MR PALLADINO: Thanks for coming. We are lucky to have with us today our Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. Mr. Abrams will make some opening remarks and then be happy to take some questions. Please.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you. Thank you. Good morning. A number of comments to make about the situation. First, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet visited Caracas last week. There are over 715 political prisoners and military prisoners being held arbitrarily in Venezuela, and we are hoping that the high commissioner’s representatives, who are currently in Venezuela, who stayed there when she left, will visit the country’s most notorious prisons and visit political prisoners. And we hope that her report, which is due out July 5th, will reveal the brutal truths that victims of the regime suffer every day. We hope the report will call, as so many democracies around the world have, for free elections as a central part of the solution to Venezuela’s crisis.
A word on the humanitarian situation: Instead of caring for or worrying about the millions of poor, sick, or hungry citizens, the Maduro regime is spending millions of dollars on military purchases. We learned recently of a $38 million purchase of military uniforms. In May, Venezuela signed a $209 million air defense contract with Russia to repair an air defense system, to buy nine Sukhoi fighter jets, and to buy eight transport helicopters. The regime also continues giving foreign aid to Cuba, providing oil without payment in exchange, unless the payment is the repressive intelligence apparatus, manned by about 2,500 Cuban agents that Cuba maintains in Venezuela to help keep the regime in power.
Yesterday, a Russian military aircraft arrived in Caracas, which the Russians say was carrying additional technicians to service previously sold arms systems. What we do know for sure is that it carried no humanitarian aid. And right now, the USNS Comforthospital ship is heading into the Caribbean and South America, and will dock at a number of ports to bring medical care to Venezuelan refugees and local residents while Russia is sending its warship the Gorshkov and more military technicians to Venezuela.
Inside Venezuela, the Maduro regime continues to undermine democratic institutions, to carry out human rights abuses, and to engage in rampant and extremely widespread corruption. The Maduro regime continues to drive the economy into the ground. Even Russian and Chinese officials have expressed frustration with Maduro’s poor decisions. It’s very clear that Maduro is not capable of solving Venezuela’s many crises.
The last remaining democratic institution in Venezuela is the National Assembly, but now, 20 National Assembly deputies have been stripped of their immunity. More than a dozen of them forced into exile; two have been arbitrarily detained. The regime is methodically working to destroy Venezuela’s democratically elected parliament. So we ask the nations of the Lima Group, the International Contact Group, the members of the European Union, and indeed all democracies to stand behind the National Assembly and denounce the regime’s systematic persecution.
This is one of the reasons why the notion that Maduro might remain president to preside over free elections and a transition to democracy is laughable. These attacks on the only remaining democratic institution in Venezuela are yet another proof that the Maduro regime cannot be trusted to organize free and fair elections.
Interim President Juan Guaido continues to travel throughout the country distributing humanitarian assistance, organizing health clinics, and spreading an important message: that he seeks a peaceful, democratic transition. Maduro’s security forces oppress Venezuelans who demand a better future and they censor communications involving Guaido. But they’ve been unable to suppress the rallies when Interim President Guaido travels throughout the country. Those rallies have been large and impressive, including very recently, for example, cities like Barinas, Hugo Chavez’s birthplace, cities that were once Chavez strongholds. We support Interim President Guaido’s efforts. The barrier to a peaceful resolution remains Maduro’s refusal to step aside.
MR PALLADINO: Reuters, Lesley.
MR ABRAMS: Hi.
QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Abrams. I wonder if you can comment on the report today in the Washington Post – or it was actually yesterday, I think – regarding the fact that the General Cristopher Figuera was – is – has landed in the U.S. What exactly are you planning to do with him, ask him? What are you hoping to get from him in your campaign against Venezuela – against Maduro?
MR ABRAMS: Well, he’s not under detention.
QUESTION: No, I know, but —
MR ABRAMS: He’s in the U.S. and he’s a free man. I would like to talk to him myself. I assume other U.S. officials would like to, because he quite obviously, as we can see from his position and we can see from the Post interview, has a lot of interesting things to say about the Maduro regime and about life in Venezuela.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s go BBC, Barbara.
QUESTION: This was obviously a very sophisticated coup plot, which didn’t end up ousting Maduro. Do you think that it is over or do you see it lying low for a while? I mean, he didn’t purge anybody either, not essentially, but it seems difficult to imagine something like this being organized again in the near future.
MR ABRAMS: This is June 25th. June 24th is the commemoration every year of the Battle of Carabobo, which was perhaps the greatest victory of Simon Bolivar over royalist forces, beginning of independence for Venezuela. And every year, there’s a big military parade, as you’d expect on Army Day, but not yesterday. Why not? Our conclusion is that Maduro was actually afraid to permit a military parade because he has so little faith in the loyalty of the Venezuelan military to him and his regime. So we can’t predict the future. I can only say that it seems that if you ask Maduro, his fears of another coup are not over.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up, if I may, and that’s about the attempts to have a new Oslo process, these talks.
