Elliott Abrams

Sixth State Department Briefing on Venezuela

delivered 15 March 2019, State Department, Washington, D.C.

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


Mr. Abrams: Iím going to start taking attendance and see how much interest there is here.

A few things to start with. The diplomatic staff from Embassy Caracas arrived at Dulles Airport just after 11 oíclock last night, and they will be meeting the Secretary at 2:30 this afternoon. They will in essence continue their mission from other locations -- from the State Department for the most part -- to try to support the Venezuelan people as they struggle to return Venezuela to democracy.

Just a -- on consular services, I think weíve said this before, but some time ago -- actually a month ago -- we said that non-immigrant visas would be handled in Bogota; immigrant -- excuse me, immigrant visas would be handled in Bogota for Venezuelans; non-immigrant visas can be applied for wherever the individual is, at any embassy or consulate around the world.

Latest visa revocations: This week we have revoked 340 additional visas, and thatís a process that will continue.

In Venezuela, the diplomatic staff -- when we had a full staff and in the last month or so when weíve had a reduced staff -- have been immeasurably assisted by the locally employed staff, which has really been, as is true in so many embassies, vital to the effort to restore democracy to Venezuela and to support a transition to a democratic government under Interim President Guaido. And so just want to express our gratitude toward them. They will remain employed by the United States in Caracas.

Finally, I would like to congratulate Ricardo Hausmann, who is going to be the representative of Venezuela in the Inter-American Development Bank. The voting is not closed. The voting closes at around 6:30 p.m. today, I think, but enough votes have been cast so that we can say he will be elected. And this is part of the taking authority over foreign rolls and assets of Venezuela by the Guaido government. So we congratulate him and you should see an official statement I guess after the voting is closed.

Mr. Palladino: If thereís any questions --

Question: Yeah.

Mr. Palladino: -- he can take a few. All right, go ahead, Matt.

Question: Thanks. Iím just wondering if youíve made any progress or how close you are to getting an agreement with someone for -- to be your protecting power.

Mr. Abrams: Weíve made real progress. I donít have an announcement, but we have been working hard on this. Itís moving forward. Weíre happy about the direction itís going in, and thereís a lot of legal process to do, but this will happen soon. Iíll leave it at that.

Question: I mean, any kind of a ballpark, like today, tomorrow?

Mr. Abrams: Oh, no.

Question: Monday, Tuesday?

Mr. Abrams: A week or two.

Question: A week or two from now?

Mr. Abrams: From now, yeah.

Mr. Palladino: Go ahead.

Question: Good afternoon. The IDB has put out a statement already saying that Mr. Hausmann can begin as the representative there because enough -- there have been sufficient votes cast. What does this mean generally speaking for any kind of economic help for Venezuela? Venezuela is in arrears to the IDB anyway.

And then also, the IMF has delayed a decision by the board, their board, to discuss or -- a poll that would basically recognize Guaido, and as you know, the IMF is important as a seal of approval for other big institutions like the World Bank. But what does this overall mean to -- for lending or economic help?

Mr. Abrams: I think most -- the most important task that Professor Hausmann will be undertaking is to work with the IDB on the preparations for post-Maduro Venezuela. He has personally done a lot of work on this. We actually met yesterday. And there are -- thereís been really an enormous amount of work done over the last several years by Venezuelans and by others, and the IDB has clearly a leading role in the recuperation of the Venezuelan economy when we think of things like the electric sector, the energy sector, which are in bad shape. So he will now be in a position officially to represent Venezuela in those IDB preparations, and thatís a lot better than doing it from a university. Heíll be inside.

Mr. Palladino: Washington Post.

Question: There were reports coming this week from Maracaibo, if Iím pronouncing it correctly, the second-largest city -- sort of the Houston of Venezuela, I guess, that had a lot of ransacking and it sounded like a terrible situation. I was wondering if you have any sense of how close the economy is and the infrastructure is in Venezuela to a total collapse, and following that, the impact on Maduro.

Mr. Abrams: Our information is that the situation is considerably worse in Maracaibo than in Caracas in a number of ways. I have not seen lots of looting in Caracas, although the blackout and the diminution of social media mean that we may not be seeing everything thatís happening. But we have seen it in Maracaibo. Thereís been a lot that has been reported in social media and to us. Part of this I think is because the regime is directing its attention to Caracas. They seem to be taking the view that what happens outside of Caracas is not threatening to them. So, for example, power supply is better in Caracas than in Maracaibo or anywhere else, actually. So thatís a -- I think a political judgment on the part of the regime.

