MODERATOR: Hello. I’m Vanessa Acker, the Deputy Director of the Brussels Media Hub, and I would like to welcome participants to today’s interactive online press briefing, Live At State. Today we will be speaking with Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams. And before I turn it over to Special Representative Abrams for opening remarks, I would like to make just a few comments on the procedure for asking your questions.
You may submit your questions at any time by clicking on the Questions tab and typing in the box that says, “Type your question.” Si quieren hacernos llegar sus preguntas en español, también pueden escribir sus preguntas en español. If you see a colleague ask a question that you’d like us to answer, you can upvote it in the queue by clicking the Like button to the right of that question. We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the limited time that we have, which is approximately 25 minutes. So show your support for the questions that you’d most like us to cover, and you can also submit questions or notify us of technical difficulties by emailing TheBrusselsHub@state.gov.
With that, let’s get started. Special Representative Abrams, thank you for joining us today, and now I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here in Brussels. The main purpose is discussions with EU officials about Venezuela. There is a lot of alignment between EU and U.S. policy on Venezuela. We have the same goal, and the goal is the restoration of democracy and prosperity, because the situation in Venezuela is, from the humanitarian point of view, terrible. We know that, and we know there are now about four and a half million refugees who really are all over the hemisphere, but particularly in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador. We also know that the Venezuelan people are suffering greatly, and they are suffering from human rights abuses as well of a really brutal regime. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, yesterday made another report on the human rights abuses that are taking place, which go up to and include thousands of extrajudicial killings.
We have asked the EU to join us in keeping the pressure on the regime, because needless to say, they don’t want to give up power. They are really raking in the benefits, and billions of dollars have been stolen. So that’s why we need additional pressure on the regime to make sure that these negotiations – which Norway has been hosting, and which are suspended at the moment – may someday bear fruit. Because we all share this, again, this same resolve: this regime must come to an end for democracy and prosperity to return to the people of Venezuela.
MODERATOR: Thank you for those remarks. Now I will turn to the question-and-answer portion of the briefing, and we – our first question is the question that we received in advance from Nora Gamez Torres with The Miami Herald in the United States. She asks: “How does the presence of members of the FARC in Venezuela and Maduro’s open support for them change the thinking behind U.S. policy regarding Venezuela?”
MR ABRAMS: This is a very dangerous development, but the basis for it is the Maduro regime’s support over the last few years for the ELN, the other major Colombian terrorist – narco-terrorist group, which is really being hosted in Venezuela. It isn’t there against the will of the regime; it’s there with the cooperation of the regime. Now you have one of the FARC leaders, Marquez, saying he’s going back to combat. We don’t know yet how many people from the FARC will join him. But he’s in Venezuela. And his video announcing the return to combat was made in Venezuela. This is very dangerous, because if there are cross-border attacks from Venezuela into Colombia, we can expect the Colombians to react. And obviously, we would be fully supportive of Colombia in that situation.
So I think all of the neighbors, and really everyone in the international community, should be very worried about this dangerous support for narco-terrorist groups by the Maduro regime.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that answer. Our next question comes to us from Luis Facal with Voice of America. He asks: “The Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States announced Monday that this week will begin the process for the activation of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. What does that mean for the United States strategy on Venezuela?”
MR ABRAMS: This is correct; this should be the week when this happens, the calling for a meeting under what Americans tend to call the Rio Treaty and Latins tend to call the TIAR. It’s a bringing together again of the organ of consultation of the member-states to talk about what steps they will take. It is wrong to think – some people do – that, oh, this is military action, this is the invasion. If you think about the crisis in Venezuela, it has a huge impact on the whole region. Start with the refugee flow, but there’s also the question we were just talking about of narcotics trafficking and of guerilla activities – the FARC and the ELN. And there is the question of the spread of nondemocratic repressive regimes, as opposed to the consolidation of democracy in the region.
So we have supported this idea, which came really from South American countries, to reactivate this organ of consultation to talk about ways in which the member countries, the signatories to the treaty, the TIAR, can better integrate our responses to the crisis in Venezuela.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes to us from Camilo Merlano with TV Caracol in Colombia. And he asks: “In a few hours, the Bolivian armed forces will start the military exercises at the frontier with Colombia that Maduro ordered. What do you think about these exercises, and what would be the support and response from the United States if Venezuela attacks Colombia?”
