SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s been a lively period in both Argentina and Chile. Lots of attention to the recent elections in Argentina, of course. They – between what they call the PASO primary season in August and then this past Sunday’s election, it went off with really, as far as I can tell, no complaints at all about the manner in which it was run. It was a very hard-fought election.
I think people believed it was going to be a much wider margin, but the president-elect won with a decisive margin and a – lacks a majority in his – the new congress, which will be seated later in the year. And so it’s clear that there’s a broad diversity of opinion in the political spectrum there. There’s a general sense and understanding that they face some serious economic challenges. And we’ve indicated, as we have all along, that we consider Argentina to be a good partner of the United States, an important trading partner. We have a lot of U.S. firms that are significant investors there and have been, really, for well over a century, some of these firms, and that there are great opportunities to work together in the energy sector and beyond.
The new incoming administration there has indicated that it will have some policy shift from what it was – from the outgoing Macri administration, but at the same time, they’ve made it exceptionally clear, both in their public conversations, or statements, and in their discussions with us and the transition team, that they are very much looking towards a very good working relationship and a good diplomatic relationship with the United States, and that they are looking for creating a framework for foreign investment, including U.S. investment, including in areas like Vaca Muerta, which is their Patagonian natural gas area. And so we look forward to continue working with Argentina.
Chile has had a – of course, I’m sure that you’ve all seen that they’ve had a difficult series of protests and challenges in recent days, that President Pinera has made some significant changes to his cabinet. He has announced what I think they call the new social agenda, trying to respond to the concerns that have been enunciated during the course of these protests. And yesterday, he made the difficult decision to cancel – in the context in which Santiago is living right now, to cancel the meetings – the leaders’ meeting of the – of APEC and the COP 25.
I think it’s important to keep in mind the positive agenda that Chile has had as steward of the APEC process over the last 12 months. And although we share with Sebastian Pinera, the president of Chile, regret that the meeting won’t go forward, you should take a look – I would recommend to you the agenda they’ve developed and the progress they’ve made in discussions on helping societies plan for aging populations, and so that they can make sure that there is an effective and equitable provision of social services that they focused on creating priorities for open and – an open trade agenda, which was very much in line with the priorities of this administration here in the United States, that they focused very much on promotion of small- and medium-sized business and entrepreneurship and inclusion of women in the economies of the APEC grouping – also something very much in line with our own agenda.
And so although circumstances have, as President Pinera said, obliged him to focus on Chile’s own domestic priorities at this moment, I think that they’ve developed an admirable record as presiding over the APEC process this year, and that process has produced a strong legacy.
MODERATOR: Okay. Matt’s not here to demand the first question, is he?
QUESTION: He’s the Matt for today.
MODERATOR: Oh, you’re AP. Okay. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: So I’m Matt today? Wow.
QUESTION: Oh, don’t say that.
QUESTION: I’m going to call my mom later and I’ll – (laughter) —
QUESTION: It’s Halloween.
MODERATOR: Big shoes to fill.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Nats win. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah, Nats win. Well, thank you for the honor. This is unprecedented. (Laughter.)
Is there – two questions, one on each, since you addressed both countries: Is there concern about how much influence in the government formula Cristina will have, how much influence she will have on Alberto?
And on Chile, is there indisputable evidence the U.S. has that Russia and foreign agents are sabotaging and trying to mess? I’ve seen press reports, but would like to make clear whether you are suspicious or whether the U.S. has hard evidence of Russia or any other – so in Latin America, the Venezuelan opposition talk about Maduro government as well. There are multiple allegedly perpetrators, but haven’t seen any evidence.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I – somebody actually sent me a snapshot of the ballot that was being cast at least in the city of Buenos Aires a couple of days ago, and it indicated that the candidate and the fellow who won the election was named Alberto Fernandez, and it was the vice president who was Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. We look forward to working with the administration of Alberto Fernandez.
Obviously, and as he and others have said on the campaign trail, it’s a heterogeneous coalition of groups, and within his political party, his political movement, and each will have their say. But we’re looking forward to working with Alberto Fernandez and his administration.
