U.S. calls for Venezuelan talks to form transitional government, hold elections

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday called for Venezuelan negotiations to form a transitional government which would organize fair elections and end the country’s long-running political crisis.

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Pompeo urged a swift democratic transition in 2020, after a year in which President Donald Trump’s administration had been skeptical of Norway-mediated talks involving representatives of socialist President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Last January, Washington and dozens of other countries recognized Guaido as the OPEC nation’s legitimate interim president and began ratcheting up sanctions and pressure.

A year later, Maduro remains in power, backed by the military as well as Russia, China and Cuba. A senior administration official told Reuters in recent months that Trump’s frustration over the lack of results had spurred aides to ready further actions.

Pompeo, who has frequently denounced Maduro in strong terms, took a more toned-down approach in a statement on Thursday. “A swift negotiated transition to democracy is the most effective and sustainable route to peace and prosperity in Venezuela,” he said.

“Negotiations could open the path out of the crisis through a transitional government that will organize free and fair elections,” he added, saying such a vote should take place by the end of this year.

Pompeo’s statement came days after Maduro’s allies tried to install a rival opposition head and group of legislators after security forces blocked Guaido and his supporters from parliament.

Though it has repeatedly called for a political solution, the Trump administration offered little encouragement for Norway-mediated negotiations between envoys of Maduro and Guaido last year, saying such talks should focus on Maduro’s exit. The meetings broke down in August.

Pompeo’s call for elections under a transitional government would seem to rule out Maduro staying in office to participate in the process.

Asked whether Pompeo’s statement reflected any change in policy, a State Department official said, “U.S. policy towards Venezuela has remained consistent,” adding that Maduro is “incapable of overseeing free and fair elections.”

Pompeo’s statement, the official said, “helps to lay out the international standards” for those elections.

Guaido invoked the constitution last January to assume a rival presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Maduro has called Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet.

Venezuela this year holds congressional elections, though a date has not been set. Opposition leaders say they will only participate if the government provides adequate conditions, including the creation of a new elections council.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang