Briefing with Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams

Briefing with Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, at the Department of State, January 6, 2019.

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Hey. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you all for being here. As you all are aware, there were significant developments in Venezuela over the weekend, so here to discuss them today is our special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams. He’ll begin with a statement and then have time for a few of your questions. Sir.

Thank you. Thanks and good afternoon. Yesterday, Juan Guaido was reelected president of Venezuela’s National Assembly with 100 votes. Not only a clear majority of the 167-member legislature, but also obviously, a quorum. We congratulate him. As you recall, we have been warning about the Maduro dictatorship’s efforts to steal the vote through bribery, jailings and intimidation. More than 30 deputies are in hiding, in prison or in exile. Others were bought. And yet, this brutal and corrupt campaign failed. Obviously, if the regime had had the votes, it would not have ordered soldiers to keep elected deputies out of the National Assembly. In shameful scenes you’ve probably all seen in videos, those actions have been condemned and rejected by countries all over the world. The new foreign minister of Argentina said, quote, “To impede by force the functioning “of the legislative assembly is to condemn oneself “to international isolation,” and Argentina called the regime’s actions quote, “unacceptable.” Mexico said, quote, “The legitimate functioning “of the legislative power is inviolable in democracies.” Brazil said it would, quote, “would not recognize any result of this violence “and affront to democracy.” The Lima group, Latin American countries plus Canada, congratulated Guaido on his reelection and said it, quote, “condemns the use of force and intimidation tactics “against members of the National Assembly,” and condemns, quote, “the systematic violations “of human rights committed by the illegitimate “and dictatorial regime of Nicolas Maduro.” The EU said it, quote, “continues to recognize Juan Guaido “as the legitimate president of the National Assembly.” We look forward to working this year with Juan Guaido, with the firm majority of the Venezuelan Parliament who continue to support democracy, with Venezuela’s democratic political parties and with the millions of Venezuelans who want the dictatorship to end. We applaud Guaido’s decision to leave the leadership of the Voluntad Popular Party and to work instead on building a broad alliance of civil society groups, NGOs, trade unions, and all Venezuelans who want the end of a dictatorship that has brought economic ruin and oppression. We look forward as well to working with democracies around the world in support of democracy in Venezuela. This is a struggle against the regime that as we saw yesterday, will do anything to prevent the return of democracy. So, we will be asking democratic parties and governments and NGOs to step up and do more in support of democrats and democratic institutions in Venezuela. The United States will also be doing more in support of the National Assembly and its legitimate leadership, and of the Venezuelan people’s efforts through greater pressure on the dictatorship and its leaders and supporters inside and outside of Venezuela, and more direct help to the forces of freedom there. We have no doubt that Venezuelans will win their struggle and return their country to democracy. Thanks. (man speaking unintelligibly)

Yeah. Hi. Thanks for doing this. Can I just ask though, where does this leave your efforts, really because of what happened yesterday? I mean, this chaos at the beginning, the vote that you guys saved was farcical and then that, them having to leave and go to a newspaper and then re-elect—

[Elliott] What’s the criticism? Of going to a newspaper? Is that the problem here?

No, no, I think that’s a good thing.

That’s the good part. But—

[Man] No, no. But I mean, where does this leave the situation, and you say you’re gonna do more, more pressure, but you know, it’s been now a year—

A year. Yep.

[Man] And Maduro’s still there and it doesn’t look like his grip is any less firm.

I think we saw something interesting. We saw many interesting things yesterday, but one of them was the regime which has the total control of the ability to intimidate, to jail, to exile, to bribe, failed. It failed to be able to change the votes of a hundred members of the National Assembly who wanted to support Juan Guaido, every one of them knowing that he or she could be arrested tomorrow. And it didn’t work. Think of what happened. You have this chaos at the National Assembly, all these deputies get the word, we are going to El Nacional, and we’re going to vote. Do you know the National Assembly isn’t a building? It’s a body elected by the people of Venezuela. So, I think that was an extraordinary show of opposition, courage and unity. It really, in a way, it doesn’t change anything for us. Policy continues, but we will be looking at new additional measures, positive measures to support Democrats in Venezuela and try to get more support from countries, democratic parties, parliaments around the world, the democratic world, and also more pressure on those who are continuing to support the regime. I think what you saw yesterday was it was something the regime didn’t want to do. Initially, they wanted a vote and they wanted to win the vote in the National Assembly, and they couldn’t do it. With weeks and months of effort, they couldn’t do it. And they were forced to this last desperate resort of using the military, knowing that what we saw has actually happened, which is they’ve been condemned everywhere. So I don’t think they come out of yesterday stronger. I think they come out of yesterday weaker. (man speaking unintelligibly)

[Woman] So I’ll bite. You’ve now mentioned twice that there’s going to be more American help to the forces of freedom. What specifically are you talking about and what kind of confidence do you have that that will change the year-long kind of standoff there?