If you look back to some of the comments we’ve made regarding the Russian influence on developments in Chile in recent days, what you’ll see is really a focus on the social media environment in which these have taken place. What’s going on in Chile, as the Chilean political leadership has recognized and as Chilean commentators have recognized, is fundamentally Chileans having a public – sometimes loud and, sadly, overly raucous – debate about Chilean issues. It has on the fringes, very lamentably and probably at high cost economically to the city of Santiago and elsewhere, included violence and arson and even some deaths.
What we’ve commented on regarding Russia is that we can see clear indications of people taking advantage of this debate and skewing it through the use and abuse of social media trolling and seeking – rather than allowing the citizens of Chile to have their own debate about how their country and the courses their country should take, they’ve sought to exacerbate divisions, foment conflict, and all around act as a spoiler to responsible democratic debate. That’s the problem.
QUESTION: And is that Russia or is it also Venezuela?
QUESTION: Maduro has done —
QUESTION: What are you seeing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have seen that indications that Russian – of Russian activity supporting this negative course of the debate. Am I saying that it’s a single point, that it’s (inaudible), all – that it’s the only factor involved, and the only outside factor? No, I’m not.
QUESTION: What – so what are the other factors? Are you saying Maduro, Venezuela? Are you saying Cuba?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You’re saying Venezuela and Cuba. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Are you seeing – are you seeing that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We are seeing – I will say, I certainly saw – and this is just on my personal observation. I am not a – I’m not a digital analytical wizard myself, but I certainly saw organizations such as Telesur exacerbating those debates, and anecdotally I can say that. But as far as any analysis we’ve done, I think I’ll just leave it where I’ve left it.
QUESTION: A question?
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi. Following up on that – L.A. Times – following up on that a little bit, to Luis’s question, you said you’re ready to work with the new Argentine government, and I know before the election some of your people from the embassy were starting to make contact. Can you tell – talk us to a little bit more about how much contact you’ve made with them already and at what levels?
And on Chile, I wondered if you were at all concerned at how quickly the rhetoric turned to – even from Pinera – of war and his quick turn to military. Given the history of that country, I wonder if that’s concerning to you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think I’ll take the last one first.
QUESTION: All right.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Simply to note that the Chilean Government has ended its – I don’t remember the legal term they use there, but it’s a state of emergency.
QUESTION: State of emergency, yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And that I would – I have focused much more on the current expressions of willingness to have an open dialogue, the willingness to set a new legislative agenda and new priorities for his administration as an indication of the priorities of that government and that president. And I wouldn’t want – I wouldn’t pretend to speak for them.
We have relationships, we have diplomatic relationships with – and a robust embassy down in Buenos Aires. Some of these people have been in politics, some of the figures in this administration have been in public life – or the incoming administration, rather, have been in public life for many years. And so through the course of our diplomatic engagement with Argentina over the years, there are people in the State Department who’ve known some of them for 10, 15, 20, 25 years. The ones we’ve known for 25 years are surely vested in their pensions as we speak. (Laughter.)
And so it’s easy to have an open and free-flowing discussion with them. Some of them are – some of the advisors for President-elect Fernandez are members of the Argentine national congress. Others have been in elected positions in provinces. These are people that our mission would be talking to in the regular course of business long before the candidacy of Alberto Fernandez was even announced. So I think you can say with at least some of these people we’ve had very long engagement and discussions.
During the course of the campaign process, we’ve had the same kinds of conversations with them as we would have with any counterparts in any other country, any other democratic country in this hemisphere.
MODERATOR: Okay. Anybody? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Beatriz Pascual with EFE. I wanted to ask a little bit broadly: How do you expect that the change of government in Argentina will impact the Lima Group? Because —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can see, as any of you can see, the comments during the campaign. In their preliminary – excuse me, speaking in tongues – preliminary comments now that they are in the transition, that they criticize the administration of at least some – let me restate that. Let me start over. Some members of the transition group, some incoming elected officials who are – have been part of the Fernandez campaign have been sharply critical of Nicolas Maduro. Others have been less so, but have recognized the lack of democracy in Venezuela, and they’ve focused as well on the need for dialogue. On the campaign trail, Fernandez and others have said that they want to have a broader look at the kinds of dialogue that they need to have. I’ve heard different statements as to whether they would choose to do within the Lima Group or outside. We have urged them to do so from within the Lima Group.
