Background Briefing with Senior State Department Officials on the Situation in Venezuela

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Press Correspondents' Room
January 25, 2018


MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming today. Glad we can do this on the spur of the moment. We’ve got on background today with [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. We’ll have Senior Department Official Number One, Senior Department Official Number Two. They’ll be talking today about Venezuela, and so we’ll limit it to those – to that topic. And then, of course, following, we’ll go on to an on-the-record gaggle with Heather before we head over to the Foreign Press Center.

So I’ll turn it over now to Senior Department Official Number One.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much. I think it’s really important for us to understand that what’s going on in Venezuela is a complete undermining of democratic, constitutional order. The decision by the illegitimate constituent assembly to convene snap elections, even as negotiations on – between the opposition and the Maduro regime were underway, undermines those talks, undermines the ability for the Venezuelan people themselves to meaningfully participate in addressing the multiple crises that have been caused by the Maduro regime.

Our position and the position of the international community is very clear. These elections will be illegitimate, the results of which will be – will not be recognized, and the government needs to enact meaningful electoral reforms that allow for a truly free, fair, transparent, and credible election under international observation. And I’ll stop there.

MODERATOR: Okay. So we go to questions, then.

QUESTION: Before we go to questions, can we just ask if that opening statement can be on the record, since this is about democracy and --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think Heather’s going to go on the record.

MODERATOR: Yeah, we’re going to – let’s come back to that. You want to ask a question, Michele? Do you have a --

QUESTION: No, I’m going to – I’ll let my – the wire service.

MODERATOR: Okay, yeah. Arshad.

QUESTION: I’m sure you’ve seen, or at least I hope you’ve seen, Ambassador Haley’s statement from this morning. In it, she said that the United States will not sort of stand idly by while this happens. Does that mean that you are now thinking about a new round of sanctions on Venezuela? And if so, can you sketch out for us what those might be, what industries or areas might be affected?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ve consistently said that we will use all of our diplomatic, political, and economic tools to ensure that the Maduro regime is held accountable for its corrupt, repressive, and anti-democratic practices.

QUESTION: And new sanctions are under consideration?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: They’re always under consideration.

MODERATOR: Carol.

QUESTION: Does that mean that you might have some blowback against some of the countries that have supported Venezuela in the OAS, countries the U.S. has good relations with but that have declined to crack down on them in an organization that was sort of founded to handle a situation like this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We continue to work with all of our allies in the region to address this rupture of democratic order in Venezuela. We continue to work with the Lima Group. We continue to have discussions with all of the members of the OAS to address this situation.

[Senior State Department Official Two], is there anything you wanted to add on that point?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would just note that any particular position of a foreign nation, that’s their sovereign, independent decision. We have ongoing discussions with each of those countries about their positions in multilateral fora and the reasons for those decisions and how we might be able to best address some of their concerns to enable them to join the ever-growing outrage and community of nations responsive --

QUESTION: But you have spoken to a lot of countries about North Korea, and why not put more pressure on countries over Venezuela?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think we continue to engage this hemisphere and the different countries in this hemisphere to join us and the members of the Lima Group in addressing the situation in Venezuela. I think, as a result of this unilateral Maduro regime decision to call snap elections, that there will be additional new countries in this hemisphere and internationally who are going to be more and more concerned about the autocratic steps that the Maduro regime takes, and we will be open and engaging with them to join our efforts. There’s no question that the sanctions regime, the international sanctions regime, has been expanding. The United States, the Lima Group, Canada, and just this week the European Union also joined in taking sanctions, and we expect that the growing chorus of international condemnation will continue.

MODERATOR: Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg. So what’s next? I mean, will you send someone to Venezuela? Would Tom Shannon take up the baton again? I mean, it just seems like all of your efforts thus far to rally international support have not worked, as evidenced by the fact that they made this move. The sanctions regime, as you say, is toughening. That didn’t seem to deter them. What new measures can you bring to the table?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think over the last year the Trump administration has taken significant steps. We’ve sanctioned over 40 individuals. We’ve imposed sanctions that restrict the U.S. financial sector from supporting that placement. The Canadian Government has joined us. The Lima Group has formed and taken steps and measures against the Venezuelan regime. Just this week the European Union also has joined this international effort. So we will continue to work with the international community to isolate Venezuela and to hold it accountable for the rupture of its democratic order, and we will use all of our political, economic, and diplomatic tools to do that.

