Elliott Abrams

First State Department Briefing on Venezuela

delivered 7 February 2019, Washington, D.C.

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Few comments to start.  Two weeks ago, Juan Guaido and the democratically elected National Assembly took the courageous and constitutional step of declaring Guaido interim president, and forming a transitional government while working toward free and fair elections.1,2

Juan Guaido's formal public declaration of Venezuelan Interim Presidency, Plaza Bolívar de Chacao, Caracas (screenshot)

We, the United States, recognized Guaido as the interim president on January 23rd.

As of today, 23 European countries have recognized Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela.  I believe we're up to 48 countries around the world that have recognized him.  As many of you know, there are meetings, yesterday and today in Uruguay, about the crisis in Venezuela.  One, an Uruguay and Mexico-led meeting; another, the International Contact Group on Venezuela.

Instead of trying to accommodate Maduro through contact groups or dialogue, we urge countries to recognize Juan Guaido as interim president and join us in responding to his call for immediate international humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of the Venezuelan people.

Maduro has proven he will manipulate any call for negotiations to his advantage, and he has often used so-called dialogues as a way to play for time.  We urge all involved to deal solely with the legitimate Guaido government.  The time for dialogue with Maduro has long passed.  Every day that Maduro remains in power is a day where political prisoners remain in jail, detainees are abused, and Venezuelans go without food and medicine.

The contrast between Interim President Guaido and Maduro is striking.  While Mr. Guaido calls for humanitarian assistance for the people of Venezuela -- excuse me -- While Guaido calls for humanitarian assistance for the people of Venezuela, Maduro continues to block unhindered access to international humanitarian assistance, and denies Venezuelans the basic necessities they direly need, unless they declare loyalty to him.  The U.S. Government is coordinating with Guaido and his team of experts, other governments in the region, our humanitarian partners, on the logistics of deploying aid to mobilize a response efficiently and safely.  We are prepositioning items -- relief items, food, nutritional supplements, hygiene kits, medical kits in Colombia so that they're available to reach Venezuelans in need in their own country as soon as that is safe and logistically possible.

Yesterday, Ambassador Carlos Vecchio announced an international conference on humanitarian assistance to take place at the OAS [Organization of American States] on February 14th to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the Venezuelan people.  We encourage everyone -- governments, organizations, private entities -- to answer his call and support the long-suffering Venezuelan people.  As Secretary Pompeo said, U.S. will mobilize and transport humanitarian aid -- medicine, medical supplies, surgical supplies, nutritional supplements -- for the people of Venezuela.3

I would like to state that we are imposing visa restrictions and revoking the visas of members of the illegitimate Constituent [National] Assembly.  This body has usurped many of the constitutional powers of the National Assembly, the legitimate National Assembly, and embodies Maduro's destruction of democratic institutions.  While I cannot name names because visa information is protected, I can state that we will continue to take action against those destroying Venezuela's democratic institutions.

Thank you.

Mr. Palladino:  We have time for a few questions.  Matt.

Question:  Thanks, Robert.  Just on the contact group, you mentioned at the beginning that 23 European countries now recognize Guaido.  And yet the EU was the primary organizer of the contact group.  So I'm wondering, one, if you guys were invited to join and said no for the reasons that you outlined, that the time for dialogue is past.  And secondly, if 23 European countries have already de-recognized Maduro, how do you think that the contact group was -- try to get to dialogue?

Mr. Abrams:  Well, I hope they're going to follow the position of the United States, which is that the only worthwhile message to the Maduro regime is it's time to end the dictatorship in Venezuela.  The question is really what is the purpose of the contact group, and we'll find out when they issue a, know, a final statement.  But our messages to the members of the cont[a]ct group have been don't fall into a trap that Maduro has set many times before, where there's a phony dialogue rather than a strong message to him: It's time to go.

Question:  Right.  But did you decline an opportunity to be part of the contact group?

Mr. Abrams:  I don't believe we were ever interested in joining the contact group, because we don't think that's the way to go.

Question:  Thank you.

Mr. Palladino:  Let's go to Bloomberg.  Nick Wadhams.

Question:  Mr. Abrams, can you talk about what the U.S. has in mind for Nicolas Maduro himself?  John Bolton tweeted that he'd be happy to see him on a beach somewhere.  Would you care where he goes?  Would the U.S. seek to have him face justice of some sort?  Or do you have anything in mind for what the endgame for him ought to be?

Mr. Abrams:  The endgame for him should be to leave power, and the sooner the better.  Because his own situation is only going to decline the longer he clings to power and the more misery there is in Venezuela.

Question:  But where would you like to see him go?  Should he remain in Venezuela or leave the country?