MR ABRAMS: Yeah.
QUESTION: I know that you’re very skeptical about the talks. You implied that in your comments. But if this is going to drag on for a long time, which is also an option, not just the scenario you suggested, it’s quite cruel what’s happening to the people, whoever’s responsible. Do you see any role for talks or diplomacy involving Maduro and the opposition? Because they seem to, some members of the opposition seem to.
MR ABRAMS: Sure. I’m not skeptical about the talks; I’m skeptical about the regime. That is there have been previous rounds of negotiations, and the Maduro regime has used them for delay, just to gain time, and also to try to divide the opposition. We are seeking, as Juan Guaido is, a peaceful resolution, and the negotiated solution would in many ways be the best solution.
So we’re not skeptical about the talks or about the Norwegian effort. We’re just skeptical about whether the regime is serious about them. I mean, as an example, if they were serious would they not stop arresting opposition deputies, driving them into embassies and into exile? If what you’re doing is arresting the people on the other side of the table, how serious are you about talks?
So we hope that they succeed. I met last week with the negotiating team for President Guaido in an effort to compare notes and be sure that we could answer any questions they had. So we were hopeful that the talks will produce something, but again, there’s no evidence yet that the regime is serious about them.
On the humanitarian side, the regime has sold tons of gold, tons of gold. You’ve seen press reports. Where’s the money? Why isn’t it being spent on the people of Venezuela? How is it possible for a country in this economic situation to be giving millions of barrels of free oil to Cuba instead of trying to sell it and give the proceeds to the people of Venezuela? I don’t think there’s any question as to who’s responsible for the humanitarian situation today any more than there was in January or in December. It’s the regime through corruption and incompetence.
We’ve, as you know, tried to get humanitarian aid in. The one rule we’ve had is that the aid has to go to people who need it, meaning it can’t be distributed by or given to the regime, because we know very well that the regime will use it for political purposes. So the church, the Red Cross, Caritas, any NGOs that are reliable would be fine ways to distribute aid. The barrier to having more humanitarian aid is the regime’s refusal to accept it and the regime’s waste of resources that could be dedicated to getting these kinds of goods for the people of Venezuela.
MR PALLADINO: ABC Spain. David.
QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to ask you, talking about the humanitarian aid: Is it any point of concern, the corruption allegations of the misuse of humanitarian aid in Cucuta by two people associated with the opposition? Is it any point of concern to you? Do you think President Guaido acted as he should have acted in this problem?
MR ABRAMS: I think President Guaido did exactly what he should have done, what any government would have done. You immediately call for an investigation. The investigation is going to have to be done by Colombian officials because these events took place in Colombia, not in Venezuela.
MR PALLADINO: To CNN, Kylie.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. One thing that the administration has maintained is that the military option for backing the ouster of Maduro has been on the table for months. Is that still the case today?
MR ABRAMS: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. And expanding a little bit off of the ex-spy chief who is here in town, you seem a little bit surprised that he’s here. So can you clarify if there’s been any —
MR ABRAMS: He’s not here, if you mean Washington.
QUESTION: Sorry. Sorry, in the U.S.
MR ABRAMS: At least to my knowledge he’s not here.
QUESTION: So he’s just in the U.S.
MR ABRAMS: Yeah.
QUESTION: And did the U.S. Government support him coming here at all?
MR ABRAMS: We did not bring him to the United States. But I’d say we’re happy he’s here. Makes it easier to have more conversations with him, which, as I said, I plan to do and I’m sure others would like to do also.
MR PALLADINO: Sir, in the blue. Outlet, please.
QUESTION: Hi. This is Mehmet, I’m from TRT World. The article that appeared on Washington Post that my colleague mentioned, there’s a claim in there which says over $100 million have been requested to flip important figures in the Maduro government, including the chief justice. Has any U.S. taxpayer dollars been used in this way to —
MR ABRAMS: No. None, never.
MR PALLADINO: Back row, please. Your outlet?
QUESTION: Thank you. Maria Luisa Rossel, Caracol Radio from Colombia. So how hopeful are you that the presence of General Figuera here in the U.S. will help to persuade other generals in Venezuela to support the Interim President Juan Guaido?
MR ABRAMS: Well, I’m hopeful in two ways. First, General Figuera left. What happened to him? He’s here in the U.S. As I said, he’s not under any kind of constraints. He can go wherever he wants. He is out from under sanctions. You remember that when he left, we took the sanctions off, when he left the regime. So that’s a sign to other officials as to what their future might be if they do the same thing.
Secondly, he has a lot to say. I would assume that the Post interview is not the last he’ll do. And he will be saying things about the regime that may come as news to members of the military or others in the regime, and that may help change their opinions about the regime and about why it does not deserve their support.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s go NBC, Abbie.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on the earlier question and ask: What is the latest on U.S. efforts to get humanitarian aid inside of Venezuela? Are there still boxes of aid in Cucuta, in warehouses? What is the current state of affairs on that?
