QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for talking with us this morning.
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s great to be with you, Maria.
QUESTION: So first, let’s set the tone here. We want to get to the latest right off the bat. What do we know about the support for Guaido from the military and security forces, and where is Maduro?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So Maduro spoke last night. He went on a ramble for about an hour. It was the first time he had come out of hiding. He’s still pretty tucked away, unlike Interim President Guaido, who is in the street talking to real Venezuelan people – a very stark contrast, I think indicative of how he feels about – Maduro feels about his own security.
We had the most senior leader come across yesterday and leave Maduro. He was the head of the SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence service, a fellow named Christopher. And we had dozens of others, military depart Maduro’s forces yesterday. Today they expect big rallies. Guaido has been calling for the biggest rally in the history of Venezuela. We expect that there’ll be lots of people taking to the streets today to defend their democracy.
QUESTION: But look at this stronghold of support from Russia and Cuba to Maduro, with Russia providing weapons, Cuba providing intelligence. How significant is that? Viewers need to understand this triangle of strength if we were to see this continued support.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, it’s absolutely the case for a long time that Cubans have had an unbelievable amount of control inside of Venezuela. I think that’s why you see the economy having had such problems over the last five, six, seven years. You have Cubans, communists, in control of the Venezuelan economy and in control of the Venezuelan security situation, and now on top of that we’ve got an expanded role of Russia in Venezuela also propping up the thugs that are the Maduro regime.
QUESTION: So how far is the U.S. going to go to stop Russia from providing weaponry, stop Cuba from this support, and whether it’s intelligence or support for Maduro?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, you’ve seen the work that we’ve done already to raise the cost for the Cubans. We’ve taken a handful of actions. There are more that we will continue to work on. We’ll do the same for the Russians. They need to understand that it is – as the President said, they’ve got to go, and the Russians need to have the cost for that raised. We’re focused on making sure that we do everything we can to take this malign activity which is undermining Juan Guaido, who is the duly elected leader of Venezuela, and take these supports out from underneath him so that he’ll depart the country.
QUESTION: I mean, this is critical to the United States, right? So what is the impact of this support from Cuba on the U.S.? You’re talking about a region a three-hour flight from Miami.
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s right. Look, this has been something the Obama administration took a very different approach to Cuba than the one that President Trump and our team have taken. We’re going to continue to challenge the leadership in Cuba and try and restore a decent way of life in Cuba as well.
But our focus today is Venezuela, Maria. I think I heard you talking a little bit earlier. The humanitarian crisis there alone is staggering. You’ve had 3 million people flee the country. We expect another 2 million if the situation doesn’t change to leave the country this year. This is a country of only 30 million people. That’s more than 10 percent of their population that will have fled.
They have done so because, in spite of the fact that the American taxpayers have been gracious enough to provide enormous medical and food assistance, the Maduro regime continues to allow starving children not to eat and kids who are sick not to get medicine. It’s been going on a long time. The devastation is deep. And it’s why you see the Venezuelan people in the streets today.
QUESTION: Yeah, and obviously Maduro is hiding out and has still not left. So what’s to say – I mean, why do we believe that, in fact, this is the moment that he will take the cue and actually get out of town? Do you think that this is actually the moment, or is he going to continue in hiding? This has been going on for some time, and he still hasn’t left.
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s right, Maria. He’s always there until he’s not. We don’t know precisely when the moment is that he’ll make the right decision for the people of Venezuela. He has shown an utter lack of regard or care for their decency, for their dignity.
Our task is to continue to support all those who are supporting Juan Guaido. It’s not only the people in the National Assembly, but the Organization of American States, all the countries of the Lima Group, now 50-plus countries across the world, each of whom has recognized that the election that Maduro claims his power from was a fraud, it was a sham, that Juan Guaido indeed is the duly elected constitutional leader, and that we need free and fair elections. Our efforts are to drive towards that conclusion. I don’t make predictions about how long it will take. We’re going to continue with this until the Venezuelan people get the democracy that they’re demanding.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. support going to include troops? Are the military troops in the U.S. going to head there and support Guaido?
