Fifth State Department Briefing on Venezuela
delivered 12 March 2019, Washington, D.C.
Mr. Abrams: Thank you. Happy to be here for my daily briefing. [feigned despondence]
Question: You are becoming quite a fixture up there.
Question: Youíre setting a good example.
Mr. Abrams: Oh.
Question: There may be an opening for a spokesman.
Mr. Abrams: I wouldnít touch that with a 20-foot pole.
On January 23rd and January 24th, we announced and began a process of bringing back to the United States the great majority of Americans who work at the U.S. embassy in Caracas. The decision announced yesterday is, in a sense, a follow-on to that initial decision and is the product of the same considerations for the conditions in Caracas, which make it so difficult to continue keeping the embassy staffed there, and for the general situation in Caracas.
If you think back, itís only six weeks ago, but the situation in Caracas has deteriorated very considerably in that period and especially in the last few days since the blackouts began on Friday. So the Secretary made that decision.
You may have seen the interviews he did this morning. Iíll just read one paragraph: We made the decision yesterday that it just was prudent to get these folks back. The situation there is deteriorating. The Maduro regimeís horrific leadership over the last year[s] has just made life there so difficult, it began to make it more difficult for the United States to take the actions that it needed to do to support the Venezuelan people. So we concluded this was simply the right step to take,Ē and it ďwas the right time to take it.Ē1
I should say that this does not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela nor does it represent any reduction in the commitment we have to the people of Venezuela and to their struggle for democracy. You will see very soon a significant number of additional visa revocations. You will see in the coming days some very significant additional sanctions and the international group, of which we are a part -- that includes most EU countries, the Lima Group, Canada, the U.S. -- continues to do its work.
Why donít I stop there and weíll take some questions.
Mr. Palladino: Weíll start with Associated Press.
Question: Thanks. Iím curious to know what the Secretary meant by saying
that the presence of -- continued presence of any American diplomats in
Caracas was a constraint on policy. He didnít quite explain. What
exactly did their presence constrain, number one?
Mr. Abrams: Generators require fuel, the embassy requires water.
Mr. Abrams: The embassyís own situation also had a -- letís say a finite number of days.
Question: Okay. All right. So can
you explain what exactly the constraint was on -- what kinds of policies
were being constrained by the presence --
Question: Especially because yesterday, the Secretary said that -- when he was asked about support for -- U.S. support for Juan Guaido, said that as long as our team is on the ground in Caracas, youíd continue to provide the same kinds of support that you do. Well, now thatís gone or very soon will be gone, so I donít understand how these -- those mesh.
Mr. Abrams: Well, we will -- we will -- obviously it makes it more difficult to meet with all Venezuelans when the -- we -- when the team is not on the ground. Iím kind of reluctant to sort of try to parse the Secretaryís words, but let me just say that in every decision we made -- every decision, decisions on diplomatic activities, on visas, on sanctions -- the safety of that staff was a key consideration. And that was something that weighed very heavily on our mind every day, literally every day. So I think thatís -- I think that was what the Secretary was referring to, and Iíll just leave it at that.
Question: Okay, but when you said it doesnít reflect a change in policy
Question: -- it means that it was not intended to be some kind of hint or harbinger of military intervention or some kind of use of force?
Mr. Abrams: Nothing has changed. We continue to say, because it is true, all options are on the table.
Mr. Abrams: But they did not change yesterday.
Mr. Palladino: There we go. Letís go Michelle, CNN.
Question: So just hours before this statement came out from the Secretary we heard from the Secretary on Venezuela and he made no mention of the need to get people out. In fact, he really didnít talk about U.S. people at the embassy there. So what changed between the time we spoke to him and close to midnight when he put this out?
Mr. Abrams: He made his final decision. We have been talking about this literally -- literally -- every day. Iíve only been here six weeks, but that was right after the decision to move most of the people from the embassy back to the United States. We have had daily phone calls, daily meetings about this question, been before the Secretary, and he made his decision.
Question: And then that line that Matt mentioned, ďconstraint on U.S. policyĒ -- that reads like a threat. I mean, itís obviously curious. So should Maduro see that line as a threat?
Mr. Abrams: I can only repeat what the President has said: All options are always on the table.
Mr. Palladino: Letís go to AFP.
