Briefing on U.S. Participation in the General Assembly of the OAS

Special Briefing
Kevin Sullivan, U.S. Interim Representative to the Organization of American States and Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Andean, Brazilian, and Southern Cone Affairs
Via Teleconference
June 19, 2017

MS NAUERT: Good morning, everyone. Thanks so much for everyone who’s called in this morning for the on-the-record call to preview the OAS General Assembly and its agenda. We’ll also talk about the United States support for a unified regional approach to help Venezuela find a peaceful, democratic, and comprehensive solution to its current problem.

Our speakers are joining us today from Cancun, Mexico, which is this year’s site for the OAS General Assembly. I’ll introduce our speakers, I’ll state the ground rules, and then turn it over to them, and ultimately to you for your questions.

Today we’re joined by U.S. Interim Representative to the OAS, Kevin Sullivan, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian, Brazilian, and Southern Cone Affairs Michael Fitzpatrick. The attribution is on the record for this call, and the content of the call is embargoed until the call concludes. With that, I’ll turn it over to our speakers. Kevin and Michael, go right ahead.

MR SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you, Heather. Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. As Heather mentioned, we are calling in from the Organization of American States meetings in Cancun. And on behalf of the U.S. delegation, we want to thank Mexico for hosting this general assembly. My – I’ll begin with an overview of the deputy secretary’s participation in the OAS General Assembly meeting and discuss some of our priorities for the meeting. And then I’ll turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Mike Fitzpatrick to talk with you more about addressing the situation in Venezuela in particular.

So later today, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will join foreign ministers from across the Americas here in Cancun at the 47th General Assembly of the OAS. The theme of the meeting this year is strengthening dialogue and concerted action for prosperity, and we’re hopeful that this meeting will serve to bolster a regional cooperation to advance a shared vision for strengthening prosperity, security, democracy, and the protection of human rights throughout the region.

Deputy Secretary Sullivan’s participation underscores U.S. support for the institution of the OAS and our long-term commitment to advancing its unique mission and shared values as the preeminent multilateral organization in the Western Hemisphere. The OAS is the vehicle through which we can work together to improve the lives of our fellow citizens in the Western Hemisphere and bring light to the democratic principles enshrined in the OAS charter and in the landmark Inter-American Democratic Charter. We think the OAS’s work is vital to the advancement and protection of democracy and human rights, and building strong and effective democratic institutions, which are, of course, essential to lasting peace, prosperity, and stability in the region. The OAS also plays a critical role on anti-crime, anti-corruption, counter-narcotics and counterterrorism efforts, as well as to the region’s development and economic prosperity.

So in terms of this year’s general assembly, the U.S. has some clear priorities. The first is to underscore our commitment to sustained U.S. engagement with our partners across the Western Hemisphere at the ministerial level, and highlight the economic and political importance of the region to the Trump administration. President Trump recognizes the enormous importance of the Americas. He’s met with Prime Minister Trudeau, Argentine President Marci, Peruvian President Kuczynski, and he’s spoken with leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago, amongst others. So he’s been very, very engaged.

The fact that Secretary Tillerson’s first bilateral visit was to Mexico also speaks to the importance of our relationship with Mexico and the region. He has also met with counterparts from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Honduras, underlying the high priority placed on constructive and cooperative U.S. engagement in the region. These engagements are meant to advance our priorities on expanding security and economic prosperity in the Americas, and we’re keeping our relationships strong. And they’re based on common interest and shared values.

The other U.S. priority – one of the other U.S. priorities here is getting Professor Doug Cassel of Notre Dame University elected to the human rights commission. He’s an excellent candidate with over 25 years of experience in international law, and particularly human rights. We’re going to be pursuing as well a reform agenda here to encourage additional steps to make the OAS more efficient and effective.

And then finally, last but not least, we’re very focused on getting OAS action on Venezuela. We, as many of you know, have been engaged in a process for the last several months to overcome resistance within the organization in some quarters to acting on Venezuela. It’s been a difficult process. We had a meeting on May 31st where we decided at the conclusion of that that in order to reconcile some of the differing opinions, we would give ourselves another few weeks.