MR ABRAMS: It is correct that Maduro has ordered military exercises on the border. I hope it’s just a political act without any security or military meaning. And I hope that the armed forces of Venezuela will not allow Maduro to drive them into some additional risks. I hope they are not crazy enough to engage in any kind of attacks on Colombia, and it is certainly the case that Colombia will have full American support if that happens.
MODERATOR: Our next question is also submitted in advance from Nora Gamez Torres with the – actually, we’re going to go to the following question from – we’re going to go to the question from Mike Singh with TC Media in the United States. He’s asking: “What is being done to date, to include NGOs and other actors in Guyana, to assist with the heavy influx of Venezuelan refugees flowing across the border into Guyana?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, we have this question really in the entire circle around Venezuela. There are about a million and a half refugees in Colombia. In percentage terms, the greatest numbers are in the Dutch islands, in Aruba and Curacao. That is where Venezuelan refugees make up more than 10 percent of the population now. And there is a flow into Guyana, though it is slow – or it is smaller and slower than the flows that are going west.
In all of these cases, the United States is trying to help. Last week we announced an additional $120 million for help to the countries around Venezuela for handling Venezuelans who have been forced to leave their country. And the way we spend that money is precisely working with UN agencies like UNHCR, with a variety of NGOs and charities, including, for example, the Catholic Church. So this is the effort, and there has been a complaint – I have to say one can see why – from the neighboring countries that if you look at the refugee flow, which is the largest in the history of Latin America, the amounts are a lot lower than in Syria where the amount of money that’s gone, say, to Turkey or Jordan to help them deal with refugee flows.
So more help is needed. That’s why we increased the amount. I’m sure in the future, if there is no change in Venezuela, we’ll do more. And we ask other countries, such as the EU, to do more as well.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Our next question comes to us from Al Jazeera’s English service, Teresa Bo. She asks: “U.S. sanctions in countries like Cuba and Iran have not worked in the past because their governments remain in power. Why do you think the sanctions will work this time against Venezuela?”
MR ABRAMS: Sanctions do work best when they are multilateral and when they’re in a context of multilateral political support. That is the case of Venezuela. There are Canadian sanctions; there are EU sanctions; Brazil a few weeks ago imposed travel restrictions. I think the EU is on the verge of imposing more sanctions on Venezuela – personal sanctions. And remember, we’ve got 55 countries that already recognize Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president. We’ve got the Lima Group of Latin American democracies. We’ve got the U.S., Canada, and the EU. So the context is one of considerable global support for the democratic opposition in Venezuela, for Interim President Guaido. I think in this context the kind of sanctions the U.S. is doing will have a real impact, are having a real impact.
MODERATOR: Our next question that comes to us was also submitted in advance by Martin Villena with Agencia Andina in Peru. He asks: “Will the United States invade Venezuela? Is there unity among the Venezuelan opposition when it comes to facing the Maduro regime?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, on the military question, the President has said all options are on the table. They always are. I don’t know why anybody would be surprised at a president saying that. It’s a statement of fact. We have these options; they exist. That is not our policy. Our policy now is economic, financial, diplomatic, political pressure on the regime. That’s what we are doing.
I’m sorry, the second part of the question was?
MODERATOR: He asked: “Is there unity among the Venezuelan opposition?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, it’s an interesting question because I took this position in January, and a lot of people said to me the Venezuelan opposition is famously divided. Okay, they’re behind Juan Guaido now, but give it two months or maybe three months. Others would say, well, you have four months. But now it’s September and the opposition is united behind Juan Guaido. As a matter of fact, several days ago the smaller parties in the opposition coalition, which under their agreement are entitled to name the next National Assembly president in January, said, “We don’t want to do that. We are behind Juan Guaido and we must all remain united behind him.” I think it’s very striking. The degree of unity is very great, and he is clearly the leader of the opposition.
So I am gratified by it. I think, much more importantly, Venezuelans should be gratified to see the democratic forces in their country remain united.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes to us from Gabriela Perozo with VPITV. Does – and she asks: “Does the United States have proof that Maduro’s regime is harboring Colombian rebels inside Venezuela? This would allow the United States Government to arrest the terrorists inside Venezuela and also the authorities that are harboring them. Will the story of President Noriega be repeated?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, the story of President Noriega of course did involve the U.S. invasion, though it’s worth noting that part of that, we tried to make an agreement with Noriega and said to him, as we’ve said to Maduro, this is not about vengeance, this is not about getting after you, but you need to leave, and he refused to leave, and the rest is – the rest is history. So I think on the question, the initial part of the question, we have intelligence information. It’s very clear. I mean, I don’t think anybody’s even doubting the presence of FARC and ELN figures in Venezuela. We have intelligence information about the nature of their relationship with the regime, with the army.
