Third State Department Briefing on Venezuela
delivered 5 March 2019, Washington, D.C.
Thank you. Thank you all for being here. I should begin by saying we welcome very much the return to Venezuela yesterday of Interim President Juan Guaido -- safely. And as you know, that was a concern of the international community. Interesting to note what he has done today on his first day back, which is to meet with labor leaders from a variety of unions, mostly public employee unions, talking to them about their role today, while the Maduro regime is still there, and in the future when there is a democratic Venezuela.
U.S. policy is unchanged. It is to support democracy in Venezuela, to support the National Assembly, which is the only democratically elected part of the government, and to support the interim president, who was the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido. We are placing significant pressure, along with other members of the international community, on the Maduro regime. As you know, there are 54 countries that recognize Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela.
Our pressure is put on in numerous ways: economic pressure, such as the sanctioning of PDVSA, the oil company; the pressure weíve put on members of the regime through sanctions on named individuals -- that comes from Treasury, and that will no doubt continue; the revocation of visas. I announced last week the revocation of 59 for -- that is to say for Venezuelans who have visas for the United States and whose visas have been canceled. There will be more of those, so stay tuned for further announcements of visa cancellations and revocations.
We are urging all Venezuelans to support Interim President Guaido and the return of Venezuela to democracy. We are particularly supporting his outreach to members of the military and members of the Chavista party. The military will have an important role in the future of Venezuela. We have seen the regime, for example, on the Colombian border on February 23rd use gangs, armed gangs, colectivos, in place of the military. There will be no stability and rule of law in Venezuela in the future if armed gangs replace the military as an institution. That is something that we are arguing to the Venezuelan military. Itís time for them to stand up for the Venezuelan constitution, for the rule of law, and against these kinds of armed gangs that are being built and promoted and expanded by the Maduro regime.
And as to the outreach to Chavistas, our position is that all political parties have a role to play in the future of Venezuela in a democratic election. And the people of Venezuela will decide how much power to allocate to each of those parties. But they all have a role to play, and in saying that we are merely echoing what the National Assembly and Juan Guaido have said.
Thatís enough of an intro, so Iíd be happy to take questions now.
Moderator: All right. Thank you very much. Let me just remind folks of FPC house rules. Please wait for a microphone. Please identify yourself by name and outlet. And then please, one question only. We have a lot of people in the room who are going to want to ask questions. So let me start with Luis.
Question: Hi. Thank you. Iím Luis Alonso with the AP. Mr. Abrams, I would like to ask you about a potential scenario where Maduro runs as a candidate for president in new elections. Is the U.S. open to that scenario, or itís a complete no? Thank you.
Mr. Abrams: It would be a gift in a way, because according to the most recent polls Iíve seen, heís at about 10 or 15 percent support. Thatís ultimately a decision for Venezuelans to make, but itís very hard, I would say, for me to see how a dictator such as Maduro, who has committed so many crimes against the people of Venezuela, who is so deeply responsible for the human rights violations, for the decline in Venezuelaís economic situation, can really have a role to play in the building of a democratic Venezuela. If he wanted to build a democratic Venezuela, he had the opportunity to do so, but he did not.
So weíll -- we will leave such decisions to Venezuelans. In every democratic transition in Latin America, there are negotiations, but I would just say itís extremely difficult to see how he could play a positive role in a democratic election. He certainly didnít in May of last year.
Moderator: Let me take one more here and then Iíll go to New York. Sir, Iíll take you.
Question: Thank you. Thank you very much, sir. Emiliano Bos from the Swiss public radio. Vice President Pence said that any threats, violence, or intimidation against Mr. Guaido will not be tolerated and will be met with swift response. Can you confirm or deny if the U.S. has already some plans ready in case of this swift response is needed, and if thereís any plan already prepared for using military force? Thank you.