So here we are in Cancun now, and we hope that we will be able to overcome some of those differences and approve action at the meeting of consultation of foreign ministers today to express some concerns about the situation in Venezuela, which is deteriorating, and also encourage the formation of a group of contact – a contact group or a group of friends to help promote a peaceful negotiated solution there. But our real expert on that issue is DAS Fitzpatrick, so I’ll turn it over to him.

MR FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Kevin. Good morning, and thanks to everyone for joining the call this morning. Allow me to lay out how the United States sees the current situation in Venezuela and why it’s important to continue – sorry, to consider it in the context of the OAS General Assembly and the special meeting of foreign ministers here today.

As Kevin said, one of the challenges before the OAS as a hemisphere body right now is the challenge to democracy in Venezuela where the Maduro government has relentlessly undermined other constitutional branches of government and closed democratic spaces. Formal negotiations between the opposition and the regime broke down last December. Ever since the government attempted to completely shutter the national assembly in late March of this year, the nation has been rocked by near daily protests. Today is day 80 of those protests and more than 70 individuals – civilians and security services alike – more than 70 individuals have been killed in or around those protests, thousands have been injured, and thousands more arrested – all of this, I should note, in the midst of hyperinflation, food shortages, and one of the highest homicide rates in the entire world.

I’d like to note a few important examples of the government’s efforts to close democratic space and violate their own constitution. Ever since the parties of the opposition won a two-thirds supermajority in the national assembly in December of 2015, the regime of President Maduro has systematically stripped the national assembly of its authorities. This has resulted in executive usurping legislative functions such as the appointment of new members of the national electoral council, a right explicitly provided for in article 296 of the constitution – it is provided solely to the national assembly.

Also on elections, article 72 of the constitution clearly stipulates that all public offices filled by popular vote are subject to recall. Indeed, as the Venezuelan constitution does not permit impeachment of the president, a recall referendum – if you will, the direct voice of the people – a recall referendum is the only way to remove the president. But when the Venezuelan people tried that last year to hold President Maduro accountable through a recall referendum, the government delayed, and hindered, and deferred. And when the signature campaigns continued nonetheless, they just flat-out denied the referendum. Likewise, knowing they would lose badly in regional elections that were constitutionally required last year, they simply never held them, nor has a date been set in 2017 for the local elections, also constitutionally required this year.

A word about military tribunals. Article 261 of the constitution clearly states that the jurisdiction of military courts is limited to offenses of a military nature. But today more than 330 civilians – Venezuelan civilians are being held, often incommunicado, and being tried by the military. That is, they are charged by military prosecutors and judged by military personnel who need not even be lawyers. These are kangaroo courts where trials are held in secret or even the charges, the convictions, and the sentences handed down need not be made public.

There is more I could say about states of exception and the number of other areas that they are violating of their constitution. Suffice it to say that they’re also violating explicit elements of their own constitution that limits certain restrictions from even occurring during a period of a state of exception. To name just a few of those, the prohibition against incommunicado detention is – cannot be limited, but it is being limited. Likewise, the prohibition against torture, the right to due process, and the right to information.

All this apparently is what President Maduro means when he proudly refers to his regime as a civil military union – una union civico-militar – with more than 2,000 generals on active duty in charge of virtually every sector and aspect of the economy. Others in Latin America sadly would know what to call such a regime – a junta. Indeed in Venezuela it is often said that Venezuela today has more military generals on active duty than the 29 nations of the NATO alliance combined.

It is in this context that we express particularly concern about the sudden rush by the government to throw out the constitution and write a new one. It runs contrary to their agreements reached last fall in the Vatican-backed dialogue process, but they have announced now that July 31 – just six weeks from now – will be the beginning of this new assembly and a new adventure in politics in Venezuela. This new assembly would effectively wipe away the current assembly, the independent attorney general, and other remaining democratic institutions or independent power centers and replace them with puppet institutions. The government’s goal now is clear – to remove the remaining authorities of the freely elected national assembly and replace it with a puppet. Maduro is again attempting the change the rules of the game to maintain access to power, privileges, patronage, and protections. If the government comprehensively had followed through on a commitment that it made last November – commitment made to the Vatican, to the UNASUR mediators, and to their negotiating partners – if only they had agreed to those basic four agreements, then I doubt we’d be talking about Venezuela at the OAS General Assembly now in Cancun.