Question: Yes. Just to -- thank you. Just to follow on on this constraint thing, is there a link between the decision of withdrawing all the diplomats and some actions you might want to take to make sure the aid, which is at the border, come inside Venezuela?
Mr. Abrams: No.
Mr. Palladino: Reuters.
Question: Hello, Mr. Abrams. Two questions. One is: Who do you leave the embassy to? Do you appoint a protective power? What happens to the embassy, how do you ensure, number one.
Mr. Abrams: Right.
Question: Number two: We understand that the decision was made because the talks with the Venezuelans collapsed late yesterday and that that -- this is according to the Venezuelans -- thatís what led to this. Did you -- did the U.S. get any kind of direct threat from Maduroís government that something was going to happen?
Mr. Abrams: On the first part, normally we would get a protecting power, and that is, I think, what weíll do here, and we are in discussions now about that. What will happen to the embassy grounds, the embassy physically, letís say, is something that we then discuss with the protecting power, with potential protecting powers. So we donít have a final answer on that, and when we do weíll announce it. On the regime, you know on --
Question: Are you in discussions with other countries to -- as to who will be the protecting power?
Mr. Abrams: Yes. We are in discussions.
Question: But it hasnít been decided who?
Mr. Abrams: Right. About -- we are trying to decide on a protecting power. January 23rd, the Secretary said the United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela.
Accordingly, the United States does not consider former President Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata. So from our point of view, the regime cannot make a decision about whether we stay or go. And as a matter of fact, the National Assembly yesterday said we have the legal authority to stay, and they are the legitimate government of Venezuela. But the regime also cannot, in our view, provide security for the embassy, and the situation in Caracas is deteriorating. So our decision was made really fundamentally without regard to what the regime wants or thinks.
Mr. Palladino: Letís go with Los Angeles Times.
Question: Thank you. Just to follow on Lesley, so there were talks going on between the Venezuelans and you guys about creating an interest section or something like that and then the Venezuelans gave you 72 hours to leave. Is that not true?
Mr. Abrams: No, we have had -- as you know, weíve talked about this before. I have -- I had a couple of meetings with the de facto regime Foreign Minister Arreaza. And those meetings were essentially about exactly this. So this subject has been out there for a long time. But we made a decision at one point, and you talked about it here -- Iíve certainly talked about it in public -- that an interest section was really not appropriate. You do an interest section where there is no government that you consider legitimate. There is a legitimate government in Venezuela, from our point of view. Maybe that would have satisfied some demands of the regime, but it was not something that the Untied States was going to do. So that really was off the table.
Question: And 72 hours? The deadline?
Mr. Abrams: Well, as I said, we do not believe the regime, on the one hand, has the ability to tell us when to leave, on the other hand, doesnít have the ability to protect us if we stay.
Mr. Palladino: Letís go to Washington Post.
Question: Mr. Abrams, the Maduro governmentís attorney general announced that Juan Guaido is going to be investigated for -- on suspicion of sabotage in the blackout. Does the departure of the U.S. diplomats put him in a weaker position at all, at a time when he would seem to be under greater threat?
Mr. Abrams: First, weíve seen that as well, and itís a threat against Interim President Guaido. They have made such threats before. Theyíve talked about going after him on one basis or another, and we also know that the supreme court, the TSJ, has essentially been packed by the regime. So thatís a -- that report is of real concern. I donít think the regime is going to base its decision on that, on our presence or absence, any more than it made the decision on whether to arrest him upon his return on the basis of whether we were there or not there. I think itís largely a matter of how they think the public, the Venezuelan public, will react.
Question: You have any warnings to the government or any message to them?
Mr. Abrams: We have --
Question: Should they be contemplating arresting him on this?
Mr. Abrams: I think -- I hope theyíre aware of the fact that there are 54 countries, some important countries, that consider Juan Guaido to be the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. And I think not only we but the other 53 will react immediately. There are a number of diplomatic and financial and economic steps that governments can take. Weíve taken many of them; other countries havenít. I would think that the arrest, incarceration of Juan Guaido would lead a lot of countries to react very quickly.
Mr. Palladino: Letís go to EFE.
Question: Thank you. I want to ask you a question about the possible scenario of the Maduro government collapses. The Spainís foreign minister today said that the U.S. asked Spain to receive Venezuelan ministers loyal to Maduro in case the Venezuelan Government collapses. So I wanted to ask you if the U.S. has actually made this petition to Spain, and what were the terms in which these petitions were made?
