Elliott Abrams & Joshua Hodges
Complete Testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
delivered 4 August 2020, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.
[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Senator James Risch: Senate Foreign Relations Committee will come to order, please. I want to thank Special Representative Abrams and Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator Hodges for their service and for appearing here today to discuss the worsening crisis in Venezuela.
It’s hard to imagine a more pressing national security concern in the Western hemisphere than the political, humanitarian, and economic crisis provoked by Maduro and his cronies in Venezuela.
In the last seven years, Nicolas Maduro has dramatically deepened relations with the most dangerous forces in the world which were first established by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. On his watch, Cuba, Russia, China, Iran, transnational criminal organizations, and U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations have turned Venezuela into their playground. Their activities are intolerable security threats to the United States and the hemisphere at large, and prolong a humanitarian crisis provoked by the socialist policies of the regime.
Nearly 5.2 million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, placing a huge burden on the neighboring countries that have generously accepted these refugees from -- from Maduro’s regime.
Ninety-six percent of those who have stayed behind live in poverty with 80 percent facing extreme poverty. Chronic food shortages and a dysfunctional public healthcare system have condemned an entire generation to hunger and stunted growth.
A series of unsuccessful attempts to restore freedom in the last year, compounded by Maduro’s desire and ability to stay in power by perpetuating corruption and torture, have emboldened the regime and left democratic forces facing daunting challenges. President Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure is a welcome improvement. We should -- We should leave no stone unturned in support of the Venezuelan people’s efforts to rid themselves of this evil.
It is also appropriate to continue providing the systems to enable Venezuela’s neighbors to help the millions of Venezuelan refugees that they are hosting. The international community, especially the European Union and Spain, must increase economic pressure on Maduro if they are serious about the return of democracy to Venezuela and the end of the humanitarian nightmare there. We must make clear to Maduro’s mentors in Havana and Moscow that this game is over.
I look forward to hearing from today’s witnesses about the steps the U.S. government is taking to counter the malign influences in Venezuela.
With that -- I know our ranking member has strong feelings on this -- and I'll yield the floor to him.
Senator Robert Menendez: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for working with me on -- on this hearing. I appreciate it.
Mr. Abrams, you come before the committee at an urgent moment for Venezuela, one with implications for the United States and our entire hemisphere. We face a critical moment for Venezuela’s interim government as the Maduro regime seeks to consolidate a criminal dictatorship with a helping hand from Havana.
This crisis directly affects U.S. national security interests, and our geopolitical competitors, Russia and China and Iran, seek to undermine American influence. Moreover, the people of Venezuela continue suffering grave human rights abuses, a humanitarian catastrophe worsened by [the] COVID-19 pandemic, and mass displacement across the hemisphere.
As Venezuelans strive to -- struggle, I should say, to survive and restore their democracy, legislative elections are scheduled this year. Not surprisingly, the Maduro regime has rigged every aspect of the electoral process, thereby ensuring increased instability and more widespread suffering. The evidence is already there.
After two decades of U.S. investment in Colombia’s security, we now see Colombian guerillas operating openly across Venezuela in large swaths of ungoverned territory. They join a wide range of armed actors promoting and profiting from the drug trade, illegal gold mining, and human suffering.
Most tragically, of course, is the daily suffering that Venezuelans endure. Femicide, sexual violence, and trafficking of Venezuelan women and girls are reportedly on the rise. Dramatic increases in maternal and infant mortality reflect the dire state of Venezuela’s health system. And the World Food Programme assessed in February that one-third of Venezuelans face moderate or severe food insecurity.
Additionally, Maduro’s brutal regime has perpetuated more state-sponsored murders -- state-sponsored murders than any Latin American government since the Dirty Wars of the 1970s and ‘80s.
In the last two years, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported over 8,000 extrajudicial killings by Maduro’s security forces as well as grotesque patterns of torture and rape. These conditions have forced more than 5.2 million Venezuelans to flee their country in search of protection and assistance.
I traveled to Cucuta, Colombia a year ago where I heard heart-wrenching stories from individuals fleeing the humanitarian tragedy in Venezuela.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic downturn converging on the crisis of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, the United States must mobilize international partners to further expand assistance and protection for the Venezuelan people. If the current trajectory continues, more Venezuelans will be displaced from their homes than the number of Syrians displaced during that devastating nearly decade-long conflict.
Yet while other countries are generously hosting millions of Venezuelans, the Trump Administration has ignored my repeated requests to grant temporary protected status to some 200,000 Venezuelans in the United States. It has turned away Venezuelan asylum seekers at our southern border and that is absolutely unacceptable. The Administration must change course.
Through my VERDAD Act last year, Democrats and Republicans, in concert with the Administration, united in our recognition of Interim President Juan Guaidó. However, in June, President Trump stated that he did not think this decision to recognize President Juan Guaidó was “very meaningful,”2 sending the wrong signal to our allies and our adversaries.
We must be purposeful and lead the formidable coalition we helped build to support President Guaidó. So, I expect to hear a strategy about how we will work with our partners to ensure that Maduro does not use fraudulent elections to strengthen his dictatorship.
Moreover, with Maduro and his cronies facing charges in the United States for drug trafficking and graft, there should be no doubt about their criminal credentials. We are dealing with a massive law enforcement challenge in Venezuela. Never have so many in our hemisphere fallen victim to a cabal of criminals so willing to destroy their own country for the sole purpose of enriching themselves and avoiding justice.
We must coordinate an international campaign to confront the regime’s criminality and I look forward to hearing from you, Special Representative, on what changes we will make to increase our chance of success in the next six months. And, yes, I said changes.
There has been bipartisan support for most of our sanctions and the $600 million in foreign assistance we have used for humanitarian aid, but Maduro remains entrenched in power and humanitarian access into Venezuela is extremely limited. We cannot continue on the same course and expect to achieve different results. I fear the Administration may very well have squandered a limited window of opportunity crafted by valiant Venezuelans and I hope it’s not too late to open that window again.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Senator Menendez. Those remarks are well taken. I think out of all the things that are going on in the Congress today that divides us, probably nothing brings us together more than a sense that Maduro has to go and that -- that we are united, if not universally -- very close to universally in -- in that effort. So, we’re anxious to hear what -- what these witnesses have to say.
Today, I’m pleased to welcome to the committee U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams; and Mr. Joshua Hodges, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Mr. Abrams is a scholar and experienced foreign policy expert. He has served in two Administrations on -- on the staff of Senators Henry Jackson and Dan Moynihan. He has written five books on American foreign policy and teaches on the subject at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Mr. Hodges oversees USAID programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. He previously served on the staff of Congressman Mike Johnson and Senator David Vitter of Louisiana at the Department of -- of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the National Security Council in the White House.
We’ll start with Mr. Abrams.
Mr. Abrams, the floor is yours.
Your mic -- your microphone is not on. It’s very complicated. [Chuckles].
Elliott Abrams: Chairman Risch, Ranking Member Menendez, Members of the Committee:
Thank you for this opportunity to testify on our efforts in support of the Venezuelan people. This policy has, with broad bipartisan support, been successful in supporting the democratic opposition, maintaining a broad international coalition, and denying revenue to Maduro’s brutal regime. But we have yet to see the convoking of free and fair presidential elections, nor do we see the conditions that would permit such elections.
In January 2019, the U.S. was the first country to recognize interim President Juan Guaidó. Since then, we -- he has secured the support of nearly 60 countries. We remain steadfast in our support for interim President Guaidó. We've proposed a democratic transition framework for Venezuela as a path to establish a broadly acceptable transitional government to oversee free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
We're prepared to work with all Venezuelans and with other nations to achieve this goal, and to lift sanctions when the necessary conditions are met.
I want to thank this committee and Congress for its support through legislation and funding. The U.S. is the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance for Venezuela from 2017 to now. The U.S. has provided more than 856 million dollars to Venezuelans suffering inside Venezuela and in neighboring countries.
And we should recognize those that have welcomed 5 million Venezuelans -- especially Columbia, Peru, Ecuador -- for their continued support as well.
Criminal dictatorships like Maduro’s are hard to
defeat. The Maduro regime’s relentless attacks on dissidents and against
Venezuela’s last remaining democratic institution,
the National Assembly,
demonstrate its obsession with retaining power regardless of the cost to the
In July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released two reports on human rights violations in Venezuela.1 She reported that Maduro and his thugs continue intimidation, repression, arbitrary detentions, torture, and murder. This includes 1,324 extrajudicial killings from January to May of this year.
