MR BROWN: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this on-the-record briefing with Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak. Ambassador Kozak will discuss Secretary Pompeo’s travel to the Dominican Republic on August 16th, where he will head the U.S. delegation to the presidential inauguration of Luis Abinader. As we noted in our recent statement announcing the trip, the Dominican Republic is a key partner and ally in the Caribbean and this visit reaffirms our strong ties.
Ambassador Kozak will begin with an opening statement and then we’ll take your questions. As a reminder, the content of the briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. For efficiency’s sake, if you want to go ahead and get into the question queue, just dial 1 and 0. Thanks. And Ambassador, please go ahead.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay, thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be with you all today, even if virtually, to preview Secretary Pompeo’s travel to the Dominican Republic to attend the inauguration of His Excellency Luis Abinader. Our ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Robin Bernstein, and I will accompany the Secretary to form this presidential delegation.
The Dominican Republic is a key partner and ally in the Caribbean, and Secretary Pompeo’s visit reaffirms our strong bilateral ties. It is also a symbol of the United States’s deepening relationship with our partners across the Caribbean region. Together we continue to advance our common interests in security, prosperity, development cooperation, and the promotion of democracy and human rights. As Secretary Pompeo said in Jamaica this January, the United States and Caribbean nations do much more together – can do much more together and, importantly, should do much more together. We’re natural allies and natural partners. Now it’s time to move forward with even closer ties. There is just so much opportunity.
Now, while in Santo Domingo, the Secretary will meet with President Abinader to discuss opportunities to strengthen our partnership and focus on promoting transparency, democracy, and security in the region. Together we will overcome challenges from the pandemic and revitalize our economies based on a shared vision of free markets and private-sector-led economic growth. We congratulate the president-elect and we look forward to working closely with his administration on a variety of shared priorities. We commend the Dominican people and electoral authorities for an election that was free and fair and well administered despite the COVID-19 challenges.
On August 16, Secretary Pompeo will arrive in Santo Domingo and will be greeted by Ambassador Bernstein at the airport. The delegation will then depart for the National Congress to attend the inauguration ceremony. The Secretary will meet with outgoing Dominican President Medina, who’s been a close partner of the United States during the past eight years. We thank him and wish him well in his future endeavors.
The presidential delegation will then depart for the First Cathedral of the Americas to participate in the Te Deum Mass. From the cathedral we will depart for the National Palace for the inauguration lunch. The Secretary will meet there with President Abinader and with Foreign Minister Alvarez. The Secretary will also take the opportunity to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, and the Secretary will meet finally with Haitian President Moise to discuss the need for Haiti to schedule its overdue legislative elections, to form a provisional electoral commission, and to strengthen support for upholding the rule of law in Haiti. The inauguration of President Abinader is a fitting occasion to reaffirm our shared commitment to upholding democracy in our hemisphere of freedom.
The presidential delegation will then conclude its trip to the Dominican Republic by departing for Las Americas International Airport and will return to Andrews Air Force Base. Due to the COVID-19 situation in the Dominican Republic, we are working closely with the Dominican Government to ensure that the presidential delegation abides by carefully planned infection control measures.
With that, I’m happy to take your questions now and to go into any further details about the trip you may seek to ask.
MR BROWN: Great. So again, to get into the question queue, just dial 1 and then 0. For our first question, let’s go to the line of Nora Gamez.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this, Ambassador. I wanted to know if relations with China are going to be addressed during the visit. And you mentioned COVID-19 safety measures, but why the Secretary is taking the risk to go to the Dominican Republic at all when there is – the country has more COVID-19 cases than the entire Caribbean combined?
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, let’s – on the China issue, of course I don’t want to predict exactly what topics will or won’t come up in any conversations. But I would think it a good bet that in some of the conversations that issue will come up. One of the biggest issues in the Dominican Republic that we’re all dealing with is trying to improve the rule of law, transparency, make the conditions for investment better by doing so. China influence in the region sometimes works in the other direction.