However, the Venezuelan Government has failed to implement those commitments, number one, to agree on an electoral calendar and hold prompt elections; two, to respect the constitution and the national assembly; three, immediately release the political prisoners; and four, tend to the humanitarian needs of Venezuelan people.

So what we’re supporting at today’s Special Meeting of Consultation of OAS foreign ministers and at the OAS General Assembly that will start tomorrow here, is regional diplomacy and mediation in solidarity with the Venezuelan people. We want to foster negotiations amongst Venezuelans to help find a peaceful, democratic, and comprehensive solution.

This is certainly not easy, but it is necessary. Venezuela needs consensus. It needs a genuine consensus or at least a legitimate path forward. That’s what elections provide. But an autocratic, top-down, authoritarian exercise dressed up as a constituent assembly now, by a regime already having lost the legitimacy at home and abroad, will not help either.

Let me just close by once again urging nonviolence. We urge demonstrators to express themselves nonviolently. We deplore the use of violence against unarmed protestors. In particular, we deplore the use of colectivos, armed bands under the control of PSUV political party leaders to repress protestors while the official security forces idly stand by. We remind the public forces of their legal and constitutional responsibilities to protect, not prevent peaceful demonstrations.

And last and certainly not least, should the Maduro regime decide to ignore the national and international outrage and appeals, and instead proceed to do away with the constitution in a patently illegal and dangerous manner in the context of an already polarized society, the regime will bear a special responsibility for whatever befalls Venezuela thereafter.

And with all that, we’ll turn it back over to the Moderator, and we’re happy to respond to your questions.

MS NAUERT: Gentlemen, thank you so much. Let’s start with Tracy Wilkinson from the LA Times. Hi, Tracy.

QUESTION: Hi, how are you? Thank you so much. I’m your pool reporter, and so I will be joining you soon in Cancun. My question is this. Look, the – I totally agree with everything you’re saying about Venezuela, but the United States gained a lot of sympathy, support, goodwill in the region when Obama opened up to Cuba, and now Trump has reversed a lot of that. So how can you expect to have regional support when you have turned your back on Cuba?

MR FITZPATRICK: Well, I think I would disagree with the phrasing of that, that we’ve turned our back on Cuba. On the contrary, what has been done is in line with existing policy. It is a new policy, obviously, but it’s designed – excuse me – designed with similar objectives: to hold the Cuban regime accountable for its repression and human rights --

QUESTION: Who’s speak – I’m sorry. Who’s speaking now? Is this Mike, or is this --

MR FITZPATRICK: I’m sorry. This is Mike, yes.

QUESTION: Okay, okay. Thank you. So, uh-huh, in line. Go ahead.

MR FITZPATRICK: Sorry. In line with the objectives of holding the regime accountable for its oppression and human rights violations; and to further U.S. national security interests and those of the Cuban people.

Now, obviously, there are different ways to do that. The last administration had one approach, and the current administration has another approach. Quite frankly, we will see how this plays out in the region. Yes, there are some headlines and some chest-beating and breast-beating by, as we might say, the usual suspects. But I think at the end of the day, when people look at the details of what actually will be rolled out in the new regulations, I think people will recognize that the objectives haven’t changed all that dramatically, and that it’s really not about the United States or Cuba; it’s really about Venezuela.

And the nations of the region, including those closest to Venezuela and particularly those in the Caribbean, also recognize that Venezuela is not in the same place it was in 2014 nor in the place it was in 2016. In mid-2017 it is in a hyper-crisis mode, and it is time for the region to focus on that despite our differences, which inevitably will exist.


MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I was wondering if you could tell me who you are hoping would be the countries that would form the contact group or the group of friends. And also, can you sort of give us an assessment of your thoughts about the likelihood that this group will be formed? I understand there are pretty substantive divisions, particularly among the Caribbean states that may withhold support for a group like that, given especially that OAS operates on a consensus basis. Thanks.

MR FITZPATRICK: Yeah, this is Mike again. I don’t think we want to get into right now sort of handicapping the different possible participants in a group of friends. Quite frankly, there’s a lot of negotiations that will, first of all, once a group is agreed to, only then will we really all turn to the details of who might participate, who might lead, who might support in different ways. And that will be, frankly, a very organic diplomatic process. It may or may not come out of the formal discussions here in Cancun this week; it might evolve thereafter. We would like to see it move rather quickly, frankly, given, as I mentioned, the hyper crisis nature of the situation in Venezuela at this point. But I’m not going to handicap particular horses at this point.