And there are actually places in western Venezuela that have really been abandoned by the Venezuelan regime – that’s ELN territory – which you have to think must be regretted and even resented by the Venezuelan military, the abandonment of sovereign Venezuelan territory to foreigners, to any foreigners, which is what the FARC and ELN are.
I would say we have sufficient information, but I think, frankly, the international press has sufficient information to know that these ELN figures are there, and I don’t think there’s any doubt about where the FARC guys have gone.
MODERATOR: Another question in advance. This one also from Nora Gamez Torrez with Miami Herald in the United States. She asks: “Is a meeting between President Trump and Maduro out of the question if Maduro attends UNGA?”
MR ABRAMS: Yes. That’s not – I would – I guess I’ll let the White House talk about the President’s meetings. But let’s just say that would be very, very, very surprising.
MODERATOR: Okay. We – another question in advance from Pedro Cordeiro with Expresso in Portugal. I’m sorry – with – from Pedro Pereira with Agencia Lusa in Portugal. He asks: “Given the situation of the state-owned oil company, how do you see the transfer of the Venezuelan company headquarters from Lisbon to Moscow?”
MR ABRAMS: We have seen, in the course of all this year, a greater and greater reliance by PDVSA and by the regime on the Russians, both the Russian Government and also on Rosneft, the Russian oil company. More and more of the PDVSA oil is being given and sold to Rosneft. Rosneft is transporting it. Rosneft is merchandising it, if you will, laundering it and selling it to other destinations. Rosneft is arranging financing. So Rosneft and Moscow have become even more important to the survival of the regime. And I think the move of the headquarters is a nice symbol of that.
MODERATOR: Question from – oh, I’m sorry, we already did this question. Question from Pedro Cordeiro with Expresso Portugal. He asks: “President Donald Trump has said that all options are on the table. Is the U.S. closer to armed conflicts or armed action against the regime of Nicolas Maduro?”
MR ABRAMS: I would say, no, the United States is not closer. But I do worry a lot about the Venezuelan-Colombian border. I worry about the presence of the ELN and the FARC in Venezuela. I worry about the intentions of the Maduro regime, and we just talked about this military exercises that Maduro has ordered in the border area. I think we should all worry about whether the Maduro regime intends to try deliberately to escalate tensions, and we all need to keep our eye on that.
MODERATOR: Another question from Juan Merlano with Caracol TV in Colombia. He asks: “Is the United States going to include Venezuela in the list of countries that support terrorist groups? Would you support Duque’s government in denouncing them at the UN General Assembly?”
MR ABRAMS: Well, there is a small technical question here, which I should mention, and that is: There is no Maduro government as far as we’re concerned. So – there is a Guaido government. Maduro is no longer, in our view, the legitimate president of Venezuela. So it raises a legal question about how you handle questions about sponsorship of terrorism. But I think it’s clear that the Maduro regime, if it is willing to increase support for the FARC and raise tensions on the border in order to protect the FARC and ELN, which are terrorist groups, is getting closer and closer to an – as it has engaged more and more deeply in direct support for terrorism. And both we and I think more broadly the other nations in the world are going to have to look at that very squarely and head on.
MODERATOR: Okay. Another question from eldiario in Spain from Victoria – I’m sorry. A question from Gabriela Perozo. She asks: “President Donald Trump’s sanctions against Iran and Venezuela have increased demand for a Russian brand of crude oil. Rosneft is the company that has benefitted most from this. Can this Russian company be sanctioned by the United States?”
MR ABRAMS: Yes, it can be. We have not gotten to that point yet. I think it is true that Rosneft is making a lot of money out of Venezuela, because I think they’re buying these increased amounts of crude oil from Venezuela at a big discount and then they’re selling them – refined products like gasoline, kerosene – at a big markup. I mean, they’re helping them but they are really squeezing them and making money out of this. At some point, we will have to consider the question of Rosneft’s conduct and what kind of reaction we want to have to it.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ve got one – time for one final question. I’m sorry. That was actually all the time that we have.
MR ABRAMS: Ah, sorry.
MODERATOR: All the time that we have for today. Thank you for your questions and thank you, Special Representative Abrams, for joining us today.
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