By Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. envoy on Venezuela called on the incoming Biden administration on Thursday to use the leverage he believes has been gained from years of tough sanctions aimed at ousting socialist President Nicolas Maduro and urged against offering him any "giveaways."
In an interview with Reuters, Elliott Abrams, President Donald Trump's special representative on Venezuela and Iran, said there was a strong bipartisan consensus in Washington over the need to keep pressure on Maduro and he did not expect major changes on U.S. Venezuela policy when Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
But he added that "I always have a concern" the new administration might ease off on Maduro - though he has seen no sign of that from Biden and his aides - and urged instead that it maintain strict sanctions enforcement.
Abrams also threatened further U.S. sanctions against anyone responsible for "electoral fraud" in Venezuelan congressional elections scheduled for Sunday. Most of the opposition is boycotting the vote, saying it is rigged in favor of Maduro's Socialist Party, and Abrams reiterated the U.S. view that the election will be a sham.
"They are really up against the wall," Abrams said, referring to the economic impact of U.S. sanctions on Maduro and his allies. "And we've got a lot of leverage; we should use it ... My policy advice (to the Biden administration) would be no giveaways to Maduro."
A spokesman for Biden's transition team declined comment.
Despite Trump's campaign of sanctions and diplomatic pressure, Maduro has remained in power, backed by the OPEC nation's military and supported by Russia, Cuba, China and Iran. U.S. officials have said privately that Maduro's continued rule has been a source of frustration for Trump, who lost the Nov. 3 U.S. election to Biden but has yet to concede.
Biden and his aides have signaled no dramatic shift in Washington's approach to Maduro, which has been based on a broad sanctions program that limits Venezuela's oil exports and blocks U.S. citizens from doing business with his government.
But Biden, who said on Twitter in July that it was time to "turn the page on the corrupt and repressive Maduro regime," is expected to coordinate more with international partners. He will likely faces pressure to ease some measures including restrictions on Venezuela's gasoline imports for humanitarian reasons amid the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. TO STICK WITH GUAIDO
Abrams reaffirmed that the Trump administration will continue recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate interim president and expects dozens of other countries to do the same following Sunday's election.
The ballot could pave the way toward Venezuela's opposition losing control of the National Assembly, which would complicate Guaido's standing based on his position as the speaker of the congress. But Abrams made clear that the Trump administration would not accept the election outcome.
"There goes Donald Trump's dying government saying they won't recognize the election results," Maduro told a campaign rally. "We don't care what the North American empire says."
Since early 2019, the United States and more than 50 other countries have backed Guaido, regarding Maduro's 2018 re-election as rigged. Maduro and his allies call Guaido a U.S. puppet.
Some of Guaido's popular support has eroded and fresh cracks have formed in the opposition's unity as Maduro has held onto power.
Abrams said he does not expect the opposition to choose a new leader after Sunday's election, though he said lawmakers "have a legal right to do that" if they choose.
"I don't want that to be taken as any reduction in support for Guaido, who we support completely and who we think has done a really amazing job ... under the most difficult circumstances."
Guaido, who is the head of congress until early January, is organizing a popular consultation to be held between Dec. 5 and Dec. 12 that will ask citizens if they want Maduro to resign, if they believe Sunday's congressional vote was fair, and if they support international efforts to restore democracy.
Opposition officials have said the consultation will be both physical and digital to ensure social distancing and to allow for the participation of some 5 million Venezuelans who have emigrated to escape the crisis.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis)