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U.S. Offers Amnesty to Venezuelan Leader, if He Leaves Power

WASHINGTON — A top American diplomat said the United States would not prosecute or otherwise seek to punish President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela if he voluntarily left power, despite bringing his country to the verge of economic collapse and humanitarian disaster.

Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Venezuela, said he had seen no indication that Mr. Maduro was willing to step down. But his offer of amnesty was a message to Mr. Maduro after both countries’ leaders described high-level talks that Mr. Abrams unequivocally said did not happen.

“This is not a persecution,” Mr. Abrams said of Mr. Maduro on Tuesday evening in an interview. “We’re not after him. We want him to have a dignified exit and go.”

He added: “We don’t want to prosecute you; we don’t want to persecute you. We want you to leave power.”

The Treasury Department last year accused Mr. Maduro of profiting from illegal drug trafficking in Venezuela but did not recommend charges.

The softer, if pragmatic, appeal sharply contrasted with the eight months of sanctions, international isolation and threats by the Trump administration of military intervention against Mr. Maduro and his loyalists, who are accused of hoarding power and manipulating elections last year.

Opposition leaders in Venezuela have not offered immunity to Mr. Maduro, whom they accuse of prospering in a corrupt government that has left many Venezuelans without food, electricity or medical supplies.

In the interview, Mr. Abrams sought to clarify widespread confusion over the Trump administration’s efforts to force Mr. Maduro from his presidency.

Last week, asked about news reports of secret talks between Washington and Caracas, Mr. Trump said the White House was in touch with Mr. Maduro’s government, “at a very high level.”

Hours later, Mr. Maduro confirmed that he had directly authorized his officials to engage in secret meetings with the Trump administration. “Sure, there’s been contact and we’ll continue having contact,” he said in a national broadcast.

On Tuesday, Mr. Abrams said that was not true.

“The notion that we are negotiating is just flat-out wrong,” Mr. Abrams said. “And the notion that there is a pattern of communication is wrong. There are intermittent messages and I think people would find the very occasional message sent from Washington to be completely predictable: ‘You need to return to democracy. Maduro needs to leave power.’”

The comments are likely to soothe Venezuela’s opposition leaders, who have privately said Mr. Trump’s statement risked sidelining their own negotiations. A delegation headed by the opposition’s chief political negotiator, Stalin González, traveled to Washington last week to press American officials on the Trump administration’s policy in Venezuela.

Mr. Abrams said he did not currently see any value in talking directly to Mr. Maduro’s government.

He said messages to Washington from intermediaries in Venezuela have been “pretty rare” since last winter, and the information they carried was dubious. Some may have been sent with Mr. Maduro’s knowledge while others were probably not.

All carried the same general message: that Mr. Maduro would continue to resist the international pressure campaign that is led by the Trump administration.

ImageCreditCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Messages that the United States sends to Mr. Maduro are usually delivered through media statements, on Twitter and in some cases, through European diplomats or religious leaders. Beyond reiterating the Trump administration’s demands that Mr. Maduro step down, those intermediaries have also raised the plight of at least five Americans who are being held in Venezuela, relaying concerns about their health or conditions of their detentions.

Any direct contact between Washington and Mr. Maduro would risk sidelining parallel negotiations — that are mediated by Norway and held in the Caribbean island of Barbados — between the Venezuelan government and opposition officials led by Juan Guaidó, whom the United States views as Venezuela’s rightful president.

Those negotiations allow Mr. Maduro to claim he is seeking a peaceful resolution of the crisis and have helped stave off tougher European sanctions. The talks also are the opposition’s best chance to unseat Mr. Maduro after months of diminishing mass rallies and failed attempts to split his government.

The Barbados negotiations began gaining traction in July, after Mr. Maduro offered the opposition new presidential elections in return for the lifting of American sanctions. But he suspended the talks in protest of new American sanctions issued Aug. 5 that blocked all Venezuelan public assets in the United States.

The sanctions, which surprised both Mr. Maduro and opposition leaders, also threaten economic penalties against any foreign company doing business with the Venezuelan government. Mr. Abrams maintained on Tuesday that the United States would not lift sanctions against Venezuela unless Mr. Maduro steps down.

Officials close to both sides of the Venezuelan negotiations said the talks could resume in Barbados as soon as next week, although no date has been set. They discussed sensitive topics on the condition of anonymity.

“The more the United States gets involved in Venezuela, the more problems it creates for the negotiation process,” said Temir Porras, a former chief of staff to Mr. Maduro who now works as a political consultant in Caracas. “The United States pursues a policy that has a lot of influence on Venezuela’s future, but it’s unable to resolve the crisis. It can only be resolved by Venezuelans.”

Mr. Abrams said the Trump administration would not support new national elections with an incumbent — either Mr. Maduro or Mr. Guaidó — on the ballot. If either man wanted to run for the presidency, Mr. Abrams said, he should first leave office to prevent concerns about election tampering by the government.

And he predicted that Mr. Guaidó would formally close the negotiations by Oct. 1 to prevent them from dragging on without resolution.

“It’s pretty clear that he has not yet reached the conclusion that it is hopeless,” Mr. Abrams said, adding: “He may reach that conclusion tomorrow.”

Last winter, the opposition-controlled Parliament in Caracas considered — but then abandoned — a vaguely worded amnesty proposal that sought to convince military officers to leave Mr. Maduro’s ranks. Even before it was dropped, opposition officials insisted it would not allow Mr. Maduro or his close advisers to escape criminal charges, nor would it give cover to government loyalists accused of human rights abuses.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague is investigating claims of abuse by Venezuelan security forces beginning in 2014, during Mr. Maduro’s first term in office. The United States is not a party to the international court.

Any offer of amnesty by the United States would have limits. A White House official has previously told The New York Times that the Trump administration would be unable to remove any federal drugs charges that several of Mr. Maduro’s top confidants and relatives face.

And Mr. Abrams would not comment when asked whether the United States would stop Mr. Maduro from keeping any wealth or other assets were he to step down or leave Venezuela in exile.

Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political risk analyst at IHS Markit in London, said any offer of amnesty to Mr. Maduro would also need to be extended to all top Venezuelan officials and military officers to be successful.

But it would still be a significant step forward to breaking the political impasse in Venezuela, Mr. Moya-Ocampos said. “It could even be a game changer,” he said.


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