Elliott Abrams

Address to the Atlantic Council on Venezuela

delivered 25 April 2019, Washington, D.C.

Audio mp3 of Address


Thanks very much, Fred. I'm delighted to be here today at the Atlantic Council to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. But I would actually like to do more than describe that crisis. Venezuelans deserve to hear our views, not only about today's Venezuela, but also about tomorrow's.

Today, Venezuelans obviously face enormous challenges, such as lack of food and medicine, electricity and clean water, widespread poverty, lost work opportunities, and government oppression. Very few countries have ever seen such a political, social, and economic calamity befall them after decades of democracy and prosperity.

The suffering in Venezuela is almost unbelievable. When I first began to work on Latin American affairs almost 40 years ago, Venezuela was one of only two real democracies in Latin America along with Costa Rica, and it was the richest nation in the region. It was an anchor of stability in an often turbulent region. It was not only the birthplace of Bolivar, but a beacon of his ideals. And Venezuela supported struggling democratic movements across the hemisphere. Its government, and its political opposition, were the model for many democratic actors. Just as it helped others achieve freedom, it was generous with its wealth, and took in migrants and refugees from across the hemisphere, and from Europe. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought their talent to Venezuela where they were able to thrive, and contribute to the country's future.

So the current state of affairs is not normal for Venezuela, it is not acceptable for Venezuelans, and I am absolutely convinced it is not Venezuela's destiny. The nation's history reminds us of the tremendous potential Venezuela has, and the country it will be when it escapes the current disaster.

What does that new Venezuela look like?

Just imagine a Venezuela where you can pay for dinner using the bolivars you have in your pocket.

Imagine a Venezuela where there are no blackouts and clean water pours out of the tap. Imagine a Venezuela where eggs are no longer a luxury, but part of the diet of all families.

Imagine a Venezuela with 5G internet and no government censorship, a Venezuela, the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, where you do not have to wait in line to fill your gas tank.

Imagine a Venezuela where you can walk with your family at night without fear, and where well-trained community police care for your safety.

Imagine graduating from a university, buying a car, and knowing that you will be able to work, and save and someday buy a house.

Imagine a Venezuela without preventable and debilitating diseases, and with some of the best doctors and hospitals in the world.

Imagine being able to travel throughout this hemisphere in the world, not as a refugee, but as a tourist.

Imagine Venezuela's leaders respected again across the hemisphere and the world, their voices raised in the OAS and the UN in defense of democracy and human rights, not in defense of the most abusive regimes in the world.

That Venezuela is not a mirage and it will not take a miracle. That Venezuela will once again attract the doctors and engineers, teachers who have fled abroad. It'll attract them to come home and help rebuild the country. And it will attract foreigners, bringing their talents and skills to help rebuild. Not foreigners as today bringing new methods of surveillance and censorship and oppression. That future of Venezuelan society will have room for the full participation of every citizen, laborers and business owners, government workers, private sector employees-- -

Protester: It is not up to you to determine the future of Venezuela! How dare you! Orchestrate a coup in Venezuela?! Sit down! How dare you! It's wrong....

Various Audience Members: Boo...! Sit down!

[recording interrupted for a few moments]

Audience Member: Back to the rest of the day.

Ambassador Abrams: There's a true reflection of, What is a Maduro supporter like? That future Venezuelan society will have room for the full participation of every citizen, laborers, business owners, government workers, and private sector employees, Chavistas, and non-Chavistas, military officers and police, teachers, nurses, rich and poor, urban and rural. In that society, the major decisions will be made freely and democratically by elections.

So what is standing between the people of Venezuela and that future? What is stopping the beginning of rebuilding and reconciliation?

Some questions are hard. That one is easy. The short answer is Nicolas Maduro. Recovering from the level of theft and misrule that Venezuelans have suffered will not be an easy or quick project, but, yes, it is possible -- possible for us to visualize here, today, and possible for Venezuelans to achieve. This future will come with the full support of the international community, and as you know more than 50 countries have already announced their support for interim president Guaido and his vision of a Venezuela where liberty reigns.

The U.S. is committed to working with Venezuela through the transition and to seeing prosperity return. So are Venezuela's neighbors. There's humanitarian assistance at the borders ready to flow. We were pleased to see humanitarian aid enter Venezuela last week facilitated by the International Federation of the Red Cross. We hope that aid is just the beginning of more critical support for the Venezuelan people.