MODERATOR: Josh Lederman, AP.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could react to Maduro’s declaration of running for another term. This election aside, let’s assume that Venezuela were to abide by what you’re saying, make reforms, and have an actually legitimate election. Under those circumstances, would you be okay with Maduro seeking an additional term, or has he lost his legitimacy to lead that country?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t want to comment on a hypothetical at this time, but what I will say is the international community’s broad consensus is that the next – the 2018 presidential elections in Venezuela must be free, fair, credible, transparent, and conducted under independent international observation in order to meet the democracy test. The government should continue to engage with the political opposition to create the conditions for that kind of election. What they’ve announced this week does not meet that standard regardless of who may or may not be a candidate.

MODERATOR: Cindy from VOA.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Colombia is asking the international community to prepare plans for the total collapse of the Venezuelan economy. Are there plans underway for that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We are most interested in how we can assist the Venezuelan people. We’ve consistently called for the government to allow humanitarian – international humanitarian assistance to be able to enter Venezuela. We continue to prepare to provide that kind of humanitarian assistance directly to the Venezuelan people to alleviate the suffering that they are enduring under the Maduro regime’s plans.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: But they’ve refused.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: As my point – as our official points out, the Maduro regime has consistently refused to allow any international humanitarian assistance to be – to enter the country.

MODERATOR: Kylie Atwood, CBS.

QUESTION: Can you just discuss a little bit what diplomatic channels, if any, are open between the U.S. and Venezuela right now? I understand it was reported over the summer that Shannon was leading those. Has he talked to Venezuela or met with Venezuelan Government officials in recent months?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: As you all may be aware, we have a new charge d’affaires who arrived in Caracas in the last month, and our primary diplomatic engagement is through our embassy in Caracas.

QUESTION: So for the time being the Shannon talks are not – no longer happening?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t believe Under Secretary Shannon has had any direct talks for some months now.

MODERATOR: Michele Kelemen, NPR.

QUESTION: Yeah, just following up on what Nick was asking, are you asking specifically OAS to do anything? Are you taking this up at the UN? I mean, what are your specific – where’s the diplomatic leverage? What are you doing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Again, I think we’ve been very successfully working with the international community to increase the pressure on the Venezuelan Government. Just this week, the European Union began its – to implement its sanctions efforts against seven different Venezuelan individuals, and we will continue to work with the European Union, with the Lima Group, at the OAS to keep international diplomatic pressure and sanctions pressure on the regime.

MODERATOR: Arshad.

QUESTION: Just two quick follow-ups. Can you give us a more tangible understanding of why you believe that the sanctions that have already been put in place are actually beginning to bite? And secondly, I mean, obviously given how undermined that economy already has been and for such a long period of time, what makes you think that there’s a significant marginal, tangible effect?

And then, second, are you concerned that in your criticism of the election process that you end up giving Maduro yet more excuses for his kind of anti-U.S. rhetoric and his using that to try to bolster his arguments for another term? I mean, in other words, is there – is there a way in which the more critical you guys are, the more you give him ammunition to say, “See, Uncle Sam wants to run Venezuela. We won’t accept this,” and so on?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s really important to understand that the United States is only one of many countries that has immediately rejected this manipulation of the electoral process in Venezuela by the Maduro regime’s call for snap elections. The Lima Group’s statement was unequivocal. We’ve seen Europeans come out with statements. It is – it is very clear that this is not between the United States and Venezuela. This is Venezuela breaking with its own constitutional order and the international community saying this is unacceptable.

QUESTION: And sanctions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On the sanctions side of it, I think it’s first important to underscore that, as you mentioned, the economic decline has been ongoing for quite a long time. United States sanctions have only been imposed in most recent months, these new measures. So for the regime even to argue, as they repeatedly do now, that the humanitarian situation or the economic situation – because they refuse to accept that there’s a humanitarian crisis – but the economic situation is a result of sanctions – it’s got it all backwards. The sanctions have been imposed precisely because of bad policy decisions by the regime in Caracas, both political and economic decisions. They can turn this around in a day in Venezuela if they liked. There’s not been a natural disaster in Venezuela, there’s only been political disaster, bad political – bad policy decisions made by this regime.

If they wanted to accept the 10 fundamental proposals by the opposition for free and fair elections, all they would need to do is comply with their own constitution of 1999. Any democrat – small “d” democrat – president in the hemisphere would run to sign up to those standards and commitments. On the contrary, as you note, they are going to use whatever we say to attempt to change that narrative, but that is the fact. And whether we say something or don’t say anything at all, he will continue to try to move in that direction unless the international community rallies with and around the Venezuelan people in their pursuit of justice and democracy.

MODERATOR: Okay, I think we have to wrap it up now. I know you guys have meetings and we’re going to bring in Heather.

QUESTION: Just to repeat what Arshad had asked, do you see any tangible evidence that any of this is working?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, yes.

QUESTION: And what?

QUESTION: What is it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, yes.

QUESTION: Could you tell us one or two examples?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to wrap it there. Thank you guys very much.

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