For more than two and a half years, the regime has unlawfully detained six U.S. oil executives -- Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Angel Pereira. We were relieved to hear July 30th that Mr. Cárdenas and Mr. Toledo were moved to house arrest. This is a positive first step and of course we hope for more.
The regime also continues to detain nearly 400
political prisoners, including military officers, medical professionals,
Chavista Nicmer Evans; Guaidó's Chief of Staff,
Roberto Marrero; National Assembly deputies,
Illegal armed groups are forcibly recruiting vulnerable Venezuelan children into armed conflict, compelling many into forced labor.
Cuba treats Venezuela as a colony -- shipping food, medicine, diesel, and gasoline from Venezuela to Cuba even as the Venezuelan people suffer shortages of all of them. Cuban security personnel surround Maduro. Cuban intelligence officers are embedded in the military.
China helps the Maduro regime with cyber operations.
Russian military aid and loans have helped the regime maintain its security forces.
And now we're seeing a rekindling of the relationship with the world’s worst State sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Maduro’s recent hijacking of the National Electoral Council and of the major democratic political parties foreshadow how the regime plans to take control of the National Assembly through fraudulent elections in December.
On Sunday, 27 democratic political parties in Venezuela joined in unity to say they refused to participate in that farce. And I am sure democracies around the world will also refuse to recognize such a fraud.
We look forward to the day when free and fair elections are held, a new democratically-elected government is in place, U.S. sanctions can then be lifted. We look forward to restoring once-close Venezuela-U.S. relations, to helping Venezuelan migrants and refugees return to their beloved country, and to seeing Venezuela’s children share in the beauty and bountiful natural wealth of their country.
Mr. Chairman, Senator Menendez: Thank you for inviting me here today and for your continuing interest and the strong bipartisan support this Committee has shown toward the struggle for freedom in Venezuela.
I look forward to answering your questions.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Mr. Abrams.
Joshua Hodges: Chairman Risch, Ranking Member Menendez, and distinguished members of the committee:
Thank you for the opportunity and honor to be here to testify on behalf of USAID. We are grateful for your bipartisan support for the response to the Venezuelan regional crisis.
Eighteen months ago, the Trump Administration recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate and legal interim President of Venezuela in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution.
As you know, this crisis had been manufactured by an inability to govern and rampant corruption which has resulted in economic collapse with severe humanitarian consequences and a cultural repression that the regime continues to use to jail, torture, and even murder the Venezuelan people.
Today, the Guaidó interim government and National Assembly continue to push forward despite very challenging circumstances including the humanitarian and economic crisis, the illegitimate Maduro regime’s radical oppression, and most recently COVID-19. Because of these dire realities, more than 5.2 million Venezuelans have left home and relocated to neighboring countries, extending the crisis across borders.
To address this crisis inside of Venezuela and throughout the region, the United States Interagency is providing substantial, coordinated humanitarian and development assistance. Inside Venezuela, USAID’s humanitarian assistance is saving lives through healthcare that stems the spread of infectious diseases, meals for vulnerable families, and vital water, sanitation, and hygiene supplies. A few tangible examples of this assistance include serving more than 1.4 million hot meals to vulnerable Venezuelans and delivering enough medical supplies to help facilities to help 160,000 people.
In addition to the previously existing challenges, COVID-19 is exacerbating an already dire situation inside Venezuela. In response to the pandemic, USAID is providing COVID-19-related emergency assistance inside of Venezuela and throughout the region. While our efforts are making an impact, Maduro has stood in the way of allowing more help to Venezuelans in their time of need by creating numerous obstacles and barriers for international NGOs.
Humanitarian organizations face constant harassment from security personnel affiliate -- affiliated with Maduro and the illegitimate regime continues to impede international expert staff from obtaining visas and registering certain organizations.
Let me be clear. USAID condemns any efforts to intimidate or threaten humanitarian workers who are seeking to save lives.
Throughout the region, USAID’s priority is to support communities that are generously hosting Venezuelans in their time of great need, especially in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. We’re aiming to reach approximately 943,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants in these countries with food assistance, healthcare, and clean water.
While humanitarian assistance is saving lives, the agency recognizes a balanced mix of medium and long-term development assistance is also needed. Our regional development programming is aligned to help the -- help the receiving host country governments address areas impacted by the Venezuelan migration such as education systems, healthcare, economic development, and vocational support, as well as government capacity building.
Back inside Venezuela, we are using development assistance to support the interim government and the National Assembly with technical training, staffing support, equipment, and communication efforts. USAID’s support bolsters the interim government’s abilities to effectively operate, interact with their constituents despite the increased repression from the illegitimate regime. Our assistance has enabled increased participation with legitimate officials. Our commitment to democracy and the rule of law is central to our engagement in the hemisphere.
In addition to the Guaidó administration and National Assembly, USAID strongly supports those who defend human rights and serve as civil society watchdogs. Our help each year to dozens of NGOs has been critical to investigating and documenting rampant corruption, flagrant electoral fraud, and wide-ranging human rights abuses. With our support, independent news outlets are able to better operate so they can share information with Venezuelans through online reporting, radio, and other forms of communications.
USAID is also helping democratic forces plan for the day the Maduro regime gives way to freedom and authentic change can take place. When change does occur, funding through our bilateral agreement will position us to be ready to expand our work quickly into other sectors. For the time being though, the effort continues to support the people of Venezuela, the Guaidó administration, the National Assembly, scores of NGOs, and activists who bravely continue their struggle despite repression and despite the very difficult situations on the ground.
One critical step must be taken for a free and prosperous Venezuela: The world must continue to pressure Maduro to relinquish control and allow for democratic change. This includes truly free elections, not this -- the rigged so-called elections Maduro is planning for in December.
Venezuelans have suffered long enough under the brutality of Nicolas Maduro. We look forward to the day we can celebrate with all Venezuelans as they meet their potential as a free, prosperous, and democratic society. And thank -- thank you today for the invitation to testify. I look forward to your questions.
You -- You mentioned these elections that are coming up. It’s my under -- Mr. Abrams, this question is for you. It’s my understanding that Maduro has taken a page out of the Iranians’ book where they have an election commission that decides who can run and who can’t run. Anything that happens like that of course immediately takes away any legitimacy that the election would have and it’s -- I think it’s important that -- that this be highlighted and that the people understand this. I mean if you can pick your opponent, there's no question how the -- or opponents, there's no question how the -- how the election is going to come out.
Senator James Risch: Thanks. I -- I think that’s -- I think that’s critical for everybody to understand and I…also think that we need to underscore that this is not an election at all. It’s just a facade that -- that has no legal or practical authority whatsoever.
Secondly, you -- you didn’t mention the military’s role in all of this. We all know there’s a robust military in Venezuela. I’m told there’s 3500 generals. I’m not exactly sure how you -- how you discipline a military that’s got 3500 generals, but your thoughts on where they are and where they’re going.
Elliott Abrams: There are more generals in Venezuela than in all the NATO countries put together. I think there's a lot of worry in many ranks of the military about the condition of the country. You know, you’re a soldier -- you’re an officer -- you have a mother and father, aunts, uncles, cousins. You see how they’re living. You know what’s happening to the country. But you’re being spied on by these thousands of Cuban intelligence agents. And at the very top, you’ve got a lot of people who are quite corrupt and are profiting from this regime.
So, the military has -- at least up to now -- been unwilling to separate itself at all from what the regime is doing to the country. And it’s tragic because a democratic Venezuela is going to need a professional military. They have a lot of security problems that they’re going to need to deal with. Our hope of course would be that they would try to reestablish the honor of the military and distance themselves from the crimes of this regime.
Senator James Risch: Thank you much. Senator Menendez?
Senator Robert Menendez: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Abrams, on -- on Sunday, Venezuela’s opposition coalition announced that it will not participate in Maduro’s fraudulent, undemocratic legislative elections. Yet this decision carries implications for Venezuela’s currently democratically elected National Assembly and the government of Interim President Juan Guaidó. Venezuela’s beleaguered constitution to the degree that it still exists under Maduro’s dictatorship calls for a new National Assembly to be seated the first week of January 2021. So, I’m deeply concerned that Maduro will use the moment to fully consolidate his criminal dictatorship in Venezuela.
Given the opposition’s decision not to participate in Maduro’s fraudulent legislative elections, how do you access [assess] the impact -- the interim -- how will this impact the interim government in the first week of January when there’s supposed to be a new National Assembly? What’s the implications for U.S. policy in our recognition of the Guaidó government?
