- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2019

LONDON — A push by leaders in Norway to facilitate talks toward a negotiated settlement of Venezuela’s political standoff will have the Trump administration’s support only if the talks are built from the premise that socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro step down, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

“If they can be successful at convincing Maduro it’s time to go, sign me up,” Mr. Pompeo told The Washington Times in an interview this week as he rounded out a visit to Europe, where he claimed European leaders widely agree with the administration’s push for Mr. Maduro’s removal from office.

“The Venezuelan people can’t get behind the idea that Maduro could possibly be there in control of the military inside Venezuela and there’d be a free and fair election,” Mr. Pompeo said in the interview Tuesday. “The United States certainly believes that. I think these European countries all believe that, too. I think they understand that if Maduro’s there and in control of the security infrastructure, that it’s not possible to have a free and fair election.”

His comments came amid uncertainty surrounding recent efforts by Norway, which has a long tradition of mediating far off conflicts, to mediate the standoff in Caracas that has grown since January, when the U.S. and more than a dozen other nations — including several in South America — recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim Venezuelan president and declared Mr. Maduro’s presidency illegitimate.

The months since have seen Mr. Guaido struggle — so far unsuccessfully — to win loyalty from Venezuelan military commanders protecting Mr. Maduro.

The Norwegians are tight-lipped on whether talks will be structured around trying to negotiate Mr. Maduro out of office, or allow him to stay while pushing for possible future elections in Venezuela. The U.S. declaration of Mr. Maduro as illegitimate came after he claimed to have won another six-year term last year in an election boycotted by the opposition and tarnished by accusations of widespread vote-rigging.

There was uncertainty around the Norwegian mediation efforts last week when Mr. Guaido, according to Voice of America, refused to enter talks with Mr. Maduro in Norway. The efforts come amid concern among some European leaders that talks are needed to preempt a U.S. intervention in Venezuela — as well as a rising stand-off there between the U.S. and Russia, which is reported to be providing military support to the Maduro government.

An analysis published this week by Stratfor cited a report that said a Maduro resignation was discussed during a secretive round of talks in Oslo recently. But the analysis also said it was unclear whether Mr. Maduro may be trying to negotiate an escape route for himself or seeking to use the talks to rope the opposition into fruitless dialogue so he can stay in power for as long as possible.

When pressed on whether the Trump administration supports the Norwegian mediation effort, Mr. Pompeo told The Times that “any conversations that are held with anyone, whether that’s with Maduro directly, those around him or the military folks [in Venezuela], has to take as a central premise that Maduro cannot be in charge of the security infrastructure while an election takes place.”

Asked whether an acceptable outcome would be for Mr. Maduro to end up living in a villa somewhere in Europe, Mr. Pompeo responded: “Sounds great to me.”

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