Mr. Abrams:  I think it is better for the transition to democracy in Venezuela that he be outside the country.  And there are a number of countries that I think would be willing to accept him.

Question:  Which ones?

Mr. Abrams:  Well, he's got friends in places like Cuba and Russia, and there are some other countries actually that have come to us privately and said they'd be willing to take members of the current illegitimate regime if it would help the transition.

Question:  Can you name any?

Mr. Abrams:  No.

Mr. Palladino:  Let's go to Reuters.

Question:  Mr. Abrams, isn't it rather rich given your background --

Mr. Palladino:  Excuse me, sir, no.  No.  Give order.  No, no, no, no.

Question:  Do we have a free press here or not?

Question:  Mr. Abrams.

Mr. Palladino:  Reuters.  Hang on.  It's Reuters.

Question:  Hello.  How are you?

Question:  Freedom and democracy.  That what's going on here?

Question:  So two questions, quickly.  Is -- you say time has long passed to negotiate with Maduro, but this is a different situation in which he -- you have an opposition leader that has come forward and that is willing and has united the opposition, as -- as you've claimed.  Number two:  How are you going to get the aid into Venezuela when Maduro still has the military behind him and he controls the -- all of the territory?

Mr. Abrams:  It is probably correct that the Venezuelan army, if mobilized, could prevent international aid from reaching Venezuela.  That would be a really tragic situation.  And we are hopeful that that won't happen.

We saw the blocking of the bridge in Cucuta.  But members of the army are Venezuelan citizens.  They have parents and children and brothers and sisters who are suffering badly.  So our hope is that they will be able to persuade Maduro, or they will simply disobey orders to continue the starvation of the -- of the people of Venezuela.

As to discussions with Maduro, negotiating with him on his departure is fine, if we ever get to that negotiation.  Obviously, he may flee someday or he may seek to negotiate conditions.  But that's not what he's done in the past.  What he's done in the past is to use these negotiations to prolong his stay in power and to try to demonstrate his legitimacy.  And that, we're against.

Mr. Palladino:  Let's go to Fox, Rich Edson.

Question:  Mr. Abrams, you've been accused of --

Mr. Palladino:  Excuse me, sir.  Fox [inaudible].

Question:  How long can you say that --

Question:  [Inaudible.]

Mr. Palladino:  Fox.

Question:  When did the --

Question:  [Inaudible] rich for you to be talking about political riots and starving people [inaudible] --

Question:  When did the Administration become aware of Mr. Guaido, and how long has he been -- has the Administration been working with Mr. Guaido?

Mr. Abrams:  I can't actually answer that question, because I've been here for too short a time.  His -- He was an elected member of the National Assembly in one of the major parties in the group of four leading democratic parties.  So I think it depends also who -- if you ask me, for example, when did Ambassador Todd or when did now Chargé [d’ Affaires] [James] Story know of him, I'm sure they've known him a long time.  Obviously, he's gotten a lot more famous recently.

Question:  And are you confident that he's been sufficiently vetted, especially as this has gone on now for the last [few] weeks?

Mr. Abrams:  Yes, and I think -- you know the pressure that he's under.  You saw the incident that happened just a few days ago, where police entered his own home, his apartment where his 20-month-old daughter was.  Think of the pressures that he's under.  I think that the leadership that he is giving to the Venezuelan people is really quite extraordinary.

Mr. Palladino: Let's go to ABC.

Question: [Off-mike.]

Question:  Mr. Abrams, just in follow-up to something that you said to Lesley, you talked about you're hopeful that the Maduro regime wouldn't block aid --

Mr. Abrams:  Yeah.

Question: -- coming across the border.  Does that mean that you intend, with your partner countries, perhaps with NGOs, to begin moving that aid without explicit permission to do so?

Mr. Abrams:  We will be moving aid to the border of Venezuela in the hope that -- and there is some aid there now -- in the hope that we will be able to get it in.  I don't think that we or the Colombians or the Brazilians or anyone else is planning to try to force it in.  It's an extraordinary situation, if you think about it.  You've seen the statistics about hunger, about the closure of hospitals, about the spread of communicable diseases that had been eradicated, because now there cannot be vaccinations.  There are dire needs, and I think many people, again, in the Venezuelan army feel those needs for themselves and their families.  So we're hopeful that that at least initial decision on the part of Maduro can be turned around, if he sees a real demand on the part of the people of Venezuela.  Let it in.  That's all we're asking.  Let. It. In.

Mr. Palladino:  Let's go to Voice of America.  Nike, please.