MR SULLIVAN: Yeah, and I would just add – this is Kevin again – that in order for any contract – contact group to succeed, it’s important to get them launched in the context of the values that the OAS embodies: the commitments to democracy, the commitments to democratic – representative democratic governance. And Venezuela is clearly in violation ever – more every day of those commitments. And so I think what we can do here in Cancun is to express the view of the countries of the region that it’s time to bring Venezuela back to those democratic values and practices.

QUESTION: But do you see the Caribbean states as posing a potential stumbling block to this? Are they not fully committed to this idea?

MR FITZPATRICK: I would say the Caribbean are part of the solution.

MR SULLIVAN: Yeah, this is Kevin. And as I mentioned earlier, this is – this meeting is part of a longer process that we started several months ago to try and raise consciousness in the OAS about what’s happening in Venezuela and build support for action. It’s difficult because for a lot of countries in the OAS, they don’t want to initiate action or make statements about a country without its permission and cooperation. There’s normally a tradition of consensus and collegiality that’s quite valuable, actually. But our view is that the deteriorating situation in Venezuela – the repression, the dismantling of democratic institutions, and as Mike said, most recently the initiative on the constituent assembly – are extremely troubling. And it’s – there – those are troubling developments to the Caribbean and all member-states as well.

I think Caribbean countries in particular have also been increasingly affected by the increase in drug trafficking and arms flows coming out of Venezuela under the current government. They’re seeing and feeling those things. And I think they’ve come – many are coming to the conclusion that when a family member needs help, but doesn’t want it, sometimes you have to insist. And I think that that’s – that’s what we’re about here.

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing those numbers. Once again, * 1 if you’d like to ask a question. It has also been requested that you limit yourself to one question and one follow-up question. For any additional questions, you will need to queue up again.

Now we’ll go to the line of Josh Lederman with AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Good morning. Thanks for doing this. This just dovetails on the end of that last question. So is it your position that even though Venezuela has said it’s leaving the OAS, that for the next two years during that process, that they are fully bound by everything and that they would be legally compelled to accept some type of mediation from this group?

And then also, this is the second consecutive OAS meeting that Secretary Tillerson is skipping, the previous one being just a few blocks from his office here in Washington. Are you concerned at all about this creating the impression for some of the other OAS countries that this is a low priority?

MR SULLIVAN: Thanks for those questions. This is Kevin Sullivan again.

I would say, taking the first question first, it is indeed our view that Venezuela is still bound by its commitments under various OAS instruments as a member state. It’s – it is for a reason that it takes a country a long time to withdraw from the OAS. These – the commitments to become – to be part of this organization really reflect the values and long-term commitments of a nation, of a society.

And a given government may have a different attitude. It may struggle with some of those commitments. But I think that this is set up so that countries have to take a while to consider a grave step like departing from a family of nations that they’ve been part of for decades. And so yes, we do very much believe Venezuela is still bound by these commitments, and we think that many in Venezuela are quite happy about that.

In terms of being legally bound, I think the kind of solution that we’re trying to promote in the OAS is not about being legally bound; it’s about recognizing the consensus in the region that things are on the wrong track in Venezuela, and you’ve got a number of well-intentioned countries trying to help out. So our hope would be that at the end of this process, all parties in Venezuela will willingly participate in a negotiation that could lead to solutions as quickly as possible.

And so in terms of the second question and Secretary Tillerson’s participation, I think that Secretary Tillerson has been very active in the region, as we mentioned in our initial presentation, diplomatically behind the scenes, he’s been very active on this issue as well, and that has helped move things along very well. And we here in Cancun are very pleased that the deputy secretary is going to be able to join us. It’s certainly not unprecedented for a secretary of state not to participate in a meeting like this. Their responsibilities are global, and things happen on short notice that they have to deal with. And I think that our partners here in Cancun are looking forward to meeting and interacting with Deputy Secretary Sullivan.

OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Carol Morello with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for taking this. While I realize that you don’t want to do any handicapping of what may happen, can you list any specific agreements or progress that you’ve made in the last few weeks since the meeting of May 31st, particularly with the Caribbean countries? And sort of related to that, does Deputy Secretary Sullivan – is there any chance he might hold any bilateral meetings with Venezuelan officials at the OAS meeting? Thank you.