Elliott Abrams: Thanks, Senator. Juan Guaidó occupies the office of interim president because it was vacant when -- as a result of the May 2018 corrupt and fraudulent presidential elections. In our view, nothing changes on January 5th with respect to Juan Guaidó. That office of the presidency is still vacant because of the 2018 election. It cannot be that Maduro can improve his situation, legally or practically, by holding another corrupt and fraudulent election.
So, in our view, the constitutional president of Venezuela today and after January 5th, 2021 is Juan Guaidó. And the National Assembly that -- that has been meeting until about -- I guess about -- March is not going to be able to meet. I think you can expect that if they tried to meet, everybody in it would be arrested by this regime. So, I do think that there is the danger that Maduro is going to be able to shut down the operations of any kind of independent national assembly, but he will not change the legal status, I think, for many, many countries around the world and especially for us.
Senator Robert Menendez: Well, let me ask you about that. What -- What efforts are we taking with our international partners to push back both against Maduro’s undemocratic elections and then their continuing recognition of Guaidó after January, assuming this plays out the way we envision it?
Elliott Abrams: Well, on the question of recognition of Guaidó and on the recognition of this fraudulent parliamentary election, we have been discussing this with lots of partners. There are about 60 countries that had recognized Guaidó and I do expect that all of them -- and we will be in touch with any we haven’t been yet -- will continue to recognize him and will not recognize this fraudulent election.
Senator Robert Menendez: Well, I hope that there is a more robust engagement with our international partners because my personal sense of conversations I’ve had is that it’s fraying, and I think we can’t ill afford that at the end of the day.
Let me -- Let me turn to illegal mining and what I call blood gold. As [the] Venezuela crisis deteriorates, there is growing evidence that violent groups are competing for control of the country’s mineral resources which has resulted in a boom of illegal gold mining. That blood gold industry is destroying vast areas of the Amazon rain -- rainforest, fueling human rights abuses particularly among indigenous populations, and generating illicit income for illegal armed groups that threaten the stability of the country and the region.
What specific steps is the United States taking along with other international actors to ensure that companies that purchase, sell, and trade gold that are [sic] being extracted in this way are following regulations and not unwittingly supporting illegal gold mining operations in Venezuela?
Elliott Abrams: Senator, there is more illegal mining and the July 15th report of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has a whole section on the Arco Minero. What we’ve been doing is following every single case we can find of the shipment of gold out of Venezuela and the purchase of gold by anybody. And as we find it, we go after both the country and the company. And in a number of cases, we’ve gone out -- we've gone to governments and said this is happening in your territory and you’ve got to prevent it. And we've been successful. And we find, for example, people doing this last year have now stopped, but there's more of it now and so we’re stepping up our activities -- "we" being the State Department and the Treasury Department -- to go after every single case of this we find.
Senator Robert Menendez: Well, I’d be interested to know if you need any other legislative or regulatory assistance to do this because obviously a lot is getting out and the country’s national patrimony is being used in a way that is so corrupt and so pervasive against its own people.
Final question, if I may, Mr. Chairman. Does the Trump Administration have the authority to grant TPS [Temporary Protected Status] to eligible Venezuelans?
Elliott Abrams: The authority, yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: Do you agree that it would not be safe to deport
Venezuelans back to Maduro’s dictatorship at this point in time?
Senator Robert Menendez: So then why hasn’t the President designated Venezuela for TPS?
Elliott Abrams: I think the answer to that question is some court decisions that have in essence removed the "T" -- that is that it -- it seems irreversible now and I think that makes for some reluctance to do it. So, what we’ve done is, we just stopped reporting --
Senator Robert Menendez: -- I…don’t think court decisions can undermine the statuary realities of TPS. It depends upon how one undoes TPS. So, it just seems to me that we applaud Colombia, we applaud Ecuador, we applaud all these countries that have taken millions of people, and we can’t even give a Temporary Protected Status to those Venezuelans who are already here. That’s not leadership. It’s not sending a global message that what we ask others to do, we are willing to do ourselves.
Elliott Abrams: Well, we are not deporting Venezuelans back to Venezuela, Senator.
Senator Robert Menendez: Yeah, well, I’m glad to hear that, but at the end of the day, they are in an indefinite limbo in their lives here. There’s no reason for that when you have a process that can give you a Temporary Protected Status, give you a pathway forward to regularize your life while you’re waiting for the moment to return to your country. I just -- I just don’t get it. The aversion to this is beyond -- beyond the imagination.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Senator Menendez, and Mr. Abrams, I'm going to join in Senator Menendez’s invitation to you: If you need statutory assistance regarding the illegal gold or oil for that matter, I think we’re all in. These -- These countries and these dictators survive because they have a flow of cash and that cash comes from those products. So, I think Senator Menendez and I would be glad to join in -- in any efforts to assist you legislatively.
Senator Rand Paul: Thank you.
Mr. Abrams, without a doubt, Venezuela is a socialist nightmare. It’s indeed a vivid indictment of the economic system of socialism. It’s appalling that a country like Venezuela that sits atop more oil than Saudi Arabia is in such a dire state that people actually eat their pets.
No one disputes the disaster that is Venezuelan socialism. However, when it comes to regime change, the U.S. track record is less than stellar. It has been largely ignored that the possible replacement for Maduro, Guaidó, is also a socialist. His political party is recognized by the Socialist International. My fear is that if even if you get a kinder, gentler form of socialism, it’s still socialism and the results will be similar: economic malaise and economic disaster.
What do you say as to replacing one socialist with another in Venezuela?
Elliott Abrams: I don’t think the main the problem in Venezuela is that one party or another is a member of the Socialist International, which a lot of partners of ours in Europe are and have been. It’s that it’s a vicious, brutal, murderous dictatorship and that’s the real reason that we’re engaged there. It’s driven five million people out of the country --
Senator Rand Paul: -- I guess -- I guess that response sort of somehow alleviates the stigma of socialism from being a problem, you know, that socialism isn’t the problem there. And I guess many others who’ve watched socialism through the years have argued that you really can’t have a kinder, gentler form of socialism, that what happens with democratic socialism is that when you want to own them -- when you want to have the state own the means of production or when you want to have the state own property that ultimately it devolves into a cronyistic system, that what Chavez and Maduro started out as is not what it ended up as. When you have a more complete form of socialism, as socialism evolves that perhaps authoritarianism is a side effect of socialism.
You know, when [Fulgencio] Batista was rooted out, you know, he was a so-called cronyist or whatever. There were people who supported Castro -- many well-intended people supported Castro in the beginning, and turned out Castro wasn’t any better than Batista but was actually probably worse than Batista.
So, I think that we ought to be careful with this and I think that discounting that socialism has anything to do with it is really discounting an economic nightmare that has happened in Venezuela and saying it’s just because you’ve got bad socialists. If we had better socialists, we wouldn’t have so much of a problem.
Do you think that the U.S. government has the -- or the President has the right to military -- militarily bring about regime change in Venezuela without the authority of Congress?
Elliott Abrams: That’s not our policy.
Senator Rand Paul: Do you think the President has the right to do that?
Elliott Abrams: I think the President has the right to conduct the foreign policy of the United States under the Constitution, and we certainly would like to see a democratic Venezuela.
Senator Rand Paul: Sounds like a non-answer, but, I mean, the question is do you believe that the President has the right to do without congressional authority. This is a very important constitutional question.
Also, if the answer is that socialism is not the problem, we think one socialist is a little bit more benign than another socialist, and we think the President has the right to do it, we could very much be involved with this.
And the reason why this is important and why the discussion of regime change is important is that President Trump gets it more than almost anybody else that the Iraq War, which I know you are a big proponent of, was a[n] utter disaster -- that in getting rid of one bad person, we were left with something maybe even worse and that is the -- the vacuum, the chaos, and the terrorism that comes from having no government. This happened again in -- in Libya.
So, the real question of whether or not we want to always think we know what’s best for another country and we’re going to replace one leader with one less bad is an important one.
Do you still believe that the Iraq War was something that -- that you would support today -- you’re -- you're -- you still think the Iraq War was a good idea?
Elliott Abrams: Senator, I haven’t thought about the Iraq War in years because I'm in this job trying to deal with [inaudible] --
Senator Rand Paul: -- Sounds like another non-answer, but it would be nice to know if the President had people around him who actually agreed with him. The President thinks it’s the worst public policy decision of the last generation -- that it led to a vacuum, that actually led to chaos and more terrorism, but also led to more of the involvement of Iran.
