The Trump administration on Tuesday called for a power-sharing transitional government in Venezuela made up of the opposition and some members of President Nicolas Maduro's Socialist Party, and laid out for the first time how US sanctions might be lifted, including on the vital oil sector.
With the South American nation is being squeezed by a US economic pressure campaign, low world oil prices and a spreading coronavirus pandemic, Washington unveiled a more toned-down approach aimed at promoting fair elections this year to end the political crisis there, US officials said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due to formally announce the administration's "Democratic Transition Framework" for Venezuela, which, according to a document seen by Reuters, offers a detailed, "sequenced exit path" from tough US sanctions if Mr Maduro and his allies co-operate.
But it will be no easy task to draw Mr Maduro, who holds on to power despite increasing US efforts to oust him and has showed no willingness to end his rule, on to a path of political reconciliation.
The initiative comes less than a week after the US government took a more confrontational tack, indicting Mr Maduro and more than a dozen other current and former top Venezuelan officials on charges of "narco-terrorism," accusations he dismissed as false and racist.
Mr Maduro's staying power has become a source of frustration for President Donald Trump, US officials have said privately. Mr Maduro retains the backing of the military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.
"The regime is now under heavier pressure than it has ever been," US Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said, previewing the plan. "Maybe this pressure will lead to a serious discussion within the regime."
The US proposal, which Abrams said was approved by Trump, calls for Mr Maduro to "step aside" and for the opposition-controlled National Assembly "to elect an inclusive transitional government acceptable to the major factions" and then oversee elections in late 2020.
But in what appears to be a softening of tone towards Mr Maduro, Mr Abrams said the plan did not call for him to be forced into exile and even suggested that he "could theoretically run" in the election.
With experts deeming Opec member Venezuela among the countries that could be hardest hit by the coronavirus, opposition leader Juan Guaido proposed at the weekend the formation of an emergency government of members across the political spectrum.
The US plan seeks to build on the effort by Mr Guaido, who has been recognised by Washington and more than 50 other nations as the rightful president, as well as a failed round of negotiations between the two sides in Barbados last year that the Trump administration dismissed at the time.
The proposal represents a significantly less bellicose tone from the administration's pronouncements since January of last year when Mr Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, arguing that Mr Maduro's 2018 re-election was a sham. Mr Maduro calls Mr Guaido a US puppet.
"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," Mr Abrams said in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal.
But the success of the plan, which calls for power-sharing between the Guaido-led opposition and Socialist lawmakers, would ultimately hinge on Socialist leaders turning on Mr Maduro, the same strategy that Mr Guaido has been unable to execute.
US authorities in 2019 offered to lift individual parts of the sanctions in exchange for specific actions by Mr Maduro, but that did not lead his allies to accept a deal,sources said.
Socialist legislators are again considered unlikely to go along with the new US plan.
A fresh offer of sanctions relief, however, seeks to persuade them to peel off from Mr Maduro, whose immediate reaction, Mr Abrams said, "will be to reject this".
Individual sanctions on dozens of Venezuelan government officials could be lifted as soon as they give up their posts, Abrams said.
Broader economic sanctions, including on Venezuela's oil sector and state oil company PDVSA, would be removed only after Mr Maduro leaves office and all "foreign security forces" are withdrawn, a reference to Cuban operatives and a small Russian contingent, Mr Abrams said.
He said the proposal would not have a mechanism to revoke indictments against Mr Maduro and his loyalists. "People should hire lawyers and start talking to the Department of Justice," he said.
At the same time, the framework calls for amnesty and creation of a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," while allowing senior military officers, governors and mayors to stay in their positions during the transition period.
Under the plan, the Supreme Court and National Electoral Council would be replaced and political prisoners released, according to the State Department document.
Mr Abrams said that if the framework were adopted, there would be the possibility of help from the International Monetary Fund and the administration would also ask the US Congress to approve aid.