In the future, billions of dollars will be invested in Venezuela to rebuild the agricultural and industrial sectors. International financial institutions are making plans to lend billions more. In fact, every estimate I have seen speaks of tens of billions, which will be used to increase production and consumption, to get the economy moving again, and provide the basis for recovery. No, not overnight, but let's be clear. Humanitarian supplies, such as medicine, will start entering immediately. And skilled workers will seek to restore electricity, and clean water and oil production. It will take years of steady work and considerable investment to bring the country back to where it stood decades ago.

Yet, there is strong reason for optimism. Venezuela sits on the largest proven reserves of petroleum, and it has another giant and invaluable reservoir. Millions of skilled and dedicated Venezuelans, both at home and residing overseas, who can and will dedicate themselves to that effort. They love their country, and they are ready to start rebuilding it. But that recovery can only start when there is a fully-inclusive government that represents all Venezuelans.

They will not agree on everything. There will be a loud and healthy debate over all the issues through the country's democratic institutions, as there is in all democracies. But decisions will be made by the many, not just the few. And the will of the people will not be circumvented by force. To rebuild Venezuela, violent colectivos and Carnet de la Patria, and the imprisonment of political opponents must end, so that the path can be open to a new democratic future.

Let me address what I see as the three elements of change in Venezuela: political participation, the role of the military, and economic progress.

Now, let's speak about politics first. I used the term fully-inclusive government. What does that mean? Here I have a message to the PSUV, and the followers of the late President Chavez: You are watching the Maduro regime destroy his legacy.

Okay, that's not my concern really. I met Hugo Chavez once about 15 years ago, and, you know, since I am a Republican, you can conclude correctly that I would never have voted for him. But, it should be your concern, in the PSUV and Chavistas. It should be your concern. Nicolas Maduro was selected as President of the PSUV by a very small group of self-interested individuals, who, like him, continue to have access to all the food and medicine they want. Many regime officials have sent their children and their wives and their mistresses abroad, where they all live like multimillionaires, because they are. While Venezuelans struggle to buy Harina P.A.N. and chicken to make a Reina Pepiada, the people in power are living a life of luxury.

We believe the Maduro regime must come to an end for Venezuela to recover democracy and prosperity. But, like all of the country's citizens, the PSUV is entitled to a role in rebuilding Venezuela. Interim president Guaido said recently, quote, "Free elections are the mechanism that allow the people "to express and detain their longing for change." Close quote.

And we agree.

You in the PSUV are entitled to run in free elections and try to convince your fellow citizens of the value of your policies. As we saw in the last free elections in Venezuela, the National Assembly elections of 2015, there remains a strong base of support for your party. You won 55 seats. Take those seats, join the national debate, not only tomorrow, but right now, today. Engage with the other parties in the Parliament with the spirit of mutual respect.

In a recent National Assembly session, three PSUV state legislators from Zulia conveyed how they were expelled from their party after they criticized the former Minister of Energy for the power outages. Interim president Guaido welcomed them to the National Assembly and the country listened. PSUV members, this is the time to demand a democratic process within your own party. One or two individuals should not have the power to censor members who demand basic services on behalf of their constituents.

Once Venezuela is free of the Maduro regime, its Cuban enforcers, and its thugs, and censorship has ended, and political prisoners are freed, the time will have arrived to prepare for free elections. But the time to join a free debate about the future is now. And it must include young Chavistas before this regime tries to silence them, as well. If you want Chavismo to be part of your country's future and not just its past, it cannot be imposed by force. When the PSUV accepts that it must act solely as a democratic political party, and seek the votes of citizens in free elections solely through argument and debate, Venezuela will be well on the way to democracy.

How will the United States react to Chavista participation in, what I call, politics that are fully inclusive?

I can speak from my own experience here. I spent years in the 1980s working to prevent a violent FMLN, assisted by Cuba and Russia, violent takeover of El Salvador. But when the FMLN won free elections in 2009, and again in 2014, and in the latter election, 2014, under the leadership of a former rebel leader, the United States respected and accepted that outcome, and, indeed, continued our foreign aid program. We did not, we did not, pick El Salvador's president in those elections and, obviously, we will not pick who is elected president in Venezuela.