Question:  How about the sanctions [inaudible] that the U.S. special rapporteur says that sanctions [inaudible] --

Question:  Thank you.  Sir, you just mentioned the visa restriction.  And do you -- is there any discussion on any sanction regarding the regimes or governments that continue to support and help Maduro regime and sabotaging the democratic -- democratic transition?  Separately, there is a perception in China and in other countries that U.S. is interfering in domestic politics.  What's your response to those criticism?  Thank you.

Mr. Abrams:  Well, there has been interference in the domestic politics of Venezuela for a long time, primarily by Cuba, which has a very large presence in Venezuela.  If you look around at the -- the now nearly 50 democracies that are supporting Interim-President Guaido and the National Assembly, it's hard really to say that all of those countries are engaged in some kind of joint effort to interfere.  What we're trying to do is help Venezuelans create a system where, if you will, they can interfere in their own internal affairs, where their politics is in the hands of the Venezuelan people, where the future of their country can be determined by -- in a free election by the people of Venezuela.

Question:  How about sanction against governments like support --

Mr. Abrams:  Well, the sanctions that -- that exist now, that...have been enacted, are not secondary sanctions; they're primary sanctions.  We will continue to speak to governments around the world, urging them to get on the right side of this issue, which is the side of supporting the people of -- of Venezuela and leading toward a transition and a free election there.  We will keep pushing.

Question:  [Inaudible] the U.S. [inaudible] interfering in any way?

Mr. Palladino: Let's go to CBS, Christina Ruffini.

Question:  Thank you.  Mr. Abrams, I spoke with Ambassadors [Story] and Vecchio this morning, and I asked them about this 30-day deadline.  You know, in the constitution he was able to take power, but it says only for 30 days.  And they're confident with the situation on the ground as it is that the public and the constitution gives them time to fix this.  But I'm wondering if there's any kind of concern -- as we pass that 30-day mark and the clock starts to tick down -- if the Guaido government can't take control, if they start to lose momentum, that we could see this fall apart.

Mr. Abrams:  Well, I don't think so.  First, I don't think they're going to lose momentum; they seem to be gaining momentum, as more and more countries join this struggle to support the people of Venezuela.  If it is true that at the end of 30 days it has not been possible to have -- to begin a transition to a free election and an elected, democratic government, the fall will be that of the regime, so I doubt that it will have any repercussions on the National Assembly and Mr. Guaido.

Question:  But don't you think that if there are two presidents of Venezuela, neither of whom --

Mr. Abrams:  There is only one president of Venezuela, and there is a former president of Venezuela.

Mr. Palladino:  All right.  Last question, Michel, please.

Question:  An update on the U.S. diplomats in Venezuela, their security, their protection, and the U.S. presence in -- in general?

Mr. Abrams:  As you've heard the Secretary say many times -- that there's no greater priority for him, for the Department [of State], than the safety of our officials on the ground around the world.  That remains a concern.  It gets a lot of attention here.  And we are -- I would just say we are working on that, and I would not like to say much more about it because it's -- it's important to us.

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

1 English Translation of Declaration of Interim Presidency, 23 January 2019: "Let's raise our right hand. Today, January 23rd of 2019, as president of our National Assembly, invoking articles [333 and 350] of our Constitution from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, with all our actions based in our Constitution, before God Almighty, with all respect to all representative members of our united movement: I hereby swear to formally assume the powers of the Executive branch as the [acting] President in charge of Venezuela -- to accomplish the end of the usurpation [by Nicolás Maduro]; to form a transitional government and call for free elections...." [Source audio for translation above: various, compiled] [Source Translation: G.E., M.E.]

2 Declaration of Interim Presidency in Spanish (orig), 23 January 2019: Levantamos la mano derecha. Hoy, 23 de Enero de 2019, en mi condición de presidente de la Asamblea Nacional, invocando los artículos [333 y 350] [de] la Constitución, Bolivariana de la República de Venezuela, toda nuestra actuación basado en nuestra constitución, ante Dios todopoderoso, Venezuela, el respeto a mis colegas diputados y miembros de la unidad: Juro asumir formalmente las competencias del Ejecutivo nacional como el Presidente encargado de Venezuela -- para lograr el cese de la usurpación [de Nicolás Maduro], un gobierno de transición y tener elecciones libres. Si así lo hiciere que Dios y la Patria lo premien, si no, que os condenen].

3 "Today, I am announcing that the United States is ready to provide more than $20 million in humanitarian assistance to the people of Venezuela. These funds are to help them cope with the severe food and medicine shortages and other dire impacts of their country's political and economic crisis. Our announcement of aid is in response to a request from the National Assembly, led by the interim president." [Source (Updated 1/30/21): https://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mikepompeooasvenezuela.htm/]

Original Text Source: State.gov

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