So, the same hawks that wanted to go after Hussein now want to go after Iran, but now Iran is worse because Hussein is gone. So, see one thing leads to another and there are unintended consequences, and I think the discussion of regime change is an important one and I think we should not so casually dismiss socialism as being the problem in Venezuela.
Elliott Abrams: Well, I’m not casually dismissing it and I think that it is a very bad economic policy. But we’ve had allies. I mean England has had socialist governments, France has had socialist governments, Germany has had socialist governments. They were allies of ours throughout the Cold War. That was not the problem as long as they were democrats. Whether they pursue a terrible economic policy is essentially theirs to decide because it’s their country. The problem with Venezuela is that it has a murderous, corrupt regime that is having an impact not only inside but on all the neighbors.
Senator Rand Paul: And the question is is whether murderous thugs or an accident of history or whether they are a consequence of socialism -- Why does it seem that time and time again socialism leads to autocracy? And that is an important thing because if you get a benign democratic socialism, how long does that last till it devolves into authoritarianism? I think it’s a question worth asking. Thank you.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Senator Paul. Senator Shaheen.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you both for being here.
As you know, Ambassador Abrams, foreign powers like Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, and Turkey have not only publicly supported the Maduro regime, but through a network of shell corporations and sanctioned evasion schemes, they’ve significantly enriched Maduro and his cronies while ordinary Venezuelans continue to suffer.
So, I know that a number of sanctions have been taken in response to illegal activities stemming from adversaries like Russia, Cuba, and Iran. But Turkey on the other hand is engaged in these same activities as a NATO ally.
Now Venezuelan government associates have established numerous front and shell companies in Turkey, for example, and I may not be pronouncing this correctly, Grupo Iveex Insaat, a tiny Turkish company tied to Maduro has capital of just 1,775 dollars and no refineries. Yet it was responsible for 8 percent of Venezuela’s oil exports in 2019.
So, given what’s going on with Turkey, isn’t there more that we should do to disrupt President Erdogan and Turkey’s support of Maduro and his -- those corrupt links?
Elliott Abrams: Yes, Senator. It’s...a real problem. Turkey is not doing in Venezuela what the Russians or the Cubans are doing. Their presence is not so great but they’re lending themselves to this kind of corrupt activity. Also, gold. We see a lot of gold passing through Turkey. We saw this earlier this year -- some of these front companies develop in Mexico. But with the help of the Mexican government, we are shutting them down. We just haven’t had that kind of help from the Turkish government.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen: Well, that’s why I ask if -- if we don’t think there is more that we should be thinking about in terms of sanctioning Turkey.
Elliott Abrams: Well, we keep trying. "We" -- (again) as the Treasury, OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] -- we keep going after companies as we find them.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen: And so, can give you give us a list of those companies that we’ve gone after in Turkey that -- and what success we’ve had at doing that?
Elliott Abrams: I can’t today but I’ll be happy to supply it to you. And some of it, for investigations that are ongoing, we wouldn’t be able to do it, or we'd do it in a classified forum, but [I'd] be happy to do it.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen: I think that would be helpful, Mr. Chairman, if perhaps that can be something that’s shared with the whole committee.
Senator James Risch: I agree with that. Mr. Abrams, if you could provide that list of what you can that isn’t classified for the record. That would be much appreciated. And Senator Shaheen’s points are well taken as it relates to Turkey.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen: Now, during the last hearing that the committee held on Venezuela in March of 2019, we discussed the impact that this conflict is having on women -- and several people have mentioned that already.
Then USAID Administrator Mark Green stated that the disproportionate humanitarian effects on women and girls is the most "dark" and "gloomy part" of Venezuela’s crisis.3 So, can you -- either one of you -- give us an update on the humanitarian assistan[ce] efforts that we have undertaken with respect to women and girls, particularly given what’s happening with the coronavirus?
Joshua Hodges: Yes, thank you, ma’am. And so, this is -- this is an issue we’re tracking closely sort of across the region, just stemming from the pandemic and its impacts to different countries but specific to Venezuela.
USAID promotes these types of promotion activities that are streamlined through all of our programming. To date, we’ve -- we've focused on the most immediate life-saving assistance first and foremost, primarily health and food, and the prevention of gender-based violence and response to gender-based violence is, as I stated, sort of covered under the protection activities writ large throughout all of our programming. It’s -- It's an area, given the pandemic, we’re looking to -- to step up and make sure that within Venezuela and throughout the region we’re -- we’re more directly addressing but it is -- it’s part of all of our programming and -- and with regards to -- to inside of Venezuela, as access becomes available to funding -- additional funding, we will -- we will make sure to incorporate this further.
And again...just to just highlight the number to date, the U.S. government has provided $611 million in humanitarian assistance and -- and so portions of that funding impact this and it’s an area I know we need to do more and we’re -- we’re working on that.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen: So, when you say we need to step up, are you suggesting that more money needs to be provided? We need to be engaging in different kinds of activities? We need to be working more with the international community? What do you mean specifically when you say step up?
Joshua Hodges: Yes. We’re already working aggressively with the international community on this. In fact, there -- there are some specific programs that are funded through USAID that directly address this.
What I mean by that is, make sure that as we’re pushing this, as we’re seeing these trends emerge because of the pandemic, we’re having the discussions with our implementing partners to ensure it’s not just a part of their program and -- and sort of something they do as one of sort of a number of things but it’s -- it's an area of focus that they’re taking seriously, that they’re actually coming up with new ways to address it.
And I can speak to COVID writ large across the region. We are -- We have already had conversations to ensure that we have specific programs in place that are addressing gender-based violence, and helping women and minorities who are being targeted.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen: Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Senator Shaheen. Senator Romney.
Senator Mitt Romney: Mr. Abrams, thank you -- and both of our individuals this morning who’ve testified, appreciate your work and your perspective.
Mr. Abrams, in June, the President took a surprising tack with regards to Mr. Guaidó. He said, "Guaidó was elected," I think that it wasn’t necessarily -- "I think that I wasn’t necessarily in favor but I said -- some people that liked it, some people didn’t. I was okay with it. I don’t think it was -- you know, I don’t think it was very meaningful one way, the other?4 And -- And I think that was a surprise in that the policy of our nation had been pretty consistently saying that we recognized Mr. Guaidó as the president of the country and someone who we firmly supported.
There really is only one voice that matters when it comes to speaking the nation’s foreign policy. The State Department and all of us can express our various views and I’m sure those have some weight, but to the world and to the people of Venezuela, it’s the President who -- who speaks for the nation.
Perhaps he shares Senator Paul’s comment that -- that all -- all socialists are pretty much the same and whether it’s Guaidó or whether it’s Maduro doesn’t make a big difference. But what is the posture of the United States of America with regards to the -- the presidency of Venezuela and -- and will that ever be communicated to the world unless the President expresses it himself?
Elliott Abrams: The policy, Senator, is that we recognize Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela and have since January 5th 2019. We continue to do so. We will continue to do so after these corrupt parliamentary elections. And we -- we try to say that in many different ways every day.
Senator Mitt Romney: Yes, and my -- my question was until the President says it, will that ever break through?
Elliott Abrams: Well, I think the President has said it and you remember the State of the Union when Guaidó not only met with the President but was the -- the guest in the balcony there and got happily bipartisan ovations. So, I think the President has said it.
Senator Mitt Romney: Without Russia and Venezuela supporting and Cuba supporting Maduro, do you believe he would be able to hang on?
Elliott Abrams: I do not. I think those maybe 2500 Cuban intelligence agents and the Russian veto in the Security Council are -- are really important in keeping Maduro in power.
Senator Mitt Romney: What then could we do with regards to Russia, China, Cuba? If -- If we were really serious about removing Maduro and seeing a democratically elected president in that country, what...would we be doing? Would -- Would the President not be having this on...a call with Putin and -- and Xi Jinping, and...would we not be blockading perhaps fuel coming in from -- from Cuba and Venezuela? What -- What actions could we take if we were very serious about -- about removing Maduro and seeing five million people be able to return to their homes?
Elliott Abrams: There's a -- a spectrum, Senator, and I suppose at the far end of it, you could blockade Venezuela. That is an act of war but you could do it and you could prevent ships from going in and coming out. We have obviously chosen not to do that.
We do talk to the Chinese about this. We talk to the Russians about this. I don’t think either of them has very great confidence in Maduro. If you look at the amount of money China has put into Venezuela this year, it’s basically zero. They’re backing away. The Russians are taking money out of Venezuela, trying to get their -- their money back but they maintain the political protection and the protection in the U.N.
