U.S Department of State
U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela
March 28, 2019
Via Video Conference
MODERATOR: Hello, and welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive virtual press briefing platform. I’m delighted to welcome everyone joining us today from across Europe and around the globe.
Today, we’ll be speaking with Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela. Before I turn it over to Special Representative Abrams for some opening remarks, I would like to make a few comments on procedures for questions.
You can start submitting your questions now in the questions tab at the top of your screen. If you see someone else ask a question that you’d also like us to answer, you can upvote it by clicking the like button to the right of that question. We will try to answer as many as we can, but our time is limited, so please vote to indicate the questions you’d most like us to cover.
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With that, let’s get started. Special Representative Abrams, thank you for joining us today, and I’ll turn it over to you for some opening remarks.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you. Do I get to vote on the questions?
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, no. That’s just for our participants.
MR ABRAMS: Oh, okay. All right. Very briefly, I would just say I met yesterday with Fabiana Rosales, Juan Guaido’s wife. As you know, she met the Vice President and the President yesterday. And then we made some remarks at the White House. But it was a valuable and very interesting meeting.
Secondly, I would just comment on the continuing blackouts in Venezuela. Twenty years of lack of maintenance, lack of investment have produced a terrible situation for the people of Venezuela, where we’re now into the second week, soon into the third week, of these continuing blackouts. And it’s a symbol of the mismanagement that the Maduro regime is responsible for.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, we’ll get started with our first question, which comes from Eleni Panayiotou from Journalists About Journalism in Greece. Eleni asks: “What can be done to counterbalance the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign built around the Trojan Horse narrative that tries to portray U.S. humanitarian aid as malign interference?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, I think that campaign really discredits itself; it’s so completely ridiculous. The United States provided some aid, and we had journalists all over those warehouses. We have said that we would be happy to work with the Catholic Church in Venezuela. Anyone who wants to inspect the aid can do so. This really is disinformation, and I think most journalists who are covering it know that. The U.S. military planes were used because we wanted to try to get as much aid down there as quickly as possible. But we are completely open about what we are bringing, and any kind of legitimate inspection regime would be perfectly welcomed.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Nicolas Bourcier from Le Monde in France: “Can you explain why, in the middle of this deep crisis, with a lack of food, electricity, and medicines, the Venezuelan army is still behind Maduro’s regime?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, it is troubling. I think part of it is fear. There are several thousand Cuban intelligence officers permeating both the civilian and the military intelligence agencies in Caracas, the DGCIM and the SEBIN. And their – one of their key goals is precisely to make sure that no one in the military who asks that same question – why are we still supporting Maduro? – gets away with it and is not immediately apprehended and punished. So the fear is part of it.
I think at the high levels – there are a couple thousand generals – they are still benefitting from participation in the regime. But I think we have some evidence that this is being fought about a lot at the – in the military. Because if you’re in the military, you have a brother and a sister, you have aunts and uncles and cousins, you know how they are suffering. So I think there are conversations going on – happily, conversations that are not visible. And I do believe that in the end, the Venezuelan military will act on behalf of the Venezuelan people.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Ana Pisonero at Europa Press: “Did the U.S. make an error of judgment not anticipating Maduro’s ability to hold onto power? And would the U.S. accept early presidential and parliamentary elections?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, we certainly want elections – presidential, parliamentary – on a timetable that, you know, that Venezuelans will consider to be proper. The election, the presidential election of last May, May 2018, was a farce, and international observers all said so. So they need a presidential election because under their constitution, the presidency is vacant. That’s why they have to have an interim president, Juan Guaido.
I don’t think we made any mistakes here. We are supporting the Venezuelan people in their desire to get rid of the Maduro regime and return Venezuela to democracy. No one has a timetable for this. It would be better if it happened this afternoon, but no one can predict exactly when Maduro will be gone, and the United States had no timetable. We are supporting the Venezuelan people; we’re supporting Interim President Guaido for as long as it takes.
MODERATOR: Turning now to our question with the most votes as of right now, which is from Vladimir Ermakov at the Interfax news agency in Russia: “Are you still in contact with Russia on the issue of the presence of Russian troops in Venezuela? And are those contacts constructive?”
