US lifts sanctions on Venezuela spy chief to spur Maduro defections

One week after opposition protests sought to spur top Venezuelan leaders to abandon Nicolas Maduro, the country's embattled socialist president, the U.S. is stepping in again to try to spur action with an offer: Defect from Maduro and avoid U.S. sanctions.

Vice President Mike Pence announced Tuesday that the U.S. removed sanctions against the country's former chief of the intelligence service, SEBIN, after Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera broke with Maduro last Tuesday. At the same time, Pence threatened new economic penalties against the 25 justices on the country's Supreme Court.

"I came today to be very clear. The United States will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition of democracy in Venezuela, but to those who continue to oppress the good people of Venezuela, know this: All options are on the table," Pence said.

The U.S.-supported movement to oust Maduro hit a wall again after the protests last week failed to win the major high-level defections that would push Maduro from power. The president of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaido, and his mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, called for mass demonstrations and military defections Tuesday in what they said was the "final phase" of that push.

But by the end of the week, Maduro remained in control of the security services and armed forces while Lopez, who had been under house arrest, went into hiding at the Spanish embassy in the capital, Caracas. Guaido, who the U.S. and 53 other countries have recognized as the legitimate leader of the country, continues to rally supporters but has yet to secure power.

Instead, the country's Supreme Court, loyal to Maduro, has opened a criminal investigation against seven opposition lawmakers after last week's events, accusing them of "betraying the homeland" and "instigating an insurrection," among other charges, according to the Associated Press.

As Maduro tries to wield the power of Venezuela's institutions to crack down on political opponents and reassert power, Pence's announcement Tuesday is meant to counter that and give Guaido's effort a new boost. He blasted the Supreme Court as a "political tool" of Maduro's government that has "undermined its constitutional mandate" and offered the threat of sanctions or the opportunity of sanctions relief as a way forward.

"As President Guaido builds a brighter future for Venezuela, we hope the action that our nation is taking today will encourage others to follow the example of General Christopher Figuera and members of military who've also stepped forward and taken a stand," Pence said.

The lifting of sanctions means that Figuera, who was sanctioned in February, could once again access any financial assets that the U.S. government had frozen and do business with American individuals and entities.

On Tuesday, Pence also accused Maduro's government of being a "failed state" that aids and abets drug traffickers and terrorist organizations associated with Iran, such as Hezbollah. But while President Donald Trump has said Russia's Vladimir Putin is not "looking at all to get involved" in Venezuela, Pence contradicted that, calling Russia out for supplying weapons and cash to the regime.

"Despite their denials, it's clear that Russia also seeks a foothold in this hemisphere," Pence said.
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