Senator Mitt Romney: Given their -- your expression of -- of their timid support for Maduro, would it not be possible for us to exert sufficient incentive for them to -- to walk away from him as opposed to continuing to -- to support him in such a substantial way were this not a -- a high priority for our nation? Are -- Are we so incapable of use of soft power to -- to get two nations, which you suggest don’t have a great commitment to Maduro, to back away?
Elliott Abrams: Well, it hasn’t worked so far. I think from the point of view of…Putin, you know, this is a kind of freebie in the sense that it isn’t costing him any money now and obviously he’s got a kind of base in South America. But as you start to weigh what are the things you would actually do in that bargain with Putin, we have not found any -- anything attractive.
Senator Mitt Romney: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, I’ll return the time but your point that it’s a freebie for Russian -- Russia, I would suggest that it’s in our interest to make sure it’s not a freebie for Russia. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Senator Romney, for returning the time. We’ll put it in a bank but it’s a minus seven.
Senator Mitt Romney: Is there a per, you know, minute charge for that or per second charge, Mr. Chairman?
Senator James Risch: We’ll talk.
Senator Mitt Romney: All right.
Senator James Risch: Senator Murphy.
Senator Chris Murphy: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. You know, I feel it’s Groundhog Day in this committee. We’ve been told by the Administration, frankly multiple Administrations for years, that Russia’s support for Assad and Iran’s support for Assad is tepid. It’s fragile. It’s just a matter of time before he falls.
The truth of the matter is they were always willing to do more than we were in Syria to protect their interests and that is likely the exact same case here in Venezuela. And so, our policy has been misguided by fundamentally flawed assumptions from the beginning.
And I have deep respect for both of you who are testifying before this committee, but we just have to be clear that our Venezuela policy over the last year and a half has been an unmitigated disaster, and if we aren’t honest about that then we can’t self-correct.
We have to admit that our big play, recognizing Guaidó right out of the gate and then moving quickly to implement sanctions, just didn’t work. It didn’t. All it did was harden Russia and Cuba’s play in Venezuela and allow Maduro to paint Guaidó as an American patsy and a lot of us warned that this might happen.
We could have used the prospect of U.S. recognition or sanctions as leverage. We could have spent more time trying to get European allies and other partners on the same page. We could have spent more time trying to talk to or neutralize China and Russia early before we backed them into a corner, a corner from which they are not moving -- they are not moving. But all we did was play all our cards on day one and it didn’t work, and it’s just been an embarrassing mistake after mistake since.
First, we thought that getting Guaidó to declare himself president would be enough to topple the regime. Then we thought putting aid on the border would be enough. Then we tried to sort of construct a kind of coup in April of last year and it blew up in our face when all the generals that were supposed to break with Maduro decided to stick with him in the end. We undermined Norway’s talks last summer. And then this March we released a transition framework that frankly is almost a carbon copy of the very one that was in front of the parties last year.
And now after wasting all of this time, we are stuck with elections about to happen that, as we’ve talked about today, Guaidó and the opposition refuse to enter. And then we are going to be in a position where we are recognizing someone as the leader of Venezuela who doesn’t control the government, who doesn’t run the military.
And who doesn’t even hold office, and we don’t do this in other places, right? We -- We -- Nobody knows the name of the guy who finished second in the 2018 Russian presidential election. We don’t recognize that person as the president of Russia, no matter how corrupt those elections are, because doing that makes us look weak and feckless if we can’t actually do anything about it. And so, I do think it’s important to -- to ask some questions about what comes next -- and I might have time for only one but I have two.
The first is this question of what do we do with Guaidó. So, you’re saying we’re going to recognize him because he is the former leader of the National Assembly but you know there are, Mr. Abrams, there are contests for supremacy within the opposition. What happens if six months from today someone else emerges as a more legitimate voice for the opposition than Juan Guaidó? What criteria do we use to recognize someone new or is Juan Guaidó going to be the recognized leader of Venezuela permanently no matter how conditions change on the ground?
Elliott Abrams: I think the situation of Guaidó is unique because he is the president of the National Assembly. They’re going to have a corrupt election now which no one, I think, no democratic country, is going to recognize and that corrupt election, that fraud is not going to change Guaidó’s status. And I don’t think you’ll find anybody in the -- in the opposition leadership who will claim otherwise.
Also, I’d just like to say, Senator, you know, that was not a vote -- that was not the vote of confidence in the policy I would have liked.
Senator Chris Murphy: You dispute my premise. I…will stipulate to -- I will stipulate to that. Okay. I -- I think that -- I think that that’s a fallacy to suggest that no one is going to step forward and replace Guaidó and I -- I think we have to sort of at least think through the criteria by which we may recognize somebody else.
Let me ask a quick second question, which is this: Guaidó’s prerequisites for participating in the election did not include Maduro stepping down and yet you've said as recently as a week ago that the only thing we want to talk to Maduro about is his removal from power. Are we open, United States of America, to a discussion with Maduro in which he stays in power as a transition to an election that is actually free and fair? Because frankly, even if he’s not in power, there’s no guarantee that -- that his allies couldn’t rig an election. So, why aren’t we open to that as a possible path forward?
Elliott Abrams: Because we do not believe that a free election in Venezuela is possible with Maduro in power -- in control of the army, in control of the police, in control of the Colectivo gangs with 2 or 3,000 Cuban intelligence agents. We do not see that that is a possibility of a free election.
Senator Chris Murphy: I -- I would say Guaidó doesn’t share that view because his preconditions for taking part in the elections did not require the removal of Maduro and it is also not clear that even without Maduro there could be a free and fair election. And so, I...think this is just a prescription to get stuck in a downward spiral of American policy from which we cannot remove ourselves. We’ve got to be more nimble, more creative, more open to solutions by which we could get to an election even with Maduro there as -- as a transition. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Elliott Abrams: If I could -- Could I respond for just a few seconds.
Senator James Risch: Go ahead.
Elliott Abrams: You know, we presented this framework for a democratic transition precisely to show what we would like to see happen and the -- in the framework both sides, the Chavistas and the opposition in the National Assembly, elect a transitional government. Each side has veto power. Guaidó and Maduro would not participate in the transitional election. Both could run for president in a future free presidential election.
We thought we were putting out -- and many, many countries who have looked at this have said this is a -- this is a positive formula and we showed the way to the lifting of U.S. sanctions. And I would just say again, just under 60 countries support Guaidó. So, the notion that we have done this alone and without any international support, Senator, I would submit is not accurate.
Senator James Risch: Thank you. Senator Rubio.
Senator Marco Rubio: On that point, thank you both for being here. How -- How many countries in Latin America recognize Guaidó as the legitimate interim president?
Elliott Abrams: Every country except, I think, Cuba, Argentina, Mexico.
Senator Marco Rubio: [I] imagine Nicaragua.
Elliott Abrams: Yeah, Nicaragua, sorry.
Senator Marco Rubio: So, let me ask you, we didn’t just pull Guaidó out of the air and say this is who we’ll recognize. The basis of our support for Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president and the basis for why all these other countries have also recognized him is because he is the democratically elected member of the National Assembly who the democratically elected members of the National Assembly have made the president of that assembly. That, under the Venezuelan constitution, fills the role of president when there is a vacancy in that office. Is that not the reason why we recognized him?
Elliott Abrams: That’s correct. We did not choose Juan Guaidó. The Constitution of Venezuela chose Juan Guaidó.
Senator Marco Rubio: As interim president until the next -- the transition to free and fair election?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Marco Rubio: Because I also heard a comment earlier by one of my colleagues -- I believe it was Senator Paul who is no longer here -- but he said that our policy of replacing Maduro with Guaidó, that -- that is not the policy of the United States. The policy of the United States is to try to promote a transition to free and fair elections where the people of Venezuela choose who the next president of Venezuela is.
Elliott Abrams: That’s exactly right.
Senator Marco Rubio: Let me ask you -- another thing you hear a lot about is he’s still clinging to power. First of all, I think it’s fair to say that we’re not dealing -- the Maduro regime is not really a government in the -- in the traditional sense of the word. It’s an organized crime ring. Is that a -- a fair characterization?
Elliott Abrams: It is and I think it’s what distinguishes it from the many Latin American cases of military juntas which were replaced by democratic government.
Senator Marco Rubio: And as a criminal enterprise, basically what it’s comprised of, these individuals that allow Maduro to remain quote [un]quote “in power.” Much of the country, they -- they don’t really exercise much government writ any longer but heavily focused on Caracas but -- but to the extent that they are in control of national territory, the people that allow them to do it.