MR ABRAMS: I was recently in Rome where I met with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov. This was prior to those flights, but – where we had, I thought, a useful conversation about Venezuela. And this past weekend – Sunday, I think – Secretary Pompeo spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov specifically about those flights. We were in contact with Russia pretty regularly about a wide range of issues. We certainly think that those flights and Russia’s role are very unconstructive for any solution to what’s happening in Venezuela.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Rosiland Jordan at Al Jazeera English Television: “The U.S. has recognized Guaido as president. Are you prepared to talk directly with Maduro about his political future? Are you empowered by President Trump to engage Maduro? And if so, what incentives can you offer to induce Maduro to leave office?”
MR ABRAMS: Secretary Pompeo testified yesterday in Congress and said what has been our policy very clearly. There’s no evidence at all that negotiating with Maduro does any good. There have been previous negotiations with him involving the Venezuelan opposition in previous years. He simply uses them to kill time and try to divide the opposition. The only thing to negotiate with Maduro about is what are the terms of your departure. Venezuelans have many, many things to talk about and negotiate about, but not with Maduro, because he has already shown who he is and what he is doing to the country.
MODERATOR: Next question from Ricardo Jorge Pinto from the Portuguese News Agency: “How do you think European countries should react now that Guaido failed in the 30-day deadline to ensure free elections?”
MR ABRAMS: Guaido has not failed. Guaido has provided and is providing and will provide leadership for returning Venezuela to democracy that it has actually not had. That is, in the past people have said well, the opposition’s so divided. Now the opposition came together. They chose a president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido. Under Venezuela’s constitution, he is legitimately the interim president. So I reject the notion that the National Assembly has failed or that Guaido has failed. He is continuing his efforts; the National Assembly is continuing their efforts. And we and 53 other countries in the world regard him as the legitimate president of Venezuela and we will continue to support him.
MODERATOR: Next question from Beatriz Pascual Macias from EFE: “Juan Guaido has asked the European Union for more sanctions on top officials from the Maduro government, specifically to target their financial assets. Is that something that the U.S. Government agrees with? Has the U.S. asked the EU to impose those kind of sanctions?”
MR ABRAMS: We do agree with it, certainly, and we’re doing it; that is, we in the United States are doing it. And we’ve frozen accounts all over the world; we’ve talked to governments and banks all over the world. And there needs to be more of this, because the money in those accounts was stolen from the people of Venezuela. So I – we have asked governments in Europe and other places to review this question and to impose more sanctions, in some cases to look also at visas for representatives of the Maduro regime. And I hope that more governments will actually pursue that line of activity.
MODERATOR: Next question from Dorian Jones at Voice of America: “Will Turkey face any consequences if it continues with its support to President Maduro through gold processing and other measures? And what would those consequences be?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, I think it is fair to say that Turkey is strongly supporting the Maduro regime. And we have asked a number of countries, whenever we see the movement of assets out of Venezuela, assets that belong to the people of Venezuela, anywhere – whether it’s gold or anything else of value, we inquire and we ask the governments in question to stop it, even though often these are private transactions with a private party in that foreign country. And we have not had the cooperation from Turkey that we want.
So what happens? Well, I think – one thing that people in Turkey should realize is that Venezuela is going to be free. Venezuela is going to be a democracy. And Venezuelans are then going to ask themselves who helped and who didn’t help. So Turkey is undermining its own position not only in Venezuela but all of Latin America, because Latins are looking at this. Most of the major countries of Latin America have also said we support Juan Guaido and we support the people of Venezuela in their struggle to return to democracy. They will also look at this. They are looking at it now. I think that’s the cost for Turkey.
As to what the United States will do in terms of our bilateral relationship, that’s something that I think we’ll leave for bilateral talks.
MODERATOR: Next question from Guido Lanfranchi at Diplomat magazine in the Netherlands: “As the U.S. sanctions deprive the Venezuelan Government of its revenues, the effect of those sanctions will also be felt by the population. How can the U.S. ensure that sanctions do not harm the Venezuelan people?”
MR ABRAMS: First, U.S. sanctions started to be imposed less than two months ago, about two months ago, but in some cases with a 90-day grace period so they haven’t even taken effect yet. We had nothing to do with the million-percent inflation in Venezuela last year. We had nothing to do with the fact that by the turn of the year – several months ago now – three out of five Venezuelan hospitals were closed. We had nothing to do with the continuing blackouts that are just causing devastation for the people of Venezuela. We had nothing to do with the return of communicable diseases that had been eliminated in Venezuela. So the notion that the United States is responsible for any of this, I think, is completely contradicted by the evidence.
