Senior State Department Official On Venezuela

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
March 29, 2017


MODERATOR: Thank you very much, and thanks to everyone who’s joined us this afternoon. This is a background conference call with a senior State Department official on Venezuela. I’ll introduce our speaker, lay out the ground rules, and then turn it over to [Senior State Department Official].

This afternoon, we’re joined by [Senior State Department Official]. As a reminder, this is a background call, so you can refer to [Senior State Department Official] as a senior State Department official. This call will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call, and with that I’ll turn it over to our speaker.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you very much. Good afternoon, everyone online. As you no doubt know, the Organization of American States has just completed two days of extraordinary permanent council sessions, permanent council being the meeting of all member-states, March 27 and 28.

The two days of meetings were devoted to the situation in Venezuela. These meetings revealed quite clearly that the Government of Venezuela continues to care deeply about its international reputation in the region, as it should, and its reputation in multilateral organizations such as the OAS. And within that forum in particular but also regionally, it is increasingly – it is becoming increasingly isolated and clearly so.

The Government of Venezuela resorted to procedural antics, ad hominem insults, and a combative stance, but they failed in both of the sessions to prevent member-states from stating their concerns about the state of Venezuela’s democracy and failed to prevent member-states from proposing means by which the OAS can now support a peaceful resolution to the situation in Venezuela.

In that sense, the meetings were a clear and immediate success for the Organization of American States. Mexico in particular, joined by Canada, played extremely productive leadership roles on behalf of a clear majority of likeminded member-states.

We can get into some of the questions you may have thereafter, but let me just also start by reiterating a couple of key points from the United States formal intervention and yesterday’s meeting, so let me just briefly hit a few of them. We share the concerns about the state of democracy in Venezuela. The secretary-general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, laid out in careful detail in his report released March 14th – I guess it was about a 74-page long document he released on the current situation, analyzing the current situation in Venezuela.

We continue to encourage Venezuela to participate in a productive discussion. You can call it a dialogue, call it negotiations – but a discussion on ways to solve the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis that besets Venezuela. Our support is – sorry. Our goal is to support the functioning of democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela, and not seek Venezuela’s suspension from the OAS in the short term. We believe that dialogue is an important component for the Venezuelan people to address Venezuela’s challenges, but for that dialogue to be effective, however, the government must follow through on the commitments it makes and indeed on those commitments it has already made.

President Maduro should permit the democratically elected national assembly to perform its constitutional functions, and it should hold elections as soon as possible. And lastly, the United States calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners, prisoners of conscience in Venezuela, including Leopoldo Lopez.

With that, let me just conclude the opening remarks and turn it back over to you for moving forward.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And, Operator, we’ll take the questions now.

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. And ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you do have a question or a comment today, please press * then 1. Our first question comes from the line of Ramon Sahmkow from AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. I just wanted to confirm that the 20 countries that signed this declaration were the – the 20 – also the 20 countries that voted for the debate at the beginning of the session. And I want to ask you why wasn’t it put to a vote to be officially a declaration by the permanent council?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry. Could you repeat that last part once again?

QUESTION: Yes, I want – yes, I want to know why wasn’t the declaration put to a vote at the permanent council.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It was not put to a vote because a clear majority of the countries had already one-by-one agreed to sign on to the declaration, and so at that point, as much for expediency of time as anything else, and rather than get into a vote, it was already a majority, and that way people could simply sign up to it. That’s often done in the OAS. It’s a procedural tactic but not much more than that. I wouldn’t put much substance on that, whether it was a vote or simply people signing up to the declaration. But again, it was a majority of the member-states.

QUESTION: And the 20 countries are the 20 that voted for the start of the debate?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We need – we were trying to double-check on that one country may have dropped off on that. I’ve asked, in fact, in the last hour for a confirmation on that. We can follow up with you on that. But it was definitely the original 18 that had called for the meeting plus one or two others.

QUESTION: Okay.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Jose Diaz from Reforma newspaper. Please, go ahead. Mr. Diaz, your line is open, sir. Please check your mute button.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much for doing the – I just wanted to check with you how you feel about the proposal by Mexico to establish some kind of review mechanism on the situation in Venezuela every month, as Ambassador de Alba proposed yesterday at the Permanent Council?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. We heard a number of proposals yesterday, including that one from the Mexicans. We kind of like that idea, actually. It is – and in fact, it is probably the most likely – one of the most likely ways that the OAS will now formally engage, moving forward. We expect the Mexicans and others will follow up in the short term here, in the next couple of days, with a proposal for a follow-on meeting to concretize exactly that or similar mechanisms. But yeah, there were a number – as I mentioned earlier, there were a number of proposals that were floated yesterday, but that one in particular seemed to have gotten a lot of traction from member-states.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Nicolas Alonso from El Pais newspaper. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you very much for your time. I just had a couple of questions. Given the potential drop of a country from the list that you just mentioned and what I would consider some reluctance by some Caribbean countries to condemn the situation in Venezuela yesterday in their speeches as harshly as Mexico, for example, or the U.S. did, are you confident that this majority of countries is, indeed, united? Or could there be – could this – could it dissolve, maybe depending on what the next steps are?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, clearly always what is being put before the assembled nations – every country comes at it with their own national perspective, and it, quite literally, depends on the question being asked. But we did see – for those of you that don’t track on a daily basis the OAS views and statements, we have seen actually significant movement in a number of the statements made by a number of countries yesterday, compared to, say, where some of the same countries were a few months ago.

