Four months after rallying international pressure against the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the Trump administration must prevent a deal that would leave criminals in control in Caracas. For 20 years, self-interested politicians have delivered little more than empty promises and rigged elections as Hugo Chávez and his acolyte Maduro consolidated a narco-dictatorship. Now a move toward a sordid accommodation with this regime threatens to squander U.S. efforts to depose Maduro.
Vice President Mike Pence has said repeatedly, “the time for negotiations is over.” However, the U.S.-backed interim government has just declared that the time for negotiations is this week in Oslo. The Norwegian mediators recognize Maduro as president rather than as a usurper -- a starting position that renders the Oslo talks pointless. It is peculiar that Venezuela’s interim president Juan Guiadó, whom Washington has backed to the hilt, has indulged calls for open-ended dialogue. The State Department was left to issue a skeptical declaration, affirming that“the only thing to negotiate with Nicolás Maduro is the conditions of his departure.”
Years of negotiations have allowed the regime to buy time and dig in, and recent efforts by the opposition to outfox Maduro have failed. An April 30 rebellion against Maduro was engineered by the opposition in collaboration with Raúl Gorrín, a billionaire bagman indicted in U.S. federal court for looting and laundering money for regime cronies. According to a credible published account, Gorrín promised Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López, illegitimate supreme court president Maikel Moreno, and several generals that the U.S. government would drop sanctions against anyone who abandoned Maduro. However, by the time Guaidó announced “Operation Liberty,” Padrino and Moreno backed the regime and exposed the plot.
U.S. financial sanctions have barely touched the regime’s fortune in looted assets. That vast war chest and the proceeds of cocaine and gold sales form the mortar that binds the criminal regime together. Moreover, regime leaders likely realize that powerful federal prosecutors in Florida, Houston, and New York are not about to quash indictments against narco-state kingpins and massive money launderers.
Before turning to Gorrín, some of Guaidó’s backers pinned their hopes on retired general and chavista stalwart Hugo Carvajal, who has twice been indicted on U.S. cocaine-smuggling charges. Carvajal defected with great fanfare in February, portraying himself rather implausibly as a crusading crime fighter who had soured on Maduro’s corruption. On the contrary, it soon became clear that he was a stalking horse for regime kingpins. In the ensuing weeks, according to media sources, Carvajal plotted in Europe with Rafael Ramírez, the exiled chavista chieftain who is desperate to install a regime in Caracas that would protect the billions he allegedly embezzled as head of Venezuela’s state oil company. The Carvajal gambit fell apart when he was arrested in Spain at the request of U.S. authorities.
If men like Gorrín and Carvajal are empowered to engineer a rebellion against Maduro, they will dictate the terms of Venezuela’s future. The essential work of ferreting out drug smugglers and terrorists and expelling Cuban henchmen and Colombian narco-guerrillas would be impossible if criminals remain part of the power structure. What’s worse, the fact that Washington has relaxed sanctions and backed a sweeping amnesty for those abandoning Maduro would confer legitimacy on such an unseemly power-sharing arrangement. Such an outcome would leave Venezuela’s future and American interests and influence in worse shape than ever.
Fuzzy dialogue sponsored by the Norwegians or the EU-backed International Contact Group will do more harm than good. The United States and key democratic partners in the Americas must either pull the plug on the talks or take charge. A minimal framework for transition would demand the departure of Maduro and his fellow kingpins, the dismantling of the regime and its criminal cartels, the restoration of democratic institutions, the organization of fair elections, the surrender of all stolen assets and ill-gotten gains, and the expulsion of foreign agitators.
U.S. diplomats weakened their position by contradicting President Trump’s original declaration that “all options are on the table.” Their unforced error raised the stakes for U.S. credibility, as Russia doubled down on its support for Maduro. Allowing Venezuelan politicians to play Washington’s hand would be another mistake, as is seeking a power-sharing deal with a Putin-backed regime.
That leads back to where we started. When it comes to dealing with a criminal regime that is harming millions of Venezuelans, regional stability, and U.S. security, all options -- except for bargaining with Maduro or his co-conspirators -- must be on the table.
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the OAS and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2001-05. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and his firm Visión Américas LLC represents U.S. and foreign clients. The views expressed are the author's own.