MR SULLIVAN: Sure, this is Kevin again. I would say that we have all been engaged in dialogue and diplomacy on the issue of Venezuela in the weeks since the May 31st meeting of consultation. And there I’m talking about the U.S. I’m also talking about some of our likeminded partners like Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Canada, Argentina.

And in the Caribbean, I think there are quite a number of countries who have been talking to their colleagues about the growing concerns they have about events on the ground in Venezuela and their effects on their home region in the Caribbean.

So it’s not just a matter of high-level phone calls from the U.S. trying to get something done. I think that there is – the word Mike used was “organic.” There’s something organic happening in the region in reaction to the negative developments in Venezuela.

QUESTION: If the Caribbean countries do go along with your resolution, is there going to be any change in policy in the Caribbean, any sort of reciprocal change that we can expect?

MR SULLIVAN: Just to clarify, respond to the question, I think that it’s important to see the effort that is going on today on a declaration in Cancun. It is a joint effort intended to come to a consensus. It’s not a U.S. resolution or a declaration that we’re pushing. It’s a product that has grown out of negotiations involving all member-states in the region. We’ve tried to find a comfortable middle ground where we express concerns about the situation that we all have and outline some steps that we think we can take together.

OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to --

MR SULLIVAN: Oh, and sorry, on the question of reciprocity, no, that’s not how we’re approaching this issue. I think the new administration in the U.S. is working hard to get to know the challenges and realities of the Caribbean and find ways to adapt and update our approaches to engage effectively with them, but we would be doing that anyway.

OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Lucia Leal with EFE. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. You were saying that you are trying to find a comfortable middle ground between the two groups in the OAS pushing different declarations. Do you believe that you have today the 23 votes necessary to approve a declaration in the foreign minister meeting? And if not, will you push for a declaration with only 18 votes in the General Assembly that may condemn the asamblea constituyente and other things that you disapprove of in Venezuela? Thank you.

MR SULLIVAN: This is Kevin again. I think that at this point it’s less valuable to get into the question of tactics and procedures here in – at the OAS. I think as I mentioned, we’ve been working hard with other member-states to build the necessary level of support so that we can take action.

We’ll see later today how that process comes out. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that whatever happens today, the U.S. and likeminded countries will continue pressing forward on Venezuela and looking for regional solutions to the problem. A meeting of consultation like the one that will be reconvening today can remain open for some time, and it can continue to reassess the situation, it can continue to take new actions down the road, as might be required by developments on the ground.

So what’s valuable is that as a result of the work that we’ve done with our partners over the last several months, the OAS is seized of this issue and will remain so.

OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Luis Alonso with AP. Please, go ahead. And Mr. Alonso, your line is open if you have a question.

QUESTION: Thank you, good morning. My question was already raised.

OPERATOR: All right, thank you. And we’ll go to the line of Howard LaFranchi with Christian Science[1]. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thanks for doing this call. I was wondering if – I guess it would be Kevin since you mentioned this, but if you could give us some idea of maybe some of the elements that would point out what is part of this comfortable middle ground that you spoke of, maybe some elements that different perspectives gave up or added that led to this comfortable middle ground. Could you define that a bit?

MR SULLIVAN: Well, I think at this point it wouldn’t be helpful to get into a lot of details, since this is something that’s still under negotiation. But what I can say is that the resolution – or the declaration, rather, will be based on an expression of concern about the political, economic, and social situation in Venezuela and some of the negative trends that we’re seeing there. Mike mentioned earlier the growing violence in the country which is of concern to everyone, and I think that that is quite likely to be part of whatever we might eventually say. I think we’ll, obviously, reference the instruments and values that make the OAS what it is, and also we mentioned earlier the desire to get to putting a contact group or a group of friends engaged on diplomacy to try to find the kind of peaceful democratic and comprehensive solution that Mike mentioned earlier. So those are the basic elements of what we’re looking at. And how exactly we express those things is something that you have to be flexible about when you’re dealing with an organization like this with over 30 member-states and with a variety of views within those member-states.

QUESTION: All right, great. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, this call is now over. Thank you for joining us and the embargo is now lifted. You may now disconnect.

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[1] Christian Science Monitor