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Venezuela's president faces criminal prosecution if he loses reelection in July

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In Venezuela, polls show that Nicolas Maduro could lose the July presidential election, which could bring an end to his authoritarian regime. But there's a catch. As John Otis reports, should Maduro leave office, he could face criminal prosecution.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: It used to be that, in exchange for leaving power, dictators could go into exile and avoid facing justice for their crimes. That's no longer the case. Founded in 2002, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, can go after ousted leaders no matter where they hide. And that spells trouble for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The ICC is investigating his regime for torture, sexual violence and arbitrary detentions.

GEOFF RAMSEY: In Venezuela, there's very real evidence that crimes against humanity have occurred. And under international law, there really can't be any kind of pardon.

OTIS: That's Geoff Ramsey of the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. He adds that Maduro's legal problems include U.S. indictments for drug trafficking. But while holding Maduro to account is essential, especially for his victims, it could actually get in the way of a democratic transition in Venezuela. Ramsey says that if Maduro thinks he'll lose the July 28 election, he could call it off or rig the results.

RAMSEY: The reality is that Maduro is not going to give up power if he perceives that there's any real risk that he could end up in a jail cell in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: During his 11 years in power, Maduro has led Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in history and has nearly snuffed out its democracy. This has prompted nearly 8 million Venezuelans to flee the country.

JUAN GUAIDO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: That's Juan Guaido, who in 2019 was recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela's legitimate president. Speaking from exile in Miami, he says that clearing the path for Maduro's departure should be the No. 1 priority.

GUAIDO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Guaido claims that average Venezuelans would gladly pay to put Maduro on a plane to Cuba, as long as it's a one-way flight. Until recently, Maduro's grip on power seemed firm. But new polls show opposition candidate Edmundo Gonzalez with a real shot at winning the presidential election, and that has launched a debate over what should happen to Maduro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Last month, Gustavo Petro, the president of neighboring Colombia and a Maduro ally, weighed in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETRO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Petro suggested that the loser of Venezuela's election receive a broad range of political, judicial and security guarantees. Opposition figures in Venezuela say they'd be OK with that. In fact, Julio Borges, who led political talks with the regime in 2018, recalled offering Maduro much more if he went into exile.

JULIO BORGES: Choose the country, choose the money, choose the family, choose your friends that you want to have with you. And he always said no.

OTIS: Now escape for Maduro won't be so easy. In 2020, the U.S. put a $15 million bounty on his head for drug trafficking, and soon afterwards, the ICC launched its investigation. Yet, there may be some wiggle room. Four years ago, the U.S. dropped drug-trafficking charges against a former Mexican defense minister to foster better relations with Mexico. Likewise, the U.S. could bend a little with Maduro to promote a smooth transition of power.

JOHN FEELEY: There are many, many little things you could do or signal or trade behind the scenes.

OTIS: That's John Feeley, a former U.S. diplomat in Latin America.

FEELEY: You can make it clear - yep, you're a narcotics trafficker; you ever set foot in the United States, we will arrest you. But you could also send emissaries to say these are several countries where you might live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Independent, impartial, thorough investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: As for the International Criminal Court, its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, held a mostly friendly visit with Maduro in Caracas last month. Indeed, Khan could drop his investigation if a new Venezuelan government launched its own inquiry into abuses by the Maduro regime. For his part, Maduro avoids discussing life after the presidency because that would be a sign of weakness, says Leopoldo Lopez. He's a Venezuelan politician who spent three years in Maduro's jails.

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ: It's a very difficult conversation for the Maduro negotiators to engage because once they start talking about this, it's the beginning of a transition, and they know it.

OTIS: However, one Maduro regime hard-liner, Diosdado Cabello, did tackle the subject on his TV program.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CON EL MAZO DANDO")

DIOSDADO CABELLO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Referring to the ruling Socialist Party, he declared, "the only transition that's going to happen in Venezuela is the transition towards socialism." For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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