We want to see all Venezuelans deciding the fate of their country in free elections, instead of all of the key decisions being made by someone who stole an election in 2018, and rules by brutality and exclusion. Venezuela needs a peaceful transition, negotiated among all its people, between friends and neighbors in every community. You are all in this together, and your politics must reflect that fact.

Second, the military. In that future Venezuela, what is the role of the military? The armed forces would hold a place of responsibility in society. And, without being involved in politics, would represent and protect the security of the country. Venezuelans deserve to be protected by a professional military institution, and not have their leaders rely on armed gangs, or on foreign powers who send thousands of soldiers, or intelligence agents, to surveil and abuse and imprison patriotic Venezuelan military officers, and enlisted men and women.

Venezuela will need a truly professional and well-trained armed force to rebuild the country and guarantee its security. Interim president Guaido has reiterated multiple times that a transition to a secure and democratic country will require the support of military officers. And that's what we believe. Venezuela's military and security officers need to be stronger, better paid and trained and armed, and ready to face the challenge of criminals who traffic in drugs and persons. And the challenge of protecting the nation's thousands of miles of land and sea borders. And protecting Venezuela from dangers, foreign and domestic.

Let's be candid, the country will need to confront the deeds of some who have so badly abused their office, or their position, that there needs to be an accounting. The National Assembly is working on these issues now, and with great care.

These are not new issues. Many democratic transitions have had to grapple with the issues of amnesties or protections for former officials. We saw this in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, in South Africa after apartheid, in El Salvador after the Civil War, in Chile and Argentina after military rule. Venezuelans will have to work this out. We in the United States recognize this, and as we have done in all those cases I mentioned, it is the intention of the United States to respect the agreement made among Venezuelans as part of the transition to democracy, to the extent consistent with applicable laws.

Third is the question of a free and inclusive economy. Like all questions about the future of Venezuela, the structure of the economy will have to be debated by all Venezuelans, represented in the National Assembly. Decisions about the economy cannot be made by one man, or a small group, whose goal is to steal resources, reward sycophants, and above all, use the money to stay in power.

They'll be hard decisions to make, and there will still be many sacrifices in the coming years. The transition will not be easy. And in some ways, let's be honest, the situation may even get worse before it improves. The Venezuelan economy has contracted by nearly 70, seven, zero, percent, because of the mismanagement and corruption of the current regime. The currency has been really reduced to worthless; an example of hyperinflation that is gonna be studied in university economic departments a century from now. The country will need everything, infrastructure, a new health system, schools, the rebuilding of the agricultural sector. The list is long and it will take time. Economic recovery cannot be achieved overnight, not even in a country with huge oil reserves. But interim president Guaido and the National Assembly are committed, as they've made clear in Plan Pais, to build an economy that works for all Venezuelans, and the international community is committed to helping that succeed.

That means an economy that uses the country's natural wealth to benefit all the people, not just a few who happen to hold political power. That means an economy that truly provides for the most vulnerable members of society. It means a stable currency that allows families to plan for the future. It means an economy that is open to the world, and embraces the opportunities the world offers. It means an agricultural sector that can again provide for the basic needs of Venezuelans by allowing farmers to plant and harvest without government control, but with the government providing much of the infrastructure that facilitates production. Venezuela can be prosperous again, and can climb out of the despair into which it has fallen, when the rules are fair, the laws are just and are enforced, and treat all citizens equally, when corruption is punished, and a free press can expose corruption, when private property is protected, when labor is fairly rewarded. This isn't magic, these are the bases for economic growth.

These three components of the democratic transition; an inclusive democratic government, professional security forces, and a free and inclusive economy; are all possible and are all key ingredients to rebuilding Venezuela. Interim president Guaido and the National Assembly have begun the critical work that will lead Venezuela back from ruin, to liberty and prosperity. We support his leadership fully and everyone who is committed to a democratic future must join forces to make this new Venezuela a reality as quickly as possible.

I believe what Bolivar said is true, "A people that loves freedom will in the end be free." A people that loves freedom will in the end be free. The United States will not waver in its support for freedom in Venezuela. And we are certain we will see again a Venezuela that is democratic, prosperous, and reconnected to the world. We are certain the corruption and incompetence, the repression and brutality, that have marked the Maduro years will be replaced by a Venezuela that is recovering its place in its region, this hemisphere, and the world. The United States wishes to be Venezuela's partner in this great effort and we are confident that Venezuelans will, in the end, be free.

Thank you very much.

Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

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