Briefing With Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams

Special Briefing
Elliott Abrams
U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela 
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
March 29, 2019


MR PALLADINO: Happy Friday, everyone. Welcome.

QUESTION: If it’s Friday --

MR PALLADINO: If it’s Friday, today with us we have Special Representative Elliott Abrams, our special representative for Venezuela. He has a few remarks for the top and he’d be happy to take your questions.

MR ABRAMS: Thank you, sir. Thanks. I want to start by mentioning the announcement that Interim President Guaido made today about an agreement between the International Federation of Red Cross and the Catholic Bishops Episcopal Conference in Venezuela to try to get humanitarian aid into the country. The initial announcement said this would be health-related aid that would be provided to 650,000 Venezuelans.

As you know, Guaido has been calling for this for weeks and weeks, and we in the United States made an effort to get aid in, most of it at Cucuta, Colombia, and the regime prevented it. The Red Cross has said that it will permit no interference with the distribution of the aid, which we think is great because our problem with the Venezuelan regime in this area has been that it does not distribute aid on the basis of need. Rather, it politicizes the aid and gives it only to people who have a thing called “el carnet de la patria”, which is to say they’re supporters of the regime.

So we thought that that was not the way the Venezuelan people were going to benefit. This looks like a real opportunity, and we think it is a response to the efforts that Interim President Guaido has been making. So it’s very welcome. We hope it works. And assuming that it does, which we do, the United States would be happy to get some of our aid into this method of reaching the Venezuelan people, because that’s the purpose of what we were doing in getting the aid nearer to Venezuela.

I think the international community is more generally ready and anxious to do more to help the humanitarian situation in Venezuela. You may have seen some news reports about a new UN report on the internal humanitarian situation, which said, quote, “Preventable diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles, and malaria have resurfaced in the country and are on the rise, as is Hepatitis A due to the lack of access to safe drinking water.”

Now, obviously the humanitarian aid that addresses the health situation isn’t going to solve that question of clean water. That is partly related to the blackouts. And I should just mention, as you know, the blackouts have continued all over the country. The regime’s efforts to, in a sense, to keep them out of Caracas have not been successful. They have had partial blackouts there too. The electrical power system is simply in very bad shape because of the years and years of lack of maintenance, lack of investment. And I think the likelihood is that blackouts will continue.

This aid is not going to solve the problems that Venezuelans face. The kind of aid that is needed for a broad recovery of the Venezuelan economy really cannot be put in place until the regime is replaced by a democratic government, when I think you’ll see the international financial institutions and other donors really move in to try to help the people of Venezuela.

I guess I would mention one other thing as a start. I’ve been asked in the last day or so about the ruling by the regime that Juan Guaido cannot participate in Venezuelan politics for 15 years. That’s consistent with the regime’s efforts to eliminate all democratic voices and all opposition forces and voices in Venezuela. I don’t imagine that Juan Guaido is deeply worried because the Maduro regime, while it might be around in 15 days, is not going to be around in 15 years. So it’s ludicrous – a ludicrous effort on the part of the regime to keep Mr. Guaido quiet.

Okay, questions.

MR PALLADINO: Shaun, right here.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. There have been reports in recent days about oil refineries and the U.S. stance on that, that the U.S. is telling – is encouraging oil companies not to be doing business with Venezuela. Could you just talk a little bit about the U.S. effort when it comes to oil and when it comes to international companies, and the message you’re sending them whether sanctions could be enforced for international companies dealing with Venezuela?

MR ABRAMS: Well, we have our sanctions. And one of the main purposes is to deny the regime money that it does not use for the Venezuelan people. Some of it ends up in foreign banks and much of it is used simply to keep the regime in power. So the first thing we did was we stopped paying them. The largest source of cash had been the United States buying about a half million barrels a day. We have had conversations with foreign oil traders, with foreign governments, really along the same lines – that is, you should be supporting Interim President Guaido, you should not be supporting this regime, you should not be buying oil from this regime and giving them cash. And we’ve noted that we have a wide, broad net with our sanctions, and so we’ve warned people, be careful not to get caught in that net by activities that you may think don’t come into it but actually are caught by it.