SECRETARY POMPEO: The President has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do. We’re trying to do everything we can to avoid violence. We’ve asked all the parties involved not to engage in that kind of activity. We’d prefer a peaceful transition of government there where Maduro leaves and a new election is held, but the President has made clear in the event that there comes a moment – and we’ll all have to make decisions about when that moment is and the President will ultimately have to make that decision – he is prepared to do that if that’s what’s required.
QUESTION: Well, the President is trying to send a message to Cuba. He tweeted this last night: “If Cuban Troops and Militia do not immediate CEASE military and other operations for the purpose of causing death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela, a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions, will be placed on the island of Cuba. Hopefully, all Cuban soldiers will promptly and peacefully return to their island!”
What is the plan in terms of sanctions?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, I never get ahead of the team on exactly what those sanctions will be. You saw what we did with what’s called Title III of a piece of legislation back in the ‘90s. No administration had imposed those burdens on Cuba. We did. We’ve announced a set of travel restrictions, monetary restrictions. There’s certainly more to follow. The President, I think, couldn’t have been clearer in the tweet that he put out about the cost there will be to the communist regime in Cuba if they don’t change their way, if they don’t depart Venezuela, and if they don’t cease their support – violent support – inside of that country.
QUESTION: And what about Russia? I mean, how far is the U.S. willing to go to get Russia to stop providing weaponry to Maduro?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So the mission is very clear. The President has laid down a very clear requirement for the Russians. They’ve got to leave. And most importantly, they’ve got to take down that support for Maduro. They are, in fact, the force that is propping up the Maduro regime. I said yesterday, Maria, there are indications that Maduro was prepared to leave and that the Russians asked him not to go. Those are very dangerous things – dangerous for the Venezuelan people and things that create an enormous amount of risk that violence will escalate, something that I think no country in the region wants.
QUESTION: And escalate and impact the broader region as well. I mean, the pictures are looking more and more like Syria and a civil war every day. So – and characterize for our audience the impact on places like Brazil, Colombia, and the United States.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, I’m not sure the analogy to Syria is appropriate. A very different set of challenges. But in terms of the humanitarian crisis, I think the scale here is now almost equal. The Colombians are now hosting over a million six in refugees. Peru, Chile all beginning to be impacted, their economies beginning to be burdened by the cost of hosting those who have fled from Venezuela, and more are streaming outside of Venezuela each and every day. I was down in Cucuta, Colombia now several weeks back. I saw where these people were coming across a river bend, coming across because they were fleeing a place where they could not feed their kids, they could not take care of their children. And these mothers who had been so devastated, who had wanted to stay in their home country, simply couldn’t do so.
QUESTION: Yeah. And then there’s also the question of Guaido and if we were to see the military support Maduro in a bigger way if they were to imprison Guaido.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maduro’s regime has not chosen to do that so far. We have all – not just the United States but every country has made crystal clear to Maduro and those who are supporting him, including the Cubans, taking out the duly elected leader, the constitutionally elected interim president in Venezuela, would be a significant escalation, and there’ll be a response if that should happen.
QUESTION: Yeah, has – so has a red line been crossed in terms of the U.S.?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I don’t talk about red lines. This is a mission, a mission to restore democracy and to begin the process to rebuild seven years of disastrous economic conditions inside of Venezuela. This is a government-owned destruction of their country. I think, Maria, about all the places that have economic challenges. Some of them are caused by natural disasters. Some of them are caused because countries don’t have wealth or capacity. Venezuela is not that. This was because of their socialist government. This was because a leader chose not to honor the desires of his own people. And the enormous destruction of a once proud country’s economy is devastating for the people of that country, and we’re working to restore better conditions.
QUESTION: And very quickly, Mr. Secretary, before you go, a word on China. The Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Bob Lighthizer holding trade talks in China. You have had your own investigation and serious and important approach to China’s behavior. Tell us how you look at this. As we’re talking about business and trade, you’re looking at espionage and bad behavior from China in a whole host of other areas.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, China presents an enormous challenge for the United States. They are a country with 1.5 billion people and therefore a big market for U.S. companies. But at the same time, they pose a national security challenge to us, and we have to do each of those two things at the same time. I hope the trade discussions go well this week in China.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, it’s good to see you. Thanks very much for joining us.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, great to be with you.