So basically, without going into what we will or won’t say in this particular conversation, I’d say throughout the region what we’re saying to leaders is look, China is somebody that is a big economy, we all have to deal with it. Trade with China, make deals with China; that’s something we do, that’s something they do. But our main message is do it on your modern, 21st century, transparent, open, good business practices terms. Don’t do it on their model of 19th century imperialist taking of territorial concessions or opaque debt trap type loans, compromise your sovereignty and so on. People can deal successfully with China. They just have to be tough-minded about it, and we find that message resonates very well in the region.
Second, it’s when you’re dealing with China on sensitive technologies, unless you want all your data in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, be selective about who you entrust with your data, and try to take national security considerations into account as you’re making those decisions.
So those are the advice that we’ve given countries in the region, and we find that it resonates very well, and we’re basically saying deal with China, but make them deal on your terms; don’t deal on their not-so-good terms.
On why we’re doing the trip, this is – the Dominican Republic is a really important partner of ours. It’s – the U.S. is the – I think the biggest investor in the country. It’s a rapidly growing economy in our region. We’ve worked very, very closely together in multilateral fora, and we just want to manifest the support for their democracy and the successful election they have. And I think the Secretary feels that with proper precautions we can navigate the COVID environment and still do our jobs of trying to advance America’s diplomacy and diplomatic objectives in the region.
MR BROWN: Great. Next let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.
QUESTION: Thanks. I think you mentioned bilaterals with – I think you said Turkey and Haiti? Are there other bilateral meetings scheduled? And do you folks intend to use this trip as a way to maybe rally more support for your nomination to the presidency of the IDB? And related to that, how are you going to explain to the hemisphere’s countries your decision this week to end charter flights to Cuba? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay, let’s see if I can touch this. On the bilaterals, no – so far at least, the ones I mentioned are the ones that are scheduled. Mind you, this is a day trip. We’re leaving here in the morning, going down, going through the itinerary that I laid out, and flying back that evening. So there’s not a lot of time in there. I won’t rule out that if the Secretary sees one of his colleagues or one of the regional heads of state or something he may go over and have a conversation. But at this point, the ones I mentioned are the ones that are scheduled.
You asked me about charter flights to Cuba that were announced today, and that was simply a – we had cut off earlier scheduled flights to everywhere but Havana, and then found that there were a very, very large number of charter flights that were operating, and so it was really trying to bring the charter flight restrictions into line with what we’d done for scheduled flights, and for the same reasons.
And then finally, on the IDB presidency, my anticipation is that we will not be lobbying there because the support in the region for our candidate is so strong. We have – if the people who have already publicly declared support for him vote that way, he will be the next president to the IDB.
What is being proposed by others is not that they’re putting forward candidates that they think are attractive and would garner support. So far, they have not succeeded in that. So they are simply saying, well, we just shouldn’t have the election, we should postpone it. And some of these countries are countries who voted just last month to have the election on the dates that they said, so nothing has changed since then.
Our view is this election should go forward, and we certainly welcome competition. But so far, our candidate has been by far the most popular candidate in – that’s been put forward, and we’re feeling very confident about that.
MR BROWN: Great. For the next question, let’s go to the line of Humeyra from Reuters.
QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador. I wanted to ask you about how you see the position of broader Caribbean when it comes to China. I was with the Secretary in Latin America in January, and there was still quite a bit of resistance from various countries, not necessarily Dominican Republic maybe about – but the others about U.S. cautioning of doing business with Beijing. And this was pre-COVID. I just wondered how you see the picture at the moment.
And then if I may, today State Department and other U.S. agencies have announced that they have seized Iranian fuel cargos.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Could we just ask you where – at the moment the ships carrying this cargo, where are they headed to and when did the seizure take place? If you can give just some details about that, that would be great. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yeah. First on China and the region. Look, China has sought to provide loans and attractive financing, or has promised development or construction throughout the region, and it’s just particularly tempting for – if you’re a small country, in the Caribbean, particularly, the very small ones.
I think, though, it’s – some of it has been our cautioning, but an awful lot of it has been China’s performance. When people start to look at what do you get for this, often time the deals never come together. If they do, you end up with construction in your country, but it’s being done by Chinese companies with Chinese workers, so your workers are not benefitting from that. You end up with a substandard product; you often end up with corruption being associated with it. A lot of these contracts have provisions in them where China can call the loan after a very short period of time, and then you’re stuck with forfeiting part of your territory.