What is the impact of this situation on the longevity of the regime? Itís obviously going to shorten the life of the regime. Now, Iíve said before weíre not making predictions, and as we look back we see that, generally speaking, neither we nor anyone else has been very good at predicting when regimes fall. But this blackout has really intensified the difficulties in the country -- the difficulties of average families, the difficulties of government institutions -- and I think it demonstrates that the longer the regime stays, the worse the economic and social situation are going to be. So what Iím -- I canít give dates, but it seems to me itís obvious that more and more Venezuelans will be coming to the conclusion that there is no decent future for the country with Maduro in power.

Mr. Palladino: Said.

Question: Thank you. Two quick questions. To the best of your knowledge or your opinion, what is the cause of the blackout? What is the exact cause of the blackout?

And second, could you explain to us the article under which Mr. Guaido declared himself president? It is said that it has expired last month. Could you explain that to us? What is the --

Mr. Abrams: Yeah. Yes. On the blackout, weíre not there. I believe there is a consensus now that by far the most likely explanation is that these extremely high-voltage lines, which tend to bow as the months go and years go by -- that is, they are not straight; they tend to --

Question: Sag.

Mr. Abrams: -- sag is a good word -- into trees and bushes, and that creates the possibility of a fire. That is what more -- I would say more experts have given as the explanation. So how do you avoid that? Itís simple: You cut and prune and keep trees and bushes from approaching the lines, and they havenít done that. Thereís really been no maintenance, not just for years but for decades on those. They have three high voltage lines coming essential from Guri Dam. Thatís our best explanation. It is not formed, obviously, by examination but rather by reports that weíve seen from a fair number of experts.

As to the Venezuelan constitution, the National Assembly has passed a resolution that states that that 30-day period of interim presidency will not start ending or counting until the day Nicolas Maduro leaves power. So the 30 days doesnít start now, it starts after Maduro. And they -- thatís a resolution of the National Assembly.

Question: When did they -- they did that after he --

Mr. Abrams: They did that -- this is roughly a month ago. We could try to find the date for you.

Question: When he was -- when he was -- took the mantle of interim president, that wasnít there.

Mr. Abrams: Yes, when -- thatís correct. And so people --

Question: Can you do that ex post facto like that?

Mr. Abrams: When people ask a question how do --

Question: That seems to be like saying I was elected for four years to be president, and then two years in you change the rules so that your term didnít start -- hasnít even started yet. How does that happen?

Mr. Abrams: Well, you donít get a vote because youíre not in the National Assembly.

Question: Well, you donít. Youíre not in the National Assembly either.

Question: If it matters, does the U.S. view that as constitutional under their system?

Mr. Abrams: Yes. I mean, weíre taking the -- the National Assembly is the only legitimate democratic institution left in Venezuela, and their interpretation of the constitution, as you know, is that as of the date of this alleged term for Maduro, the presidency is vacant. But they have also said that that 30-day period starts when Maduro goes.

Question: So Juan Guaido is the interim president of an interim that doesnít exist yet?

Mr. Abrams: The 30-day end to his interim presidency starts counting. Because heís not in power, thatís the problem. Maduro is still there. So they have decided that they will count that from when he actually is in power and Maduroís gone. I think itís logical.

Question: So then he really isnít interim president, then?

Mr. Abrams: He is interim president, but heís not --

Question: With no power.

Mr. Abrams: -- able to exercise the powers of the office because Maduro still is there.

Question: So their interpretation is that until and unless he actually has the power to run the country, heís not actually the interim president?

Mr. Abrams: No. Their interpretation is that the constitution requires a 30-day interim period, but it -- those 30 days should not be counted while Maduro is still there exercising the powers of his former office.

Mr. Palladino: Letís go AFP.

Question: Have you engaged directly again with countries who still recognize Maduro as president? I think you said last week that you hadnít spoken with China yet. Have you had a chance to --

Mr. Abrams: The ambassador has, I believe, been out of town, so -- but we have spoken to China in Beijing, that is the ambassador has spoken to the Chinese Government about this.

Question: What -- is there something -- some progress on --

Mr. Abrams: Have they -- have we changed their position? Not yet. Not yet.

Mr. Palladino: Letís go to Janne.

Question: Thank you very much. It is reported that North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un willing to support Maduro regime. Any comment on that? Because it resembled Kimís regime and Maduro regimes. So any sense of this?

Mr. Abrams: Well, we have noted that among the 54 countries that support the people of Venezuela and Interim President Guaido are many of the most influential democracies in the world. We have really not been trying to get North Korea to support Juan Guaido. That has not been a mission of ours.

Mr. Palladino: Letís go to ABC.

Question: Two questions on the Americans that remain behind. When we were in Cucuta, you said that there are between 30[000] and 40,000 U.S. citizens. Some estimates put that as high as 50,000. Do you have an update on the number of American citizens you believe are still there? And American Airlines announced today that they are canceling commercial flights into Venezuela. As more airlines consider that and take that action, is the U.S. considering any sort of evacuations for citizens that remain behind?

