve a change of government.
A council of state would govern until it oversees elections, which Pompeo said the United States hoped could be held in six to 12 months.
Questions about Maduro’s future
But in what appears to be a softening of tone toward Maduro, Abrams told Reuters the plan did not call for him to be forced into exile and even suggested that he "could theoretically run" in the election.
Pompeo insisted that "Nicolas Maduro will never again govern Venezuela," but said the administration hoped he would take the US proposal seriously.
"If the conditions of the framework are met, including the departure of all foreign security forces," Pompeo told reporters, "then all remaining US sanctions would be lifted."
Venezuela's information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With experts deeming OPEC member Venezuela among the countries that could be hardest hit by the coronavirus, Guaido proposed over the weekend the formation of an emergency government of members across the political spectrum.
The US plan seeks to build on the effort by Guaido as well as a failed round of negotiations between the two sides in Barbados last year, which the Trump administration dismissed at the time.
The proposal represents a significantly less bellicose tone from the administration's pronouncements since January of last year, when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, arguing that Maduro's 2018 re-election was a sham. Maduro calls Guaido a US puppet.
Asked whether the new proposal indicated the United States was backing away from Guaido, Pompeo said the administration remained "supportive of the work that the rightful president of the Venezuelan people, Juan Guaido, is engaged in."
But the success of the plan, which calls for power-sharing between the Guaido-led opposition and Socialist lawmakers, would ultimately hinge on Socialist leaders turning on Maduro, the same strategy that Guaido has been unable to execute.
Socialist legislators are again considered unlikely to go along with the new US plan.
Saul Ortega, a Socialist legislator, called the US proposal a "dangerous escalation against our people" as battles the coronavirus and said it had an "electoral stench" given Trump's 2020 re-election campaign.
A fresh offer of step-by-step sanctions relief, however, seeks to persuade them to peel off from Maduro, whose immediate reaction, Abrams said, "will be to reject this."