The reason why they do it is not -- it's fair to say most of them it's not either ideological or personal affinity towards Mr. Maduro. It is actually the fact that these people have become very rich and…have been -- and want to maintain power that allows them to keep their money and their personal freedom. Would you not say that is the glue that holds together this criminal enterprise?
Elliott Abrams: I would -- I would, Senator, and I think that explains part of the difficulty in getting them out.
Senator Marco Rubio: And the reason why we can’t -- they won’t leave is not because they love Maduro. They -- Some of them want to replace him. The -- The reason why they can’t leave is because right now he’s their best bet at least for this moment, in essence. Of all the options before them, they -- this is the one that most guarantees them the power for the time being to protect their wealth and their freedom.
Elliott Abrams: Senator --
Senator Marco Rubio: Their personal freedom.
Elliott Abrams: I think...that’s right and I think, again, it explains the great difficulty of Venezuela.
Senator Marco Rubio: Is it not also fair to say that one of the things that a lot of those folks in there are probably thinking about is, "Let’s see what happens moving forward in American politics. Maybe there’ll be a change in policy."
To me, this is an issue that’s been pretty strong bipartisan support. I think it’s a bad assumption on their part but there are some that -- that are sort of standing around saying, "Well, let’s wait and see because maybe after the elections there’ll be a change in policy that will take the pressure off of us."
Elliott Abrams: That’s our calculation too, that Maduro is to some extent watching and waiting.
Senator Marco Rubio: I think it’s a bad bet. I don’t think he has very many supporters here that are in favor of him remaining in power.
The last point is pretty a [sic] straightforward question. You’ve answered it many different ways and times but I want to reiterate once more. Whether it’s the President or anybody else, when they discuss talking to Maduro, that means a negotiation with Maduro about how he leaves his current position and allows for there to be free and fair elections. We are not discussing talks. We are not open to talks about how he remains in power.
Elliott Abrams: That’s right. We are open to talks about his leaving power. Does he want to stay in Venezuela? Does he want to leave Venezuela? What happens to the sanctions? That sort of thing -- for him and other people. Those discussions we’re willing to have. But a negotiation about his remaining in power in Venezuela, we are not going to have.
Senator Marco Rubio: And my last question is we see them buying all of this gasoline or whatever from -- from the Iranians, one of the most oil-rich countries in the world that no longer has any refining capacity and that’s been the case for a long time, way even before these -- these sanctions took hold. How are they paying for it?
Elliott Abrams: They’re paying Iran with gold as far as we are aware.
Senator Marco Rubio: From both their reserves and from illegal mining?
Elliott Abrams: Yeah. The...gold reserves, the value seems to be rising because the price of gold is rising, but we are able to see sometimes the movement of gold out which we think is to Iran and they’re trying to refill it in part through current gold mining in the Arco Minero.
Senator Marco Rubio: So, in essence they are depleting their national...gold reserves to buy time to provide even very limited amounts of fuel.
Elliott Abrams: They are.
Senator Marco Rubio: Thank you.
Senator James Risch: Senator Kaine.
Senator Tim Kaine: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you to the witnesses.
This is a -- This is a very hard problem and I -- and I -- I think the situation we all acknowledge in Venezuela is disastrous from a humanitarian standpoint. I think the Trump Administration has gotten some things right and I think the Trump Administration has gotten some things wrong. I -- I don’t think it was easy to get 70 nations to recognize the Guaidó government. I think that was a good bit of diplomacy and I don’t think anybody should take for granted that that was simple. And so that -- that I would put in the positive side of the ledger with respect to the -- the efforts.
I think the early suggestion that military options were on the table meant that many of the nations that recognize the Guaidó government would not also embrace the sanctions that we wanted them to. And I’ve had conversations with leadership in some of the nations that have been with us on the recognition but not on the sanction where they expressed reticence and use that as a reason.
But -- But fundamentally, I don’t think the -- the Venezuelan reality, you know, is bad because of the United States or bad in spite of the United States. It’s -- It’s a brutal dictatorship and it’s a dictatorship that’s propped up by the -- the world’s leading authoritarian nations.
And in a way, I almost think Venezuela is like the perfect example to the world. If you want live under an authoritarian government, take a look because you got Iran there and Russia there and China there and Turkey there and Cuba there. And if -- if this is the form of government you want then take a look at what it’s done.
So what should we do now? There…I...first think we have to be realistic. One of my concerns has been from the very beginning that from the witness side of the hearing rooms in this committee, we’ve often heard optimism expressed about what the recognition of Guaidó might do, and we’re right around the corner from a transition, and it was -- it’s been interesting to me because when I’ve had conversations with the Colombians, they’ve never been optimistic about anything quickly. They’re right on the border. They've dealt with Venezuela under so many challenges over so many years. They were never optimistic that a transition would be quick.
And so, this is not just a Venezuela issue. I think it’s an issue that, you know, for a whole series of reasons including some good ones -- we're "can do" optimistic people -- we often overestimate our ability to affect the internal reality of a country. And we have to be a little more humble about that. So maybe a little humility would be important.
Second, the humanitarian challenges. There’s now 40[,000] to 50,000 Venezuelans who’ve crossed the border from Colombia back into Venezuela because when Colombia had to shut down the economy due to COVID, it put so many people in desperate situations that even though they were going to be desperate in Venezuela, they would have a roof there with family. And so, you see people crossing back.
I am really interested in Colombia. I am really worried about the effect that the Venezuelan reality has on Colombia and I -- and so I would -- I would put as a very top priority.
First, continuing to do everything we can to get humanitarian aid to Venezuelans and you cited the number. We should do even more.
Second, do everything we can to protect the hard-won gains that administrations of both parties have made in terms of turning Colombia around because Colombia, right on the border of Venezuela, offers the antidote. If -- If Venezuela stands as the example of: "You want to live under authoritarians, this is what your life’s going to be like." Colombia can offer the opposite: "If you embrace democratic norms and work over time, look at the positive arc you can be on." And I think we have an enormous amount invested in that arc that is -- that is fragile, that’s at risk. And the Venezuelan situation puts it at risk. So, I think the -- the second element of a strong Venezuelan policy, in addition to humanitarian support, needs to be continued support for Colombia and I want to ask about that in my last minute after I say the third thing.
I do think the third thing that would be really important is TPS. I -- I echo what Senator Menendez said before I came into the room. If our critique is, "This is a brutal dictatorship and these people are living under intolerably bad conditions." To say all of that and, "We want a change but we don’t want to let you come into our country" -- it -- it undercuts our message in my view and suggests we’re -- we’re not that worried about them. And I think this is the perfect example of how TPS should be used.
My question is tell me how we’re doing in Guatemala right now and what more we can do to support that government as they deal with this Venezuelan challenge.
Elliott Abrams: Well, thank you, Senator. First, I agree with you about the importance of making sure that this multi-decade, bipartisan effort in Colombia stays on track and the Colombians have been, you know, amazing in welcoming now about 2 million Venezuelans. And you can see the -- the burden on the hospital system, the educational system -- but they’re doing it.
So, I think money is part of what we should be doing to help Colombia. And they’re doing this, by the way, as they continue even in the context of COVID to eradicate coca. It’s really extraordinary and I think, you know, hats off to President Duque and his government.
So, I think we need the bipartisanship to continue. We need political support from the Administration, which we have, and we probably need to look again at the aid levels because, you know, we come up with these numbers before this surge of a couple of million Venezuelans into Colombia.
Joshua Hodges: And, sir, I would add to that. I completely agree with your comments and -- and the Special Representative. This is an area where we are definitely engaged. We’re engaged directly with the Colombians and -- and throughout the interagency on both the coca eradication, on the Venezuela crisis, and in addition, making sure all of those conversations are connected back to the response to the COVID pandemic.
And so, we’ve taken a series of steps from the USAID side to make sure that the pandemic isn’t going to wash away the gains that we’ve made within Colombia. Obviously, the pandemic sets new realities in-country to some of the assistance that we have going on there but we -- we’re continuing to evaluate our programs, update those to make sure we’re -- it’s based on the current reality, not where we were six weeks ago, four -- four months ago. And so, we’re actively doing that and we’re working closely with the State Department interagency on all of this.
Senator Tim Kaine: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Senator Kaine. Senator Cruz.
Senator Ted Cruz: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Gentlemen, thank you for your good work, your service, your testimony.
Mr. Abrams, does Maduro survive the year? And what can we do to maximize the chances that the answer to that question is no?