Mr. Abrams: Well, we have lots of plans. We have lots of steps that we can take that will affect, for example, the economy, the financial system; that will affect members of the regime -- steps along the lines that we have taken in the past, but tougher. And we discuss them internally and they are -- theyíre ready if we need to use them against the regime. Nobodyís talking about American military steps except the regime and the Russians, actually. Iíve made it clear repeatedly our policy is as I just stated: diplomatic, political, economic, financial pressure moving toward a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela. Thatís what we want. Thatís what our policy is determined to achieve. The President always says all options are on the table because all options always are on the table, and thatís true in this case as well, but that is not the path that we choose to go down.
Moderator: Thank you. Weíll go to New York, please.
Question: Hi, thanks so much. Can you hear me?
Question: Yeah, itís James Reinl with Middle East Eye. Thanks so much for the briefing. Earlier on in the crisis, Mike Pompeo referred to Hezbollah activity in Venezuela, and of course there is a long history, a track record of Hezbollah activity over there. Itís been documented in U.S. court cases and the Treasury, for example. But is there anything that youíve seen in the past few weeks in Venezuela that indicates Hezbollah is in -- is active in some way in Venezuela, perhaps with training of colectivos or financial transactions that show that the group is in some way trying to maintain the Maduro regime?
Mr. Abrams: Well, I cannot get into intelligence reporting, and I canít even say whether it exists or doesnít exist. But there are a lot of very bad actors in Venezuela. There are people from Hezbollah. There are also ELN and FARC guerillas near the Colombian border, in addition to there being many, many thousands of Cuban security people. So there are a lot of people who qualify for either the term -- the general term bad actor, or the term terrorist. But further than that, I donít really want to go here.
Moderator: Okay, Iím going to take here and here, please, so sir, you go first.
Question: Thank you. Jafar Jafari with Al Mayadeen Network. You already answered part of my question that I was going to ask you, and that is --
Mr. Abrams: Okay, next.
Question: And that is the U.S. has always kept its options open, and itís been debated that includes the military option. Now, will that military option be used in Venezuela via Special Ops, and will Turkey be asked to join the special operations in Venezuela?
Mr. Abrams: Iím not going to go further than saying that, as the President has repeatedly said, all options are on the table. To go further than that is to engage in speculation about hypotheticals, and Iím not going to do it.
Moderator: Weíll go to EFE here and then weíll go to New York.
Question: Hi, thank you. Beatriz Pascual with EFE. I wanted to ask you -- you mentioned economic pressure. I was wondering when the representatives of Juan Guaido will have access to Citgo assets.
Mr. Abrams: To?
Question: To Citgo.
Mr. Abrams: Citgo.
Question: Thank you.
Mr. Abrams: Interim President Guaido has appointed a new board for Citgo, and itís kind of a rolling decision-making process as they get -- when they get access to various accounts. For example, there are Venezuelan Government accounts in the U.S., which we will give them control over. There are other international accounts. There are Citgo accounts.
In some cases -- and the question of Citgo and PDVSA is going to keep thousands of lawyers happily employed for months. So I donít -- Iím really not able to get into the details of when will they decide or when will the board decide that this asset is PDVSA, this asset is Citgo, this asset can be given to new control now. Itís complicated, but the process is moving forward.
Moderator: Weíll go to New York, and then weíll take a couple back here.
Question: Paolo Mastrolilli with the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa. Thank you very much for the briefing. Two questions. The first is about Italy is one of the few European countries that have not yet recognized Guaido even though there is a huge Italian community in Venezuela. What is your message to the Italian Government?
The second is about the Holy See, which has not recognized Guaido as well. What role can the Vatican play in order to favor a democratic transition in the country?
Mr. Abrams: Well, weíre disappointed that Italy has not joined -- I think itís 24 of the 28 EU countries in recognizing Juan Guaido as the interim president, and we hope that the continuing argument in Italy, the continuing discussions in Italy, will lead at some point to what we would view as a better decision joining so many of Italyís partners in Europe. We think thatís the right decision to make.