Quite frankly, the situation on the ground in Venezuela is changing. And as we saw on Monday and Tuesday, the – not just the tone and tenor, but the content of the Venezuelan interventions or engagements were so dismissive that they did themselves, quite frankly, a lot of damage, and – no, we expect that we have a clear solid majority in the OAS, as was mentioned yesterday. And a majority has agreed now that the OAS is an appropriate vehicle for moving forward and trying to consider next steps and the whole range of tools and options available to the OAS, and I don’t expect that to change fundamentally.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you do have any questions or comments today, please press * then 1.

Our next question comes from the line of Haik Gugarats from Argus Media. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Two questions, really. What’s the current level of direct engagement between State Department or the administration and the Maduro government? Are there any talks similar to what we’ve seen last year? Secondly, do you have a view on a potential spillover of the crisis into neighboring countries? We saw reports of Venezuelan troops found in a border region of Colombia. You been talking with Colombia, Brazil, and others about spillover effects?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. We continue to have formal diplomatic relations with Venezuela, of course. We communicate bilaterally, we communicate multilaterally. They have – we have a charge d’affaires there; they have a full team here, both at the OAS as well as bilaterally. I won’t go into the details of those diplomatic engagements at this time, though.

And with regards to the spillover potential, I think you said bombing across the border. I’m aware of a concern in recent days about possible encampment of some Venezuelan troops on the Colombian side of the border near a river that has been shifting its course over time. But we are – absolutely the United States is discussing the situation with – not only with Venezuela but the other neighboring countries most immediately affected, to include in the Caribbean.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Luis Alonso from the AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi. Many thanks, again, for doing this for a second day in a row. This is something special, it seems. I would like to follow up on my question from yesterday about the format of the dialogue moving on. If you could please talk a little bit about how you see it changes compared to the format with the Vatican in it and the three former presidents. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, sure. I mean, that’s all under discussion. How the international community engages to support this is one of the things we expect to hear from other member-states in coming days. The role of the Vatican, as you suggested, is a critical extra-regional role. But overall, the onus really is and remains on the Government of Venezuela to take action. They know what they need to do. The commitments that they’ve already made to permitting the national assembly to perform its constitutional functions, to hold elections as soon as possible, to immediately release political prisoners – that’s where the onus and the focus really should be not only at this point, but moving forward. The structure that we all use to pursue that is, quite frankly, secondary and only comes into play if the Government of Venezuela refuses to do those things that are immediately in its power to do today.

QUESTION: Just to clarify --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We are quite flexible, frankly, on the tactics moving forward and the – if you will, the organogram of engagement.

QUESTION: Okay. And just to clarify, the number of countries in the declaration are now 18, not 20, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I believe it’s 19. We’re trying to confirm that number --

QUESTION: Nineteen.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- and exactly who did sign on.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You’re welcome. Thank you all very much.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Cristina Garcia from EFE News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this call. So my question is: When United States says that it wants elections as soon as possible, as you’re referring as the election that was postponed, the original ones, or, as Maduro said, like, general elections as soon as possible to resolve the situation in Venezuela? Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: At a minimum, those elections that were supposed to have been held last year. Secondly, they need to establish an electoral calendar for the municipal elections that are supposed to have been held by the middle of this year. We’re already in March, practically April, and they have yet to even announce a electoral calendar. There need to be primaries and many other steps that need to move forward. It’s not clear.

They’ve made no indication since these – I think it was last October the foreign minister announced the suspension of – or the electoral – the CNE announced the suspension of the vote last year. And of course, there’s the referendum that was never held last year because it was squelched by the government.

They need to move forward with plans for all of that. And if all the parties within Venezuela seek, as part of their political discussions, dialogue or negotiations, if they want to advance the dates for presidential elections, that’s – frankly, as long as it’s consistent with the constitution and their own agreements within Venezuela, the international community, I’m sure, would support it. The goal here is a political solution to a political problem, and elections is the glide path; it is the roadway ahead for resolving this political crisis.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from the line of Isabel Fleck from Folha de Sao Paulo. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. You said that the U.S. Government is talking to other countries in the region. I’d like to – and President Trump also talked to Brazilian President Temer on Venezuela recently. What does the U.S. expect from Brazil and these countries in the region concerning the situation in Venezuela?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Just as Brazil and many other regional partners have done in recent days and weeks, we expect what they’ve demonstrated, which is solidarity with the Venezuelan people and their democracy, support for the OAS as the appropriate regional venue for pursuing a political solution to this political crisis. When and how Brazil and other member-states decide to take particular roles will be up to each of those countries. But we’re very heartened by the role Brazil and many other countries, large and small, have taken a step forward at this time.

QUESTION: But what kind of role would it be? I mean, the U.S. expects any kind of role in the solution?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re not going to dictate a particular role to Brazil or anyone else.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: And [Moderator], at this time, there are no other questions in queue, sir. Please continue.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you so much And thanks to all our listeners and participants. As a reminder, this was a background call. Our speaker should be attributed as a senior State Department official. And now that we have concluded the call, we’ll lift the embargo. Thanks very much, everyone.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Wait. Excuse me.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We can go back to that question as to how many countries signed on to this declaration yesterday: We can now confirm that there were indeed 20 member-states.

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Operator. And with that, thanks to everyone for holding on. Apologies for the hiccup there, but thanks so much. And now, we are actually concluded and we will lift the embargo. Thanks so much.