Rubio says sanctioned Maduro loyalists can receive amnesty, but only if they act soon

Getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela is the top immediate priority for lawmakers, but Nicolás Maduro’s military is blocking it.

So Florida Sen. Marco Rubio named six top military officials on Monday who he said would receive amnesty from U.S. sanctions and immunity from Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly if they allow aid to be distributed by non-governmental organizations inside the country. Some of the six are already under sanctions from the U.S. government for being part of Maduro’s inner circle and for leading “violence and repression” efforts against protesters, according to the Treasury Department.

“In this particular case, the price of avoiding a bloodbath, or a civil war, or continual suffering, is having a handful of really bad people who stole a lot of money get to move somewhere else and live. That’s certainly preferable to a bloodbath,” Rubio said during a forum at the Heritage Foundation on Monday. “No one is more idealistic about these things than I am, at least in Congress, but sometimes in the history of humanity you are forced to choose between two options and you have to take the one that is least bad.”

Rubio, who has the president’s ear on Latin America policy, named six Venezuelan military officials who could help get aid into the country if they are willing to defy Maduro: Gen. Vladimir Padrino, Maduro’s defense minister; Adm. Remigio Ceballos, admiral in chief of the armed forces; Maj. Gen. Jesús Rafael Suárez Chourio; Adm. Giuseppe Alessandrello Cimadevilla, head of the navy; Maj. Gen. Edgar Valentín Cruz Arteaga; and Maj. Gen. Antonio Benavides Torres.

They are part of a key group of Venezuelan military officials who have helped keep Maduro in power because he controls the military, though dozens of governments around the world have recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.

Rubio said the group of generals must take “concrete actions” to alleviate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis and facilitate Maduro’s ouster if they want to receive some type of amnesty. And time is critical.

“It’s a violation of international law for the armed forces of a country to deny humanitarian assistance to civilians. And that is what they are doing,” Rubio said. “How those five or six key military leaders respond over the next week and a half to that key question is going to determine where and how they and their families will spend the rest of their lives. This is the most important decision they have ever made in their life and they’re about to be forced to make it.”

Though Venezuelan Air Force Gen. Francisco Yanez defected from Maduro on Feb. 2, the rest of Maduro’s top generals have continued to publicly back him and frequently post pro-Maduro messages on social media. Last week, the Venezuelan government barricaded a bridge where aid could flow across the Venezuela-Colombia border, and other points of entry for humanitarian aid have been blocked.

“If you told me tomorrow that the price of Venezuela having a better future is that five or six terrible human beings get moved to Cuba or South Africa or Moscow for the rest of their lives, I think it’s unfortunate that some of them may not face justice, but it saves the lives of millions of people,” Rubio said. “That’s one of those very difficult tradeoffs. But there comes a point that when you cross the line and that option won’t be there for you.”

Rubio noted that the U.S. government and its allies will aggressively seize the assets of Maduro loyalists who do not defect or aid Guaidó’s government. He also said the National Assembly will need a functioning military to restore order during a transition to democratic elections and that rank-and-file members of the military will not shoot unarmed protesters and people trying to receive aid, leaving the generals with a choice to back Maduro or defy orders.

“People have to make a decision here fairly soon about what side of that equation do we want to be on and which risk they have to run,” Rubio said. “Right now they fear what could happen under the opposition more than they do staying with Maduro, but that calculation could change at any second.”

The use of military force in Venezuela remains an option for the U.S., though Rubio stressed that international buy-in is important for any move that could provoke violence, including setting up a corridor for aid to come into the country with outside protection.

“I’m hoping... we’re going to wake up one morning and find out that some military leaders have recognized the rightful government and Maduro’s on a plane to somewhere, but we have to be prepared for that not being the case as well.”

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.