So basically, as people have become more familiar with these kinds of terms that they get from China, the attractiveness of that kind of offer is much less to them. And so it’s not – it’s not a case where the U.S. is threatening retaliation or something if people do deals with China. We’re simply pointing out what the experience has been with China. Others are talking to each other about it, and I think the upshot is that countries in the region are just being a lot more careful and cautious as they approach their dealings with China. We’re not telling them don’t deal with China. We’re saying deal but deal with them smart; don’t deal with them on their terms.
On the ships, I can’t give you – I mean, this is – I think the Justice Department was the main announcement today on that, and I would refer you to them for details. I don’t really know exactly how the fuel got transferred and so on, but it’s an important move. And hopefully, the result of it will be that the proceeds from that go to the victims of criminal behavior rather than to the criminals, and we are very hopeful that that will be the case.
MR BROWN: Just a reminder, if you want to ask questions, dial 1 and 0 to get into the queue. Let’s go to the line of Jacqueline Charles.
QUESTION: Yes, hi, good afternoon. Two questions. One, you mentioned bilaterals with Haiti and Turkey, and I’m just wondering if the U.S. has a position in respect to relations between Haiti and Turkey. The Haitian Government has cited Turkey as providing assistance with them in the coming weeks for their electricity woes.
And then the second is on the issue of elections that’s going to be brought up. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Haiti cannot test. It’s not really testing. They switched over the voter system. Is the U.S. at all concerned about in this push for elections that we can face for the situation of voters disenfranchised because they cannot register the eligible voters in time for an election day, and we may be fueling a surge in COVID-19 cases by having people having to line up to go and get a new registration card?
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay, thanks for that. And no, obviously we don’t want people to do things that are going to cause the spread of COVID-19. That’s why we’ve always said you should be moving towards elections as soon as technically feasible. And that’s technically feasible from an elections administration standpoint and also from the health standpoint.
I think what you have seen from us though with Haiti, when you go back, the parliament there ceased to exist basically in January because its term expired. And at the time, the fault for it not having an elected successor was that the parliament had failed to pass an elections law, had failed to pass a budget for elections. I mean, this, mind you, was all pre-COVID. They hadn’t done anything.
So we didn’t hold President Moise responsible for the failure of the legislature to do its job, but President Moise has been ruling now for – since that time by decree and does have it within his power to pass an elections law. He now is in the process and to his credit is taking steps to try to repopulate the Provisional Electoral Council who all had resigned in the last few weeks. They need to pass or establish a budget. They need to figure out how to deal with registration issues.
But the danger in Haiti is if you make everything dependent on everything else getting resolved, nothing gets resolved. So our push here is to say there is a lot of things you can be doing right now during the COVID crisis to prepare yourself so that you’re ready to do elections as soon as is technically feasible. And we defer completely to the experts at the OAS and other election observation and assistance missions on how to do that. But we’re trying to build a little bit of a fire there and say come on, get the groundwork laid, because if you’re going to have a democracy, that means all three branches of the democracy need to be in place. It can’t just be one or two.
So that’s what’s behind the push and why we’re emphasizing it. We’re just – obviously, we will want to be helpful to our friends in Haiti in trying to get this organized in a good and responsible and professional way.
MR BROWN: Just a reminder, if you want to ask a question, dial 1 and 0. Okay, looks like we have one more. Let’s go to the line of Alina Dieste with AFP.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. I’d like to know if he, Mr. Kozak, could contact – could comment on the declaration that was released today by several members of the Lima Group, the International Contact Group, the European Union, and the United States regarding Venezuela.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yes, thank you. Yeah, I think it’s a really important statement in this sense: Each of the three groups has been trying for the last couple of years to find a way forward in Venezuela. And one of the things that we were hearing from everybody was: You’d be a lot more effective if you were pushing the same approach. So there’s been a lot of work done here, and I think what you saw today is that key members of all three groups now have said, “Here is a way forward that is viable and that we can all get behind.” We are hopeful that even more members of those different groupings will join on with this. There’s always the sort of chicken-and-egg problems within any group as to who moves first.