Considering that it is – and we’re not a member of the Lima Group, remember – but it represents almost – almost, not all, but almost every democratic government in South America, and it represents that community of South American republics that are most exposed to the externalities of this crisis, the migration and public health crises. And even Argentina itself has hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have been displaced by what’s going on in Caracas, in Venezuela. And that’s an important grouping for South America.
QUESTION: Yeah, just wondering what formal contacts there have been with the president-elect of Argentina since the election. And is there any plan – I mean, has President Trump got any plans to talk to him that you’re aware of? Would that be in the normal course of events that they’d do that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think I can answer half of that. That’d perhaps be the normal course of events, but I don’t work at the White House. You’d have to take the rest – take that up with them.
MODERATOR: Good answer. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: But apart from that, have there been any formal interactions since the election?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve been in contact both at the mission and beyond with his team.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on what you were mentioning with Russia, particularly talking about the social media trolling, et cetera? What do you think the motivation is? Is it simply a motivation to create chaos, in your view, or is there basically a policy direction that you see them wanting to achieve?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In recent years we’ve seen an increase of Russian engagement in the Americas, in South America in particular – very little of it positive. Starting from a very low base, and very little of it positive.
QUESTION: Is any of it positive?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Excuse me?
QUESTION: Is any of it positive? (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The goal – good quip, but I think I’ll just continue —
QUESTION: It was a question, too, so —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll get to it, then. I’ll get to it. The – they seem to prefer a region divided, and they seem to prefer democratic debate mired in conflict, which is unfortunate. I’m sure there must be some positive engagement somewhere.
QUESTION: Just – sorry – to follow on the Russian involvement, are you seeing it elsewhere? And are you linking that Russian involvement on social media to specific groups or entities? Is it Kremlin-backed, Kremlin-tolerated? How does that work?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re attentive to the risks of this. I don’t think I’m going to go any farther than that for right now.
QUESTION: Is any of it, like, linked to Venezuela given the Russian closeness with the Maduro government?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think I’ll refer back to the answer I gave to you.
QUESTION: And has Chile requested any cooperation from the U.S. in order to deal with these Russian trolls?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have had —
QUESTION: Cyber security or cyber —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve had a good and robust relationship with the Chilean Government for years, across administrations. Our public safety and public security agenda with them is broad and robust, and has been over the years very successful. So yeah, we talk to them about the challenges they’re facing now just as we have talked to them about working bilaterally and in the region for years.
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Said, I’m impressed.
QUESTION: Thank you. The perception is that you were slow to react to what was happening in Chile.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: You were slow to react to the events in Chile.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We were slow to react?
QUESTION: Yes, you were slow to react, respond to these events, that your response would have been, let’s say a lot quicker if the government was not, let’s say, very close to the United States of America. That’s one. And sir, so what is your expectation that would happen over the next weeks, days?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: From where we sit and work and from the engagements that we had immediately with our U.S. mission, particularly focused on the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens and on the general situation initially in metropolitan Santiago, I would not share that – the assertion of an impression of – I would regret that someone might have that impression. I certainly didn’t see it from where I sit.
The government of Sebastian Pinera and really all – met not so long ago with all political parties, and this opened up a social dialogue which has – which is continuing. It’s a very successful, robust democracy, accountable to its citizens. It had a tough – it’s had a tough couple of days, and they’ve recognized – in their own domestic sphere, they’ve expressed the intent to address the social challenges that they face. That’s how democracies work.
And if there was any difference in how we’ve – in the tone that you might – or others might – perceive, I think that’s, at root, the issue. We’re dealing with a robust democracy with a strong track record both socially and economically – but facing some serious challenges, and we deal with them with the respect that they deserve as a robust democracy.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if you have any comments on the accusations that there were some human rights violation during the repression of the protest.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I know that they’ve invited the – they’ve thrown open the doors to inquiries. They’re conducting domestic inquiries, and they’ve thrown open the doors so that the UN Human Rights Commissioner – who also happens to be a Chilean – can send a team down. That seems like pretty responsible behavior, and we’ll see what those domestic and international inquiries produce.
MODERATOR: And where are you – I’m sorry. Which publication are you with?
QUESTION: Agence France Presse.