The Vatican is in a slightly different situation. It has different interests in Venezuela. It has a different role, of course, in Venezuela and elsewhere. We have had some contacts with the Vatican, and perhaps over time they will have a larger role to play.
Moderator: Weíre going to take one right here and then in the back.
Question: Hi. Carolina from NTN 24. You have repeatedly said about the sanctions against the people and the government of Maduro, but I was willing to know if you are thinking, the U.S. Government, of sanctioning individuals, companies, or other governments that will engage in business with companies dependent on the Maduroís regime or government.
Mr. Abrams: Well, we havenít done that yet -- secondary sanctions. Itís clearly a possibility. It would depend on the conduct of the regime over time. It would depend on the conduct of those entities, many of which I would say are backing away a bit from the Maduro regime. But thatís a decision that we have not yet made. Itís always a possibility, but weíre not there yet.
Moderator: Sir, in the back, you might need to step away from your camera so we donít get feedback off your mike.
Question: Thank you. Jorge Agobian from Voice of America. The first question that I have is there are people who are questionating about the impact that the sanction has -- have on the people of Venezuela. How are you exploring if these sanctions are impacting on the people? And the other question is if -- are you planning to have another way to get the humanitarian aid into the country?
Mr. Abrams: Iíve heard the argument before that the sanctions are having a big humanitarian impact. I donít think it makes sense. Look at the condition of this economy in Venezuela. Last year they had a million percent inflation. This is before we did anything, for example, on PDVSA. A million percent inflation. It has been estimated by some people at the IMF that it will be 10 million percent this year, which is to say the currency is worth nothing.
This regime has a long record now of destroying the economy of Venezuela. How? Through mismanagement, through vast corruption, through theft of the assets that belong to the Venezuelan people. We have found in various places over the last few years gigantic accounts of regime insiders who have stolen large amounts of money. None of this has anything to do with American sanctions. This has been going on for a very long time. And as for the new sanctions, well, they -- not only have they just been put in place, but in some cases we gave people a 90 or a 180-day grace periods to adjust. So in some cases, they havenít even been put in place.
At the same time, of course, we are trying to affect the regime, not the people of Venezuela, which is why we have spent a couple of hundred million dollars on, first of all, aid to Venezuelans who have had to flee their country and who are outside in Colombia and elsewhere. And we have staged humanitarian aid on the borders and continue to do that, by the way. That process is not over. We are still having these flights, mostly staging at Cucuta but also in other places, in an effort to get aid in to the people of Venezuela.
We -- the PDVSA sanctions, for example -- PDVSA was getting no cash from Russia and China for its oil. It was shipping oil and it was payment for debts that existed. The cash was coming from the United States, and that cash has now been cut off -- now, in February.
So think for a minute. What was the condition of the economy in February? What was the condition of the economy last year? All of these things preceded. They are the product of the corruption and inefficiency and mismanagement of this regime, not of American sanctions.
Moderator: Letís take New York, please.
Question: Hi. My name is Ibtisam Azem from the daily Arabic Alaraby Aljadeed newspaper. I have a couple of questions. The first one, to which extent you are concerned that the course you took against the Maduro regime is not harvesting the results you wanted, given the fact that not so many military personnel defected or went against the Maduro regime? Also the number of countries that acts like -- accepted -- declared their -- that they accept Guaido are only 54 countries, given the fact that more than 130 countries are still on the side of the Maduro?
And the second question regarding the foreign minister of the Maduro government. He was in New York. He gave a diverse -- more than one press conference and talked about the fact that he has contacts to the U.S. Government. Can you put us more on this issue in the picture and say more about it? Thank you so much.
Mr. Abrams: Sure. If you think of the situation in Venezuela, let us say last year and compare it to now. Just think about that for a minute. Last year you have a divided opposition which really doesnít have a leader and a way forward. Now, three months later, you have 54 countries, many of them in Europe, in Latin America, Canada, and the United States, acknowledging as the legitimate leader the Interim President Juan Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, and you have the entire opposition united behind him. Thatís an amazing change in just a few months.