MR ABRAMS: Some of the – it’s a mix. The perishable items that were in Cucuta and elsewhere – there were some in Curacao, too, for example – have had to be distributed. And they are distributed to a combination of Venezuelan refugees and local citizens. The nonperishable items can be warehoused, and there are still lots of items in Cucuta. We’ve been able to move some things into Venezuela. Some of the medical kits were moved out of Colombia to other places and then there were some arrangements to get them into Venezuela.
It’s hard to do, again, because we won’t countenance turning them over to the regime, because we know how they will be abused. We have a lot of information, for example, about the CLAP program, which is theoretically helping the poorest Venezuelans but we know it’s been a subject of immense amounts of corruption. Treasury’s FinCEN put out a report about three weeks ago about corruption in the CLAP program.
So it’s a mix. Some is still in – where it was staged. Some has been distributed. Some – I’d say small amounts we’ve been able to get into Venezuela.
QUESTION: And one other, if I could.
MR PALLADINO: Sure.
QUESTION: Given the numbers of people that we see fleeing and the comparisons now to Syria, being one of the larger humanitarian crises we’ve seen in a long time, is the U.S. considering taking in more Venezuelan refugees during this next year?
MR ABRAMS: Well, we don’t, in a sense, “take in.” I mean, people come here or they don’t come here. And there will unquestionably be more Venezuelans coming to the United States because there will be more Venezuelans going everywhere. We’ve seen the – I think it’s the UN estimate, we’re now up to about four million – others would say higher – and it’s going to hit – at a certain point it’ll hit five million. The numbers in the U.S. are small compared to the numbers in, say, Colombia, or Peru. And they grow faster, needless to say, in the countries that are nearer to Venezuela.
QUESTION: Would the government support temporary protected status for Venezuelans —
MR ABRAMS: Well, the President made a comment about that about a week ago. I’ve said before that that’s under consideration. There’s actually still not been a decision on that. There are – I don’t want to say there are no deportations of Venezuelans except under circumstances in which we’re talking about people who have been convicted of crimes. But I can’t recall the deportation of a Venezuelan, and that’s partly because it’s almost impossible to get the documents that you need from Venezuela because of the regime, and there are no direct flights between the United States and Venezuela. So again, I don’t want to say deportations have stopped, but the numbers are extremely low if there are any.
MR PALLADINO: Last question. BBC, go ahead.
QUESTION: Has the President lost interest in this?
MR ABRAMS: No. I don’t know where – well, I mean, nobody was quoted in that article. I don’t know where that comes from. I can tell you that the day the article – I think I’m right in saying this – actually, the day the article appeared, the President met with Prime Minister Trudeau and raised with him Venezuela, and they had a good discussion of Venezuela, which is not a sign of uninterest. In the same day that the President was meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau, the Vice President was in Miami to see off the USNS Comfort. So the notion that there is at the highest levels of the government a diminution of interest is just simply false.
QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up?
MR PALLADINO: All right, last one, let’s go Lesley.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just to follow up on that, I mean, the effort to grow the campaign and the allies that side with you seems to have stalled from where we’re sitting on this side. Is there any kind of consideration to try to change your strategy, maybe include the – Maduro in some kind of unity government, any kind of strategy to make this work?
MR ABRAMS: Well, I think the number 54 will grow soon.
QUESTION: Is there something we – you’re going to tell us?
MR ABRAMS: No. Governments can announce for themselves when they want to recognize Guaido. It’s not for us to make that announcement. But I think there will be a change in that number.
Given the record that Maduro has built for himself of repression, given the stealing of the election in May 2018, it’s hard to see how he is part of the solution or could be part of a transition government. We talk to the members of the Contact Group and the Lima Group. We talk to the Norwegians. We talk, of course, to lots of Venezuelans, including Chavistas, about options for change in Venezuela. And there is no iron formula that the United States has set out that must be met or change will not be possible, but the notion of Maduro being a contributor to a democratic transition is, I think, very hard to figure out.
I would urge you to take a look at an interview today in Madrid, published today, with Felipe Gonzalez, who talks about the transition and the need for Maduro not to be part of the transition.
QUESTION: Is that the view of all of these people you speak to – the Lima Group, the Contact Group, the Venezuelans, includingChavistas – that there’s no role at all for Maduro?
MR ABRAMS: Well, there is a very important role for Maduro —
QUESTION: Aside from him leaving.
MR ABRAMS: — which is to put his country ahead of his own personal interests. And that is, in fact, an important role, and it is for any leaders of regimes that have built a similar track record. But again, the United States is not trying to persecute Nicolas Maduro. What we’re trying to do is send a message that the contribution that he has to make to Venezuela now, which is an important contribution, is to let the country move forward, to step aside and let the country return to democracy and begin to rebuild its economy.
MR PALLADINO: Great. Thank you very much.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you.