Mr. Abrams: This is an old discussion. When I was assistant secretary of state for Latin America, and there were a lot of military regimes, the question of what to do with dictators arose, and it was actually Felipe Gonzalez, who was prime minister at the time, who said maybe Spain can help by taking some of these people. Weíve had some conversations with Spain. I wouldnít say we made a request, they made an answer. We have certainly had conversations. Weíve had them with a couple of other places too, because this question may arise, and we have talked about off-ramps and we have talked about wanting some of the regime officials to leave the country as part of a transition.
So the question therefore obviously arises: well, where would they go? And they may prefer to go to Cuba or Russia, but there are other places, and so that is a conversation weíll continue to have. Unfortunately, none of the people at the top of the regime have yet made that decision, the decision that they should make. And as weíve said before, we are willing to help them out in those circumstances.
Question: Can I ask a follow-up of -- on that? You mentioned that theyíre -- the U.S. Government with Spain and a couple other places. Which ones are these other --
Mr. Abrams: Iím not going to say, because it has not been as public as it has in the case of Spain.
Question: Thank you.
Mr. Palladino: Letís go to Washington Times.
Question: Thanks for coming out to talk with us. Big picture question regarding all the -- all of the options on the table. Can you discuss the military option for a minute? And specifically, has the administration asked the Pentagon to draw up such an option? And assuming that it has, are you satisfied with the option that the Pentagon has, which is headed by an interim defense secretary, provided at this point?
Question: Heís a legitimate interim defense secretary.
Mr. Abrams: The President has said all options are the table. They are. Further than that it would be foolish for me to go, and Iím not going to do it.
Mr. Palladino: Bloomberg.
Question: Mr. Abrams, can you talk a little bit more about the finite resources that the embassy is facing? I mean, it seems to be a suggestion that theyíre running out of fuel and water. What were the constraints on the embassy?
Mr. Abrams: Itís a difficult situation for the embassy. Itís a difficult situation for Venezuelans, of course, far more. I donít believe the embassy is at this point connected to any water system. So thereís a question of how would you get fresh water. Obviously, there are continuing blackouts on and off. So the question then is: How are your generators working, and do you have enough fuel? Thereís also a question of communications. If thereís no electricity, there are no communications, which obviously speaks immediately to the safety of our people.
So the deterioration of the general situation in Caracas doesnít affect the embassy exactly as it effects Venezuelans, but it does affect the embassy.
Question: But were you -- was there any concern that there was some new or imminent security threat that the embassy might be overrun, that the Maduro regime was unable or unwilling to provide or to guarantee security?
Mr. Abrams: We do not think that the regime is really able to provide security, and I would note that in his most recent public statement, former President Maduro spoke about calling upon the colectivos to come forward. Now, that -- thatís calling for armed gangs to take over the streets, and it is obviously going to be a great worry to Venezuelans, but we noted it.
Question: Iím sorry, was that part of the -- was that the deciding factor?
Mr. Abrams: That -- actually, that statement by Maduro came today. So it was not part of the decision. But the background was -- and as you know, theyíve been using colectivos more in Caracas, along the borders. Perhaps it is a sign of Maduroís lack of confidence in his own security forces. But it is by definition a breakdown of law and order.
Mr. Palladino: Letís go Wall Street Journal.
Question: Thank you. You said that the decision to remove embassy personnel doesnít represent a policy change by the United States, but you have acknowledged that it would make it more difficult to meet with Venezuelans, both the Maduro regime and the Guaido government. So functionally, how is the U.S. going to proceed without an embassy staff on the ground? Are you just -- are you going to remove them to nearby countries? Are they coming back to the States? What is the plan?
Mr. Abrams: Who to nearby countries? The Americans?
Mr. Abrams: The Americans will come back here to Washington, which is what the much larger group of Americans from the embassy in January did. I am very -- I am one of the beneficiaries of this, because my team is made up in great part of people from Embassy Caracas, and the WHA team on Venezuela was also greatly enriched by their presence. Now, obviously people in the summer will go on to whatever forward assignments they had.
