By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against President Nicolas Maduro in an action it hopes will lead other Maduro military allies to follow suit, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday.
An attempted uprising last week led by Juan Guaido, the opposition leader backed by the United States and other Western countries, failed to dislodge Maduro, as have a series of U.S. sanctions against his government.
Pence's speech was the first look at how the Trump administration plans to recalibrate its strategy to support Guaido. While U.S. officials have previously dangled what they called "off ramps" for those hit with sanctions who abandon Maduro, this is the first time the Trump administration has made good on its pledge.
The Treasury Department said it removed sanctions on Manuel Cristopher, who was the head of the South American country's Sebin intelligence service until Tuesday.
Maduro had accused Cristopher, whose whereabouts are unknown, of conspiring to help Guaido's uprising by releasing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was under a house arrest enforced by Sebin.
"We hope the action that our nation is taking today will encourage others to follow the example of General Cristopher Figuera and members of the military who have also stepped forward," Pence said in an address to the Americas Society at the State Department.
Arguing that Maduro's 2018 re-election was illegitimate, Guaido invoked Venezuela's constitution in January to declare himself interim president.
But Guaido has thus far failed to entice high-level military defections from Maduro, who has said Guaido is a puppet of Washington. Maduro has sought to show that the military remains on his side, but opposition leaders and U.S. officials have said that support is tenuous.
The United States has blacklisted more than 150 Venezuelan officials and businesses tied to Maduro. Removing Cristopher from the list will mean he can access any blocked assets and property he has in the United States and do business with U.S. individuals, companies and banks.
SHIFT TO CARROTS
U.S. President Donald Trump and his top officials have taken a hard line against Maduro and his allies in Cuba, Russia and China, insisting that he must leave and investing significant diplomatic and economic capital in intervening in the crisis.
Trump has repeatedly refused to rule out the use of military force, though he has emphasized he wants a peaceful transition even as the Pentagon has prepared contingency options for consideration.
Pence offered other carrots in his Venezuela address, announcing that the USNS Comfort military hospital ship will deploy to the Caribbean, Central America and South America in June. The five-month mission will help relieve pressure on countries that have taken in large numbers of people fleeing Venezuela, the Pentagon said.
Last year, the hospital ship cared for Venezuelan refugees and others as it stopped in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Honduras.
Pence also pledged that the United States would work with other nations and lenders on trade finance and credit to create jobs and fight poverty in Venezuela once Maduro departs office.
But his speech also pointed at sticks to come, condemning Venezuela's pro-Maduro Supreme Court for becoming "a political tool for a regime that usurps democracy, indicts political prisoners, and promotes authoritarianism."
In 2017, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the court's president, Maikel Moreno, and the seven principal members of its constitutional chamber. It is now preparing sanctions for the 25 remaining members of the court, a senior U.S. administration official told Reuters on Monday.
The court on Tuesday asked Venezuela's Constituent Assembly, a pro-Maduro legislative body, to determine whether to open criminal proceedings against seven opposition lawmakers.
The court also would be responsible for signing off on any warrant for an arrest of Guaido - a step that U.S. officials have warned would result in severe consequences.
"Let me take this opportunity to be very clear: the safety and security of President Juan Guaido and his family are a priority for the United States of America," Pence said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Addiitonal reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O'Brien)