Going forward, what are we trying to do? We are trying to move humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Why are the tons and tons and tons of aid that we ship down there sitting in Cucuta, Colombia rather than going into Venezuela? And there would be much more, because many other countries are willing to help. There’s one reason: The Maduro regime blocks it. I would hope that as the situation internally gets worse – and if you look at the electrical blackouts, it will get worse – the Maduro regime even will realize that a foreign humanitarian assistance is really needed by the people of Venezuela.
Now, I would just add about that that this regime has used humanitarian aid as a weapon. They have weaponized it. They have politicized it. They have given it specifically to supporters of the regime and denied it to people who are not supporters of the regime. Now, we’re not going to play that game. We are certainly not going to participate in the scheme where American assistance and other foreign assistance goes to the regime, which then distributes it not on the basis of need, but on the basis of political support. But humanitarian assistance that goes to those in need, that’s what the United States is trying to do.
MODERATOR: Next question from Gregorio Garcia at La Razon in Spain: “What countries, apart from Spain, could host Venezuelan Government politicians during a transition?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, I think – there are two questions here. I wonder if he means “could host somebody like Maduro when he leaves.” There are a number of countries that I think could do that. I don’t know whether anybody needs to do that. If what is meant – I’m sorry, but if what is meant is “host negotiations,” in most cases in Latin America that I can think of, the negotiations have been held in the capital city. They have not needed to be held – excuse me – overseas.
Spain could certainly be helpful here. The church in Venezuela could be helpful here. But I’m inclined to think that transition talks are more likely to be held in Venezuela, perhaps with the help of mediators or facilitators. Usually, as I think back to decades of Latin transitions to democracy, the people of the country are talking directly to each other inside the country.
MODERATOR: Next question from Simon Shuster at Time magazine: “What is your assessment of the Russian strategy in Venezuela and the size of the forces and assets that it has deployed to achieve that strategy?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, I think the Russian strategy is to support this regime. They are completely unconcerned by the degree of repression that the regime is using, and that degree is growing without any apparent objection from the Russians. They want a regime in place that looks to Cuba and Russia rather than looking to its neighbors in Latin America, which have rejected it, or looking to the United States or the other democracies that have already recognized Juan Guaido as legitimate interim president.
So I think one other thing the Russians are trying to do, I would add: They think they are trying to protect the money that they’re owed by Venezuela. One of the arguments I made to Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov was: You’ll never get your money back from Maduro because his regime, his economic policies are destroying the economy of Venezuela. Only with prosperity could your loans or investments be paid back.
But the Russian role, which we now see includes the landing of military planes and some military presence, does absolutely nothing for the people of Venezuela. It is not just a net negative; it is completely negative.
MODERATOR: Next question from Jennifer Hansler at CNN: “What more is the U.S. willing to do to compel the release of Roberto Marrero? Is there concern that Maduro will immediately move to arrest Guaido?”
MR ABRAMS: People in the regime have, over the past month or two, threatened President Guaido, threatened to arrest him. And I would say that’s a concern of the United States and of every – obviously of the other 53 countries that have recognized him as interim president. The arrest of his advisor, his Chef de Cabinet Roberto Marrero, may be a test by the regime of how far they can go.
And by the way, it wasn’t just an arrest. You may have seen the pictures – many of the journalists will – of the way they deliberately just wrecked his house in doing that needlessly. So it’s a very bad sign of increasing repression on the part of the regime. We have developed some options for what the United States will do. We will make it clear to the – those options will make it clear to the regime the price they’re paying. I think that they recognize they will pay an enormous price for doing anything to Interim President Guaido, not just diplomatically but internally from the Venezuelan people. So we certainly hope that they don’t go down that path.
MODERATOR: And I think our last question will come from Lindsey Hilsum at Channel 4 News in the UK: “Is military intervention possible? And if so, by whom?”
MR ABRAMS: I think we don’t have much more to say about that than what the President has said. The President always says – indeed, he said yesterday – all options are on the table. Why does he say that? He says it because it’s true. All options always are on the table. This is not the path that the United States is choosing right now. The path we are choosing is economic, political, diplomatic, financial pressure on the regime, support for the people of Venezuela and Interim President Guaido. But those options exist, as the President reminds us.
MODERATOR: Well, unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today. So thank you again to our participants for your questions, and thank you, Special Representative Abrams, for joining us.
MR ABRAMS: You’re welcome.
MODERATOR: To those that participated in today’s conference, if you would like to clip audio or video from today’s program, we will send you links to broadcast-quality files momentarily. We will also provide a transcript as soon as it is available. If you would like to receive any of these products, please remember to fill out the survey located in the “Polls” tab at the top of the event page.
Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another briefing again soon.