Well, we’re looking at, I guess I would say positive and negative things we can do. And on the positive side, you know, Congress has voted a fair amount of money to help the democratic opposition in Venezuela and we will be thinking of ways to use those funds and to try to get other countries to give political support, diplomatic support, financial support to the forces of freedom in Venezuela. And on the negative side, we are looking at additional sanctions, personal sanctions, economic sanctions that we think will bring more pressure yet on the regime.

How much money and what is that being used for currently?

I’m a little reluctant to go into detail on that because I don’t remember the exact numbers, the final, final number. But we have done an agreement with the legitimate government of Venezuela, development agreement and we are able to do things to help, for example, the free press in Venezuela, to help people keep publishing and to keep broadcasting. We have some funds that we can use for the National Assembly. So, there are a variety of things. This is really the, this is all being done through, or not all. Mostly being done through AID, but also the Democracy and Human Rights Bureau here at State.

[Man] Yes.

I was wondering if you could comment on how much you think Russia has played into this. There’s been some reporting over the fact that it might’ve been to rubber stamp Russian oil deals. How, what do you think that might’ve been? And also, do you think that having two presidents and two assemblies now as opposed to two and one makes sense—

Well, let me correct that. There aren’t two assemblies. There is one National Assembly that was elected in 2015, and as we saw yesterday, a clear majority of 100 supports Juan Guaido and voted to reelect him. There’s only one National Assembly.

[Woman] Sorry, Assembly president.

Well, we will see what happens tomorrow. Guaido has publicly stated that he will go to the National Assembly tomorrow. Now you, as you know from all those videos yesterday, soldiers physically prevented him from going in. Will they tomorrow? We’ll see. What can this phony new leadership of the National Assembly do? They don’t have the votes. There’s a clear majority out of the 2015 election for Guaido and for the democratic opposition. So, I think it’s impossible to say yet how that will turn out. On Russia, as the regime has become more and more desperate, they have, in the course of 2019, they have relied more and more on Russia. And the Russian role in the economy, particularly the oil economy, is larger and larger. Russian companies are now handling more than two thirds, more than 70% of Venezuelan oil. They market it, they finance it, they hide it, ship to ship transfers, changing the name of boats, turning off transponders. They sell gasoline in Dillwyn. So the Russian role is increasingly important. I would note that Russians, as far as I’m aware, who’ve been silent today, and I would think that allies, there aren’t very many, but allies of Maduro such as Russia must be thinking twice today when they see the regime has so little support left that there is nothing they can do but send troops to the National Assembly. (man speaking unintelligibly) (man speaking unintelligibly)

I want to ask you about the statements from the U.S. government recently on the fact that some factions of the regime could still work with the opposition. After yesterday’s events, do you still believe that there are parts of the regime that could be able to be part of the transition, a transition that the United States could support anyways?

The, I have to assume that there are some people inside the government, inside the executive branch who think that what was done yesterday was a terrible mistake, was disgraceful, was shameful. Of course, they can’t say so because if they say so they will be arrested or worse. I have to believe that there are people in the military who understand that the goal of the military is to protect the country, not to prevent elected deputies from going to the National Assembly to vote. They, too, know that if they speak up, they face arrest or worse. There are certainly people who used to support Hugo Chavez, who have as recently as yesterday and today, made their disgust at what happened yesterday known. We would have to judge that question of who we can work with and who we can’t work with when we get to that point.

[Man] Let’s go to the back, Financial Times. (woman speaking unintelligibly)

Thank you. Do you think Venezuela’s neighbors are considering a military solution, and what would be the U.S. position on that?