I think it saw -- I would say the -- first, the policy of the Venezuelans to move from being in opposition to having an interim president who is the leader of the National Assembly is a very important change. Their unity is a very important change. The support of so many countries around the world for that movement, for the National Assembly and Guaido, is a very important change.
Now, in terms of military defectors, there are hundreds of defectors, except I wouldnít used that word. If you are a military officer and you decide, ďI am finished with this illegitimate and corrupt regime. I want to support the constitution and the National Assembly and Guaido,Ē you are not a defector. You are a loyal Venezuelan; you are a patriot.
My experience with regimes, not only in Latin America but really all around the world, is we donít have much skill at predicting when theyíre going to fall. I remember the -- Tunisia, Egypt, Russia, 1991 -- I donít remember people saying, ďBy the way, Iíll give you the date. Itís three weeks; theyíre finished.Ē These regimes all look very stable until the day that they fall, which is very often a considerable surprise. So Iím not concerned about that at all. I think that the change in the last few months in the situation in Venezuela, the internal political situation, is remarkable.
About Arreaza: After the first Security Council meeting, which was I think January 25th, I met immediately with the representatives of Interim President Guaido. There was then a meeting with Arreaza. We have met twice. Why? Well, as Iíve explained before, we have an embassy in Caracas, so we have had discussions about the conditions under which that embassy exists and is able to continue to do its work. We have lots of -- the number is really unclear because we have no way of tracking it, but we have certainly thousands and thousands of American citizens in Venezuela. We have prisoners in -- 12, I think -- in Venezuelan jails. So -- and we have the embassy staff itself, so we have reason to be concerned about all of that, and that is what we talked about.
Moderator: We have time for one more. This gentlemanís been waiting.
Question: Thank you very much. My nameís Alex Raufoglu, from TURAN News Agency. Ambassador, 54 is an incredible number, but when you look at the broader picture, there are 130 other countries. How would you characterize them? Are they like Maduro supporters or do they remain impartial? Do we only reach out to Maduroís adversaries or his friends too? And my particular question is about South Caucasian countries Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Ambassador Bolton recently spoke with all three countriesí leaders, and only appreciated the Georgian president for supporting Maduroís opponents. Do you have anything about Azerbaijan and Armenia? Are they flirting with Maduroís? Thank you very much.
Mr. Abrams: My impression is that there are just very few countries that you could say support Maduro. Russia, China, although they are not in exactly the same situation, but they did vote together against the U.S. resolution in the Security Council. Cuba, clearly, which has lived off Venezuela. Itís really quite striking if you think about it. Venezuelans are suffering enormously from the lack of food and medicine, and giving hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day freely to Cuba and Nicaragua, which is to say there is no democracy supporting Maduro.
The other countries I would characterize really as having different reasons for not taking a position. Some are worried about debts that they owe to the regime. Some are worried about their citizens in Venezuela and concerned that the government there might -- not the government, the regime -- might turn against them or that if their embassy were closed, they wouldnít be able to provide consular services. I donít think any of it represents any particular enthusiasm for or endorsement of the Maduro regime.
Moderator: Can I ask you to take one more?
Mr. Abrams: Sure.
Moderator: Letís take AFP right here, please.
Moderator: Wait for a mic, please.
Question: Thanks. Ariela Navarro from AFP. Is the U.S. Government working for a TPS for Venezuelan citizens?
Mr. Abrams: There are a lot of Venezuelan citizens in the United States. We are aware of that. And whenever I go up to testify in Congress, the question is posed, particularly of course by people who represent Florida because thatís the place where the most Venezuelans are. All I can say -- we have no U.S. Government decision -- all I can say is weíre aware of the problem. We are consistently made aware of this issue by representatives and senators from Florida. So it is on the agenda, and itís something that we are going to deal with and make some decisions about in the near future, I would say.
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