Elliott Abrams: Well, we obviously hope he does not survive the year and we are working hard to make that happen. What needs to happen for that to occur? The Venezuelan people have to react against this election. International support of the, I think it’s 59 countries -- and we hope to add to that -- have to reject this election as a complete fraud. We need more sanctions, personal sanctions of the sort EU, Canada, the Rio Treaty countries have done. Travel restrictions.
Here is a case where more is better because they put more pressure on the regime. And we need to continue, in the case of particularly the Iran-Venezuela relationship, to try to prevent it from growing.
Senator Ted Cruz: So, do I understand correctly that Maduro was on a plane. He was ready to leave. He’d given it up. And the Russians called him and convinced him to stay. Is that right? And -- And what changed in his calculus that caused him to get off that plane?
Elliott Abrams: I don’t know if it’s right. I’ve heard several stories about it. One version is, it was his wife who left, who actually did leave. Another is that he wasn’t on a plane, but he was going to get on a plane and the Russian ambassador met with him and persuaded him, "Stay. We’re behind you." But those are -- I don’t have firm intelligence of that. Those are different stories.
I think, you know, the day will come when he's going to have to make the decision of where he is safest, fleeing to a place like Cuba or Russia, or is he safest staying in Venezuela -- because then we can’t extradite him.
Senator Ted Cruz: Now I would think one of the important questions on that is…where the Venezuelan military lines up, and in particular their generals and admirals. What -- What do we know in terms of the calculus those military leaders are engaging in right now about what’s good for their future, what’s good for their families, what’s good for their country, although I’m not sure with many of them the third question is the -- the predominant question.
Elliott Abrams: Our impression is they’re thinking. Some of them are ideologically Chavistas; most are not. Some of them are criminals; most are not. So, they’re -- you know, they’re on a spectrum here in how they view that regime. Many are trying to figure out, "What happens to me?" And it’s probably the case -- we’ve heard this from a lot of people -- that the opposition has not spoken clearly enough about the questions of guarantees and amnesty, and so forth for some behavior.
There’ve been those kinds of amnesties in every country that’s gone from dictatorship to democracy -- in Latin America for that matter, in Europe, South Africa. So, they’re thinking about that and we do try to get messages through to the people in the High Command, sometimes publicly saying, “Look, Venezuela needs a modernized, paid military, and you’re not going to get it from Maduro.” We need to reestablish the kind mil-mil relationship we once had.
Senator Ted Cruz: So, what more in terms of carrot-and-stick can Congress do and can the Administration do to change the calculus for the generals and admirals so that they come to the unequivocal conclusion, "It is much, much worse for me if Maduro stays in power than if this illegitimate regime is toppled, and if instead you have a democratically legitimate government in Venezuela?"
Elliott Abrams: I actually think the best thing that we -- we could do would be a bipartisan expression that this policy is not going to change. It has support in both parties. We are not going to let up on the sanctions. We are not going to let up on the criminal prosecutions. We’re going to stay with it. So, this is going to keep on going year after year until this regime is replaced.
Senator Ted Cruz: Well, I think that’s a good invitation and I know this committee has acted in a bipartisan manner before. I -- I think that would be a very positive thing if this committee were able to come together and -- and do that again to make clear that Maduro will have no friends regardless of -- of what happens in an election 91 days from now.
Let me ask you about a different aspect of Venezuela which is as you know for over two years, six Americans, and -- and five of them from Texas, have been imprisoned in Venezuela related to charges manufactured about their work for -- for CITGO. They have missed birthdays. They’ve missed weddings. They’ve missed funerals. They're imprisoned in inhumane conditions. They’re subject to abuse. Their -- Their families continue to live in fear for their health and -- and well-being. Last week, two of the men were re-released to house arrest but a lot more needs to be done.
What is the status of your efforts to make sure that the CITGO 6 are brought home?
Elliott Abrams: We’re in touch with the families. We’re in touch with anyone who is trying to help and that would include Governor Richardson who was down there a couple of weeks ago. We have made and we continue to make a -- I guess I'd call it a global diplomatic effort with the governments, for example, of Mexico, of Spain, of Argentina, with the Vatican. We keep asking ourselves, “Who can we go back to?”, “Who’s somebody new who has influence in Caracas?”, “What can we do to increase the pressure or the inducements on the regime?”
Moving two to house arrest again is a positive step. We hope that the next step is the other four go to house arrest as a step toward getting home. It’s been -- it’s -- since 2017, it’s gone on to two and a half years now, and they belong home with their families. These men have never had a trial.
Senator Ted Cruz: Thank you very much.
Senator James Risch: Thank you, Senator Cruz. Senator Menendez.
Senator Robert Menendez: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Hodges, 40 percent of hospitals in Venezuela lack electricity, 70 percent of hospitals lack access to water. The U.N. estimates seven million people in Venezuela are in need of humanitarian assistance but only able to address 10 percent of that. What -- What are we doing, State Department, USAID, to expand access inside, inside Venezuela for organizations seeking to deliver life-saving assistance along the lines with our respect for humanitarian principles of neutrality and partiality and independence? Are we building on the recent agreement between Guaidó and Maduro health officials to support the Pan American Health Organization’s work in Venezuela or is that a one-off deal?
Give -- I mean...I’m very focused on changing -- creating democracy in Venezuela but in the interim, there is humanitarian catastrophe happening.
Joshua Hodges: Absolutely, sir. And -- And from a humanitarian assistance perspective, it’s less a question in my mind of whether or not we remain committed to the bipartisan support for this issue. As you’ve all stated, the reality is this is Maduro against the Venezuelan people, the Venezuelan families who are suffering day in, day out.
And just to run through some specific fundings about what’s inside of Venezuela as -- as the committee knows, we’ve provided $128 million supportive longer-term development programs but more specifically, $43 million for critical health, water, food assistance, and within that, we’ve reached --
Senator Robert Menendez: -- This is inside of Venezuela?
Joshua Hodges: Inside Venezuela, yes, sir. And we have reached nine million people, if we include sort of the totality of our programs, within Venezuela that -- that does include vaccination campaigns. But in our strictly day-to-day health support, we’ve reached around 600,000 people. We continue to seek ways to do exactly what you’re saying, sir, and that -- it’s an area where we -- we know more needs to be done. We call on the international community to --
Senator Robert Menendez: -- And what about the Pan American Health Organization agreement that Guaidó and Maduro’s people have?
Joshua Hodges: Yes, sir. We are...supportive of this and...we’re working. As you are aware, we’ve worked with PAHO [Pan American Health Organization] -- with the State Department and others over the course of the last several months to overcome several obstacles to make sure that the U.S. taxpayer funds that were provided to PAHO would be used in the -- the manner what would be most --
Senator Robert Menendez: -- I’d like you to follow up with our office to get the totality of what you’re doing in this regard.
Joshua Hodges: Absolutely, sir, and it’s --
Senator Robert Menendez: And one other question. Of the $611 million that’s been provided for humanitarian assistance in response to the Venezuela crisis, how much is supporting efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence?
Joshua Hodges: So, sir, I’ll have to follow up with a specific figure on that. As I mentioned earlier, all of our programming in -- in throughout the region includes aspects that deal with this, but we -- we don’t have specific line items or earmarks designated for gender-based violence.
Senator Robert Menendez: Well, I’d like to know what’s being spent because we have a horrific situation where violence against women, girls, LGBTI individuals, persons with disabilities, and we know that women and girls fleeing Venezuela are facing grave threats of sexual violence and trafficking by armed groups. This committee has a long history of supporting efforts on trafficking against persons against obviously -- against their will and human trafficking, sexual trafficking, and whatnot. I’d like to know what we’re doing in there.
Joshua Hodges: Absolutely, sir, and we will -- we will get you the specific funding numbers. And one -- one thing I do want to state here is inside Venezuela, we do have funding that’s dedicated to protection, that’s protection for all and with -- with that -- that figure I think is right under $4 million but I will follow up with an exact figure sort of across all programs.
Senator Robert Menendez: Mr. Abrams, let me ask you a question. I -- As mentioned in my opening statements that the U.N. has documented over 8,000 extrajudicial killings in the last two years alone within Venezuela. Canada and several countries have mounted evidence of Maduro’s regime crimes against humanity.
Under Section 142 of the VERDAD Act, which I wrote, when Congress required the State Department to conduct an assessment of the regime’s role in potential crimes against humanity, you sent us a report that contained (quote) “a list of allegations,” a list that failed to include any mention -- any mention of the U.N. report.5 By every standard, that report failed to contribute to an indelible record of the Maduro regime’s crimes, a record I know that you and I both agree about.
So, do you believe a state-sponsored campaign of more than 8,000 murders in two years should be considered a crime against humanity?
