The United States threw its support behind negotiations in Venezuela, saying talks could establish a transitional government, lead to fresh elections and bring an end to the country’s long-running political crisis.
The statement came as opposition leader Juan Guaido, who this week survived attempts to remove him as head of the National Assembly, called new protests in hopes of rekindling momentum in his quest to topple leftist President Nicolas Maduro.
The United States has not opposed past talks among Venezuelans but had taken a hard line, saying they should only discuss Maduro’s exit.
But nearly a year after declaring Maduro illegitimate and recognising Guaido as interim president, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated a greater openness to diplomacy. “A swift negotiated transition to democracy is the most effective and sustainable route to peace and prosperity in Venezuela,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“Negotiations could open the path out of the crisis through a transitional government that will organise free and fair elections,” he said.
Norway has mediated talks between Maduro’s and Guaido’s representatives, but the meetings broke down in August.  President Donald Trump, questioned by reporters, insisted that he had never expected a quick change of power in Venezuela.  “I never expected anything to go smoothly,” he said.  He ruled out a change in tactics, saying “I think we’re doing a good job.”
“We’ll see what happens. Stay tuned,” he said.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled a collapsing economy, in which they are no longer able to find or afford basic staples.  But despite the humanitarian catastrophe and biting US sanctions, Maduro maintains power with the support of the military as well as Russia, China and Cuba. Crowds at opposition rallies have dwindled from the height of Guaido’s popularity a year ago, when thousands packed the streets of Caracas and other major cities. Guaido nonetheless called for “citizen assemblies” in the past two days followed by a march to the parliament building today.
“We need the support of everyone to reach the objectives that we have fixed to achieve a free Venezuela,” said Manuela Bolivar, a member of Guaido’s Popular Will party, on Instagram. Polling firm Datanalisis said that Guaido had started 2019 with 63% support among Venezuelans but that his backing dropped to 39% by the end of the year. Maduro won a new term in 2018 in elections that were widely criticised internationally as fraudulent, and new presidential polls are not due until 2024.
But elections must take place within 2020 for the National Assembly, the only institution controlled by the opposition – and which the United States and more than 50 other countries see as bringing legitimacy to Guaido.
In Caracas, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza accused the United States of trying to drum up international support over the National Assembly elections.
“We will not allow the United States to intervene,” he told reporters, voicing hope that “all opposition parties will participate” in the election. Pompeo in his statement called for both presidential and legislative elections by the end of the year.
“2020 presents the opportunity to provide the Venezuelan people with what they have been demanding for years: genuinely free and fair Presidential and National Assembly elections to choose their leadership and begin the long process of renewal,” he said. A State Department spokesperson said that US policy on Venezuela remained “consistent.”
While Pompeo’s statement did not reiterate US demands that Maduro quit, the spokesperson said that the strongman should not lead the proposed transitional government. Maduro’s recent actions against Guaido “proved without a shadow of a doubt that he is incapable of overseeing free and fair elections,” the spokesperson said.
This week, Guaido won a new one-year term this week after chaotic scenes when troops initially barred him from entering Congress and a rival lawmaker claimed to have won the post. A contact group of 12 European and Latin American countries in a statement Thursday recognised Guaido as speaker, rejecting a bid by Luis Parra who the opposition charges is backed by Maduro.