But I would say the way forward is – it’s similar to ones that you all have seen before, but what’s important about it is for once you have members of all three of those groupings united around a single way forward, and we think that really reinforces the message to the parties in Venezuela.
The main message for the Maduro side here has been for all of Maduro’s bluff and bluster, he doesn’t have a way out of this. I mean, the country – he’s run the economy into the ground, they can’t pump oil anymore, they can’t generate electricity, they can’t generate food. Their Cuban friends are taking what little there is left because they always take care of themselves first. And where is this going to end? That’s not a sustainable situation.
So what we – with the framework, the democratic transition framework we put forward at the end of March, and now with this statement with the whole range of people involved, we’re saying, look, there’s a good way out here. Let’s – name a transitional government that’s acceptable to both sides, so that it’s not one side wins and the other side loses, but a group of people who would be widely acceptable, who can organize free and fair elections, get the country legitimate leadership, and then the newly elected leadership will move out from there. That’s how you get out from under sanctions. There are associated assurances and guarantees there for people who are worried about their own situation and so on.
So it’s not a way for Maduro to stay in power in perpetuity, which is what he’s looking for, but it’s a way for everybody around him to say actually, we have a pretty good future if we just take it. So that’s the message. We think it’s really powerful that we’ve got such a wide range of countries in – that those three groupings have converged on the one approach. So we’re pretty strong on that.
MR BROWN: Great. Let’s go to our last question from Rosalind Jordan.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, Ambassador, for taking the call. A question about political transitions in both Venezuela and in Haiti: One, is the U.S. prepared to put forward money to help the Haitian Government run these new elections, especially in light of the pandemic? And two, I know a while back the U.S. had put forward some ideas to try to persuade Mr. Maduro to step aside. Have there been any other initiatives made towards him in order to get him to step aside peacefully? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay. Thank you. I mean, I wouldn’t equate the two things, because in Haiti you have President Moise who was democratically elected president, who’s well within his term at this point, so it’s legislative elections there. I know we have been providing assistance via the OAS, via – IFES is, I think, funded by USAID on this. I’d have to go back and get details, but we’ve been helpful. I think the international community generally has been helpful to Haiti in all of its elections.
And again, I had wanted to emphasize what we want to see is all the building blocks starting to be put in place for this. Whether you could hold an election tomorrow or not given the COVID situation is not – it’s kind of a moot point because none of the other steps have been put in place, so we’re saying let’s get those out of the way. There’s nothing – COVID doesn’t obstruct you from issuing an elections decree. It doesn’t obstruct you from naming new members to the election commission and so on. So that’s Haiti, and that’s just like putting a push on let’s go forward with what the Haitian constitution and political system already requires. It’s not a political transition; it’s a furtherance of their political process.
Venezuela, very different. You’ve got a usurper controlling many of the institutions of the country and the security forces in the country that has no legitimacy, is widely seen within the country and outside the country as lacking in legitimacy. You simply can’t operate with him there. Now, what would make Maduro decide to want to step down? You’d have to ask him.
But what we’re trying to say to all of those around him is look, there is a good way out for you. You can in effect negotiate your own future with your own countrymen and come out of it in great shape and have an ongoing role in the political life of your country. That was what the framework for a democratic transition that we issued in March was all about, and I don’t – nothing has changed in that. We put that forward saying this is a viable path forward. Obviously, if others want to come up with counter proposals or something, everybody would be very interested in looking at it.
So it’s a starting point and we think it’s still valid, and what we think was important about today’s statement is that now we have a wide range of countries internationally who are urging a path similar to that as the way forward. So hopefully over time this will start to weigh on the Chavistas in Venezuela to see that they’ve got no way out of the mess they’re in with Maduro in charge, and they’ve got a very good way forward for themselves as well as for the country if they engage on the basis of the framework or of the statement that was put out today, both of which offer a way forward.
MR BROWN: Ambassador, thanks so much for taking the time to brief us today, and thanks to everyone who joined the call. As this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great day.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank you all. It was a pleasure to talk to you today. Have a good weekend. Bye-bye.