I don’t think they are considering a military solution. They’re worried very much about the refugee flows, which continue at a, pardon me, at a very high level, perhaps 5 million, getting to 6 million. You know, if it goes on for another year, it will be a greater refugee crisis than Syria. But I’m unaware of any discussions. This would be the Brazilians and the Colombians, really, of taking military steps, except conceivably in self defense. (man speaking unintelligibly)

[Woman] Hi. Thank you. When asked how yesterday, the events of yesterday leaves your efforts, the U.S. efforts, you said it doesn’t change things for us. But we heard today from some of the Venezuelan Congressmen that they’re sort of entering a period of self criticism and reexamining their mistakes and making changes. And so I wondered if U.S. policy also was going to be going through a sort of reassessment, what worked, what didn’t, what can we do differently, that kind of thing.

I don’t think that’s anything new. I mean, Guaido has spoken over the last three months and answered the questions. You know, why are we still here in September, October, November, and has talked about things that didn’t go as well as he had hoped. For example, the reaction from the military. We do this all the time, too. That is, we don’t, you know, sort of have an annual review at which we say, what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong? We think all the time about how to do better. And I think I’ve said to a number of people that we underestimated the importance of Cuban and Russian support for the regime, which has proved, I think, to be the two most important pillars of support for the regime and without which it wouldn’t be there, it wouldn’t be in power.

[Man] One or two more?


[Man] Okay. Right there. (man speaking unintelligibly)

You highlighted the statements from Argentina and Mexico. Is the U.S. looking forward to, I don’t know, bring those countries to maybe Lima Group or to other block of countries to make a higher pressure against the Maduro regime?

No, I highlighted those really for the obvious reason, which is that—

(man speaking unintelligibly)

No, they all agreed with us. Everybody agreed with us. I mean, I have a list here. I could read out the list of countries. Why did I use Mexico and Argentina and not Colombia? We know of a very strong support in Colombia for democracy in Venezuela and for Juan Guaido. You have a new government in Argentina that has taken a slightly different position, and obviously so has Mexico. They have not taken the same position as the United States. So, it was very interesting when on the same day, without hesitation, both of them really called what happened yesterday in Caracas, unacceptable and rejected it. And I think that’s really quite striking. And Maduro must be asking himself today, do I have any allies left? They’re not gonna support those kinds of measures. They’re going to denounce those kinds of measures. He is left with Cuba, Russia, China and, you know, a few odd dictatorships around the world, but he is losing the support not only on the right, not only in the center, but on the left in Latin America.

[Man] Next question. (man speaking unintelligibly)

[Woman] Under what conditions would the United States recognize a result of the legislative elections expected this year, and would the opposition be wise to boycott those?

Well, we would recognize the result if it’s a free and fair election. I pointed out to people in the government of Venezuela, the regime, I’ve pointed out to others in Latin America, the United States recognizes the results of free elections. We recognize the result when the FMLN won in El Salvador because they won a free election. We recognized the result when the Sandinistas won a free election in Nicaragua. We recognized the results of free elections, even if we don’t love the outcome. So that’s the answer to that part. If it’s a free and fair election, then not only we, but I think other democracies around the world would support it. Should they participate in the election? I think the key answer to that is we’re not Venezuelans. They have to make that decision for themselves, the democratic parties in Venezuela. As of today, they cannot compete. As of today, Juan Guaido, for example, would not be allowed to run for reelection. As of today, most of the democratic parties in Venezuela have been called illegal. So as of today, you couldn’t possibly have a free election. You would need significantly to change the conditions. What are the conditions that would lead the Venezuelan opposition to participate? You know, there are international standards for free elections and there are all the obvious ones. No censorship, free access to media, ability to campaign, access to, equal access to TV. Deputies, who are in the case of Venezuela, who are in prison or an exile allowed to return and run for reelection. Fair and free counting of the vote. In Bolivia, for example, I believe it’s fair to say the campaign was pretty free and then it was on election day that the votes were stolen and manipulated. So, there’s a combination of things. There are international standards that all sorts of organizations, IFES being probably the most famous of them, can give all of us. That’s what we’re hoping for. That’s what we’re working for, that those conditions would prevail in Venezuela so that there can be free presidential elections and free National Assembly elections. National Assembly elections alone will not solve the Venezuelan crisis. They need presidential elections to be able to get out of the crisis they’re in. Thank you.

[Man] All right, thank you.

[Reporters] Thanks.

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