So we – and I think we’ve had a fair amount of success, I would say, in getting companies to reduce the amount they’re buying, and in some cases, end the purchase of oil from the regime. There were some grace periods when we introduced the sanctions, which – most of which are coming to an end. But it is correct that we have attempted to prevent the regime from I would say stealing the assets of the Venezuelan people and making off with them by getting cash in exchange for oil and gold.

MR PALLADINO: Matt.

QUESTION: Thanks. One – two brief ones. How is the search for a protecting power going?

MR ABRAMS: We’re very happy with the way it’s going and I wish I had an announcement. I don’t, but --

QUESTION: Soon?

MR ABRAMS: -- diplomatic efforts – soon. The diplomatic – it’s Friday. But the diplomatic efforts are going well.

QUESTION: Okay. And then secondly I wondered if you could extrapolate a little bit from what National Security Advisor Monroe had to say this morning: “We strongly caution actors external to the Western Hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela or elsewhere in the hemisphere with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations.” Clearly this is a reference to Russia, but does this mean that you’re okay with Western Hemisphere countries getting involved militarily, whether it’s the Cubans or the Nicaraguans or yourself?

MR ABRAMS: We have made it clear what we think of the Cuban involvement in Venezuela.

QUESTION: Well, then why wasn’t he more specific here? Why doesn’t he say, “We caution anyone who doesn’t agree with us against deploying military assets to Venezuela?”

MR ABRAMS: Well, this was our guess. Chronologically, it’s a reaction to what happened a few days ago with the arrival of the two Russian planes and a certain number of Russian military people on the ground. We’ve been very clear in our condemnation of the role the Cubans are playing. That was not the subject of this particular week.

QUESTION: And just as it relates to Russia, Secretary Pompeo had a call with Foreign Minister Lavrov – was it a day or two ago?

MR ABRAMS: No, it was longer.

QUESTION: Two or three days ago?

MR ABRAMS: I think it was last weekend.

MR PALLADINO: Yeah.

QUESTION: Oh, was it last weekend? Okay. Well, in it, according to the U.S. readout, the Secretary gave – delivered the same warnings, said the Russians should disengage. The Russians say that Foreign Minister Lavrov told – accused, in the call, accused the United States of trying to mount a coup in Venezuela. And it’s probably not a surprise that you would disagree with that, but I’m wondering why is that not – why do you disagree with it? Why is the Russian argument flawed?

MR ABRAMS: There is one democratic elected institution in Venezuela: the National Assembly. That’s it. What the United States is doing is supporting the National Assembly and supporting the interim president, and calling for a free election, because what happened last May was not a free election. All the international observers agreed on that. So what we’re calling for is a transition to democracy. That’s not a coup. And I mean, to get instructions on democracy from the Russian foreign minister makes my day.

QUESTION: And you’re still at 54?

MR ABRAMS: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Is it – so the number is static, and you haven’t had any success in convincing anyone else to join your --

MR ABRAMS: That’s right.

QUESTION: All right, okay.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to Fox.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks very much. Also in the readout that – in that conversation with the foreign minister and the Secretary, the U.S. readout said that the United States will not stand idly by, referring specifically to the Russian deployment to Venezuela. What tools are available to the U.S. Government to ensure that the U.S. is not standing idly by?

MR ABRAMS: Well we have a list of options that we’ve given the Secretary, and I would say that there are a lot of things we can do, certainly in the area of diplomacy, but there are things we can do in economic terms, in terms of sanctions. I guess I shouldn’t get into this much, but --

QUESTION: No, you should. (Laughter.)

MR ABRAMS: I’ll get into it with the Secretary, but that’s a different story. So I would just say that we have options and that I think it’s – would be a mistake for the Russians to think they have a free hand here. They don’t.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to CBS.

QUESTION: Thank you. So with these Russian troops – we think there’s about a hundred on the ground – do you – can you give us any guidance what equipment