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A New Path to Venezuelan Democracy
March 31, 2020

By Elliott Abrams
March 31, 2020

This Op-Ed was originally published in the Wall Street Journal: 

The U.S. State Department proposes Maduro and Guaidó both step aside and make way for free elections.

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, it’s easy to forget the Venezuelan people’s suffering at the hands of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. The Trump administration hasn’t. Today we are announcing a Democratic Transition Framework to help Venezuelans escape from the national crisis that falling oil prices and the coronavirus have now deepened.

We present this framework as a path for Venezuela to emerge from years of repression and political conflict. It proposes that both Mr. Maduro, the former president who has clung to power, and Juan Guaidó, the interim president, step aside so that the elected members of the National Assembly from both sides can create a Council of State to serve as the transitional government, which would hold free and fair presidential elections. In last year’s negotiations, the team representing Mr. Guaidó and the National Assembly proposed this path forward toward the restoration of democracy.

Democracy isn’t only about elections. A new, balanced and independent National Electoral Council is also critical, and an independent Supreme Court must replace the current one, which is but an arm of the Maduro regime. A vibrant democracy also demands a free and independent media with an end to the regime’s pervasive censorship.

The U.S. doesn’t support any particular political party in Venezuela. We support a return to democracy and believe that every party—including the regime’s party, the PSUV—should be able to compete on a level playing field in free and fair elections. This means an end to the unjust prosecutions that have left dozens of members of Parliament in exile, four in prison, and many more barred from running for office—including Mr. Guaidó, who would continue as president of the National Assembly until new parliamentary and presidential elections. The U.S. will recognize the results of a free and fair election, no matter which party wins; what we oppose is the abuse of state power that enables one party to rule indefinitely.

For the Maduro regime, the deep cuts in income due to falling oil prices compound the crisis of a medical system that it pushed into slow collapse over two decades. U.S. pressure hasn’t prevented food or medicine from reaching Venezuelans. The purpose of sanctions is to deprive the regime of the income it uses for repression—or steals through vast corruption—and force the regime to agree to presidential elections. Mr. Maduro has never negotiated in good faith about that central issue. National Assembly elections alone do not constitute a political solution.

The military will play an essential role in bringing about peaceful change and shaping Venezuela’s future. Venezuelan soldiers, along with police officers, are suffering as civilians are; they can barely afford to feed their families and can’t afford medical care or medications. Venezuela faces a great security challenge from drug traffickers, terrorist groups and criminal gangs, and it needs security forces that are better paid, trained and equipped to secure the nation’s borders and maintain peace. The military and police must abandon the role the Maduro regime has forged for them—carrying out the repression of the Venezuelan people. The military must also join in expelling the Cuban intelligence agents who spy on them and all citizens and serve as the regime’s true shield. The armed forces’ support of the Democratic Transition Framework would be a key step in this direction.

Free and fair presidential elections are the path out of Venezuela’s crisis. Because Mr. Maduro cannot be trusted to organize them, establishing the Council of State is an essential step. We are prepared to work with all Venezuelans and with other nations and lift sanctions when the necessary conditions are met. The Democratic Transition Framework paves the best path to a restoration of democracy through fair participation of all parties, and an end to the brutality, repression and political turmoil that have marked Venezuela’s recent past.

Until that objective is achieved, our pressure will strengthen. We look forward to the day when elections have been held, a new democratic government is in place, and sanctions can be lifted. We look forward to restoring once-close Venezuela-U.S. relations, to helping Venezuelan migrants and refugees displaced by the crisis return to their beloved country, and to seeing Venezuela’s children able to share again in their country’s natural bounty.