Mr. Abrams: Well, first, weíve had a Travel Warning for quite a while, and the Travel Warning has been one of the strictest, saying to Americans ďdonít go.Ē Obviously, it makes it harder to leave when the largest commercial carrier is no longer serving the airport in Caracas. We are trying first to do the consular activities from the State Department, and we will have a protecting power.

As to the question of a major threat that would lead lots of Americans to want to leave, there -- there were always plans to help people leave in a situation of danger. We have those for lots of countries, and I think Iíll leave it at that.

Mr. Palladino: Please.

Question: Olivia Gazis with CBS News. Colombiaís president, Ivan Duque, said in a recent interview that he doesnít believe that military intervention by the United States is the right thing for Venezuela. How do you countenance that with the very real implicit and repeated threat that the United States has held out that all options remain on the table?

Mr. Abrams: Well, I donít think that --

Question: And very quickly, just a quick follow on that one: Have you identified a protecting power in Caracas for remaining staff? Because there -- I know there was discussion as to identifying one.

Mr. Abrams: Iím just going to leave that where it is on the protecting power; that is, we are in discussions. They are reasonably advanced, but theyíre not done yet, and it will take some more time.

I donít see a contradiction between what President Duque said and what we always say. We also believe that the military outcome is not the right outcome for the future of Venezuela, for the people of Venezuela. A peaceful democratic transition is the right outcome. Our policy is a peaceful transition to democracy. Our economic, financial, diplomatic, political pressure is designed to achieve that goal, or better put, to help the Venezuelan people recover their democracy. But there are lots of contingencies and dangers in the world, and therefore all options are on the table.

Mr. Palladino: Letís go in the back right there, please.

Question: Yeah. Francisco [inaudible] Spain. Do you know how many Americans you have still in Venezuela, a rough number? And then can you explain more the sentence that you said, that you have closed the embassy because the situation there has become a constraint for the U.S. policy? What do you mean for that?

Mr. Abrams: Well, we donít -- Iíd say first we donít ever know exactly how many Americans are in any country, because Americans are free to travel. We urge them to register -- particularly in a situation like Venezuela -- register with the embassy. For one thing, they can get onto an email program or a text program where they get warnings, where the embassy can send them messages instantly. But they donít have to do that. So weíre guessing, and the guesses are in the range of 30,000. As was said, there are higher ranges -- 35,000, 40,000, even higher than that. But we donít know the exact number because we have no way of knowing.

What was the other?

Question: Second one -- the situation has become a constraint for the U.S.

Mr. Abrams: Oh, I mean, we answered that already several days ago.

Mr. Palladino: Many times.

Question: Can you elaborate that?

Mr. Abrams: No.

Mr. Palladino: All right, great. Letís go CNN, Michelle.

Question: Thanks. The International Energy Agency is saying that it looks like the entire oil industry could collapse in Venezuela. Whatís your view of that possibility, and how do you see that affecting the situation on the ground, including for the humanitarian situation?

Mr. Abrams: Well, Iím not sure what ďcollapseĒ means there. There is certainly a steady drop in Venezuelan oil exports. Partly that reflects the blackout. But even if you take the blackout out of it, there is a very steady drop of maybe 50,000 barrels a month in production so that theyíre heading down toward a million now, and in a month or two theyíll be below a million. This is a country that used to export more than 3 million barrels a day.

Question: When do you think that -- where did you say they could be below?

Mr. Abrams: A couple of months. I think theyíre just above a million now. Again, they may have dipped below it because of the blackout, and they may come back 50- or 100,000 barrels. But thatís the neighborhood theyíre in, and it is a steady decline.

It is true that you can do long-term damage if you donít maintain the infrastructure. One of the reasons that, in our announcement of PDVSA sanctions, we gave some American firms 180 days to transition out was precisely to avoid this kind of damage. We -- I think itís fair to say that the Maduro regime has been a very poor steward of the infrastructure in Venezuela. We see that in the electrical infrastructure, and we also see it in the oil infrastructure. Our sanctions had nothing to do with them coming down from 3 million barrels a day to a million barrels a day. But it would certainly be better from the point of view of democracy and human rights, and it would certainly be better from the point of view of the economy and the oil sector if the regime were to come to an end.

Mr. Palladino: Last question, please, in the back there.

Question: Yeah. [Inaudible] Hernandez from the Spanish newswire EFE. Have you had any conversation lately with Vice President Arreaza?

Mr. Abrams: No. We had two conversations in -- god, I donít remember. One was in late January, one was maybe a week after that. And that -- those were the -- that was it.

Mr. Palladino: All right, very good.

Question: Mr. Abrams, can you [inaudible] diplomats yesterday [inaudible] in Caracas?

Mr. Palladino: Thatís good, weíll call it there. All right, thank you.

Question: Thank you.

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