We will -- as I said, itíll be harder, because weíre not going to be able to do the face-to-face meetings we were doing. Admittedly, we were not able to do a lot of face-to-face meetings because the embassy staff had become quite small. But it wasnít -- so it will be something that weíre going to have to try to accomplish outside of Venezuela or by telephone or by emails and other forms of communication.
Question: And are you able to give us even just rough estimates of the number of people weíre talking about?
Mr. Abrams: No, we -- Iím told we just -- by the Diplomatic Security people we just donít do that.
Mr. Palladino: Letís go to Fox.
Question: At the top you said that significant sanctions would be coming in the coming days. Can you elaborate a little bit on that? Are they targeting financial institutions or country-specific? The Secretary said yesterday a handful of nations are providing aid and comfort to the Maduro regime.
Mr. Abrams: Well, we did, you know, Friday sanction a Russian-Venezuelan bank, one that was basically 50/50 owned by Russian and Venezuelan state institutions. There will be more sanctions of financial institutions -- I think I would leave it at that -- and more visa revocations coming very soon.
Question: Like today?
Mr. Abrams: Possible. Possible.
Question: How about Turkey?
Mr. Palladino: No, no Turkey. Voice of America, please.
Question: Well, Turkey and Venezuela is actually a thing.
Mr. Palladino: Turkey and Venezuela. Okay.
Question: Yes, thatís what I -- thatís what I mean.
Mr. Palladino: Go ahead, Laurie. Okay, go ahead.
Question: Thank you. To follow up on this question, Turkeyís support for -- is prominent among those countries supporting the Maduro regime, including through the gold trade. What -- do you have a comment on that and are you considering the possibility of secondary sanctions?
Mr. Abrams: Well, those are two different questions. We -- Turkeyís support for the Maduro regime obviously is completely contrary to U.S. policy and very unhelpful, and we will continue to take a look at the ways in which that support takes place, and in the context of sanctions by Treasury. Maybe I should leave it at that.
Mr. Palladino: Okay, fair enough. Voice of America.
Question: Thank you. So a follow-up on Nickís question. Is yesterdayís sanction against the bank based in Russia a secondary sanction? And is it the beginning of more sanctions against foreign financial institutions? Thatís number one, and number two: Can you please give us a sense if there is any diplomatic effort to bring China on board? Thank you.
Mr. Abrams: The bank -- the sanctions of Friday on the Russian-Venezuelan bank were not secondary sanctions. We have not done any secondary sanctions. The -- we will continue to make efforts to bring China aboard. We have told -- in various places have told the Chinese that we think if their concern is in essence getting their money back, theyíll never get it back from the bankrupt Maduro regime and from a basically destroyed Venezuelan economy. As the Secretary explained yesterday, the only way theyíll get it back is when Venezuela returns to prosperity, which it wonít do under Nicolas Maduro. Obviously they havenít changed their policy yet, but we will continue to talk about that.
Question: Will they be subject to potential sanction?
Mr. Abrams: Well, we have not done secondary sanctions. Thatís always one of the options on the table.
Mr. Palladino: Last one. Letís -- someone new. [Off-mike.]
Question: NTN24, Emiliana Molina, Mr. Abrams. So removing U.S. diplomats and bringing them back to D.C., is this perhaps a show of lack of confidence from the U.S. in Juan Guaidoís government to restore democracy, and what does this mean for his government? Some experts are saying that this looks bad for Guaido.
Mr. Abrams: It certainly is not a display of any lack of confidence in him. The fact is that today the regime has the guns. The National Assembly and Interim President Guaido are trying, through exclusively peaceful means, to bring democracy back to Venezuela, and that is obviously something we and dozens of other countries support. It is a reflection of the deterioration that we see on the ground in Venezuela, and it is in essence a follow-up to the major part of the decision, which was made on January 24th, to take most of the embassy staff. Itís -- we left a few people there, not many, but itís really the same logic. Our support for Interim President Guaido is absolutely undiminished, and I think, more importantly, the support of the Venezuelan people for him is undiminished.
Mr. Palladino: Perfect. All right.
Mr. Abrams: Okay.
Mr. Palladino: Mr. Abrams, thank you very much.
Question: Thank you.
Mr. Abrams: Thank you. Should I say see you tomorrow?
1 Reference: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (12 March 2019]. Interview With Jimmy Barrett and Shara Fryer of KTRH Houston's Morning News [Source: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/03/290279.htm]
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