Elliott Abrams: Yes, Senator.
Senator Robert Menendez: Would...you go back to the Department and ask them to resubmit Section 142 of the report? And treat it with the seriousness it deserves? This is a compelling reality. We’ve got a U.N. document, 8,000 extrajudicial killings. We don’t even mention it in our statement and we didn’t do anything more than a list of allegations. We can do much better than that.
Elliott Abrams: Yes, sir.
Senator Robert Menendez: Now, lastly, I just want to go through a series of things and you tell me yes or no whether they're the case. We see Colombian guerillas operating openly across Venezuela and large swaths of ungoverned territory. Is that true?
Elliott Abrams: We do, including even in Eastern Venezuela.
Senator Robert Menendez: We see a wide range of armed actors profiting from drug trade, illegal gold mining, and human trafficking. Is that true?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: We see femicide, sexual violence, trafficking of Venezuelan women and girls reportedly on the rise. Is that true?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: We -- Is it fair to say that Maduro’s regime has perpetuated more state-sponsored murders than any Latin American government since the Dirty Wars of the 70s and 80s?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: And we have already -- you’ve already acknowledged the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights report of 8,000 extrajudicial killings as well as grotesque patterns of torture and rape. That’s true as well, right?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: It’s true that 5.2 million Venezuelans have fled their country. Is it not?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: And at the rate it’s going, it’s possible that more Venezuelans would flee Venezuela than Syrians fl[ed] during that horrific war?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: It’s true that Maduro and his cronies face charges in the United States for drug trafficking and graft?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: And that we’re dealing with a massive law enforcement challenge in Venezuela. Is that true as well?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: And it is also true that in fact what we have here is the challenge in a regional context -- while Colombia has been a great neighbor and a good hemispheric leader, it [the political situation in Venezuela] has consequences. It has consequences to Colombia’s stability if in fact the -- the demand continues, several million, to smaller countries like Ecuador and others. Isn’t that the potential for regional instability if this continues to hemorrhage?
Elliott Abrams: Yes.
Senator Robert Menendez: Well, if I look at all of that, it sounds to me that -- that Venezuela is a clear and present danger to the United States.
Elliott Abrams: To the United States and to its -- to its neighbors.
Senator Robert Menendez: So, in my mind, if all of that rises to a clear and present danger to the United States then we would be far more serious in our engagement.
We would be following and sanctioning the Turkish companies that are making it profitable for Maduro to benefit.
We would be proactively seeking out the transfers of oils that are going to Cuba which is why Cuba is keeping several thousand of its security agency around Maduro to prop him up.
We would be sanctioning Russian companies that specifically are providing assistance to the Maduro regime inside of it. And we would use -- to take a -- a page from Senator Murphy -- clearly, we would be engaging with the Russians and Chinese, as well as the Turks and others, in ultimately making it something of value to them to undermine Maduro because right now they are propping him up and they see no consequence to them of keeping him propped up.
In our own hemisphere, in our front yard, to have a clear and present danger to the United States is pretty amazing. There’s a lot more that should be done here and I just fear that at the end of the day we’re on autopilot and that autopilot isn’t going to get us to where we want.
Elliott Abrams: Senator, I'd only respond that we have already done and are doing many of the things that you’ve mentioned. It was our sanctions on Rosneft that got it out of Venezuela. It was our move against Greek ship -- Greek-owned ships that turned them away from bringing Iranian gasoline to Venezuela. We’ve sanctioned over a thousand different people and entities.
So, we are doing this. It has not had the impact that you and the members of the committee, and of course all of us, wanted [it] to have, which is the restoration of democracy in Venezuela -- yet.
Senator Robert Menendez: Well, you know, I -- I would engage with the Spanish who seem to be a problem in helping us in this regard. You know, they have influence with other countries in the hemisphere.
I think we...have -- I could lay out for you a dozen different initiatives that if we’re really serious and focused on getting rid of Maduro and restoring democracy to Venezuela and stability to the region as a result of the hemorrhaging that’s going on. I mean the lawlessness that is taking place in Venezuela is alarming. Even if Maduro leaves, you’re going to have a real challenge at the end of the day.
So, yes, there is bipartisan support here to -- to get us to where we need to be. But some of us have a sense that, again, we’re on autopilot and we are not engaging in ways and with others in order to bring this to a successful conclusion, one that I know we both share in terms of a vision, but one of which I honestly say I think we have different -- different views.
And I appreciate the Chairman’s willingness to give me a second time.
Senator James Risch: Thank -- Thank you, Senator Menendez. Good points all along. I’m -- I, however, do question whether or not that either the Russians, the Chinese, the Cubans, or anyone else that's engaged there are going to listen to us as far as trying to convince them that -- that it’s in their best interest to leave when they enjoy putting a stick in our eye.
Nonetheless, I think perhaps -- you -- you've made some good suggestions. I think perhaps some bipartisan legislation urging the kinds of things that you’ve -- you've laid out might be appropriate and I…I really think that everybody’s pulling the wagon the…same here and I -- I think perhaps some bipartisan legislation in that regard and I’ll be happy to join in -- in that regard.
Senator Murphy or Senator Kaine, anything else for the good of the order?
Senator Chris Murphy: There we go. [Turning mic on.] Just one additional question. Much of our policy over the course of 2019 was predicated on the idea that we could force a fissure between Maduro and military leadership. And in fact the episode in April in which we had hoped that there would be a substantial break didn’t pan out in part because many of those leaders at the last minute appeared to get cold feet.
Just two questions on that. One, how much of our -- when you say to Senator Cruz you hope he’s not there at the end of the year, how much of that is predicated on a continued belief that you can split the military leadership away from Maduro? And second, what did we learn from 2019 about the ways in which Maduro has successfully and perhaps surprisingly to American diplomats been able to hold together his leadership?
Elliott Abrams: I think we learned, one, that there are a number of people in the military, who unlike military leaders in previous Latin American dictatorships, are really part of a criminal gang and they’re going to be extremely difficult to dislodge.
I think we learned that a lot of people in the military are concerned about the question of guarantees and an amnesty and want to hear about it more quickly.
I think we learned that they want more of a sense of what happens after Maduro, which is one of the reasons we put forward the framework to show, "Here’s how we see it playing out."
I think we learned that we need to keep trying to reach out to military leaders in every possible way -- directly, indirectly -- in public to get our messages across and we tried to do that. SOUTHCOM, for example, tries to do that in their communications as well.
I’d also say that we learned that there's no substitute for keeping the pressure on. And I would say the last thing the policy is is on "autopilot." We are constantly trying to think, "Who have we not reached out to?" "Who should we go back to again"? "What have we not tried that we should try"? Because, like you, we all want this policy to work to restore democracy to Venezuela, or better said, to help Venezuelans restore democracy to their own country.
Senator Chris Murphy: Thank you.
Senator James Risch: Thank you.
Joshua Hodges: Sir, if I may -- on that, I just want to add in that USAID is actively engaged here with the State Department on this. We’re actively working with civil society groups to raise awareness of the brutality, of the repression, of the -- the real-life situation on the ground so that everyone throughout Venezuela can have access to that information. We know the regime doesn’t want that information getting out and we’re trying to break through through various different means. And so, we’re very proud of the work we’re doing in this space to -- to increase that access to information to everyday Venezuelans, including folks in the different security sectors.
Senator James Risch: Thank you very much. Well, Mr. Abrams, Mr. Hodges, thank you so much for your service. I -- I think this has been a hearing that will help enlighten Americans to where we are on -- on all these very difficult issues; been appropriate discussion of some of the real knotty problems that we face in trying to do what we all want to see done.
For information to members, the record will be -- will remain open until Thursday. We’d ask witnesses to respond promptly as -- as promptly as possible to questions that are raised and -- that we had some discussions here about things that would be supplied to the record. We’d -- We’d ask you -- For the record we’d ask you to do that as promptly as possible. And with that, the committee stands adjourned.
1 See the UN Human Rights Reports on Venezuela from 2017-2020.
2 Broader quotation: "Guaidó was elected. I think that I wasn't necessarily in favor, but I said -- some people that liked it, some people didn't. I was OK with it. I don't think it was -- you know, I don't think it was very meaningful one way or the other." [Source: https://www.axios.com/trump-venezuela-Guaidó-maduro-ea665367-b088-4900-8d73-c8fb50d96845.html]
4 Source: https://www.axios.com/trump-venezuela-guaido-maduro-ea665367-b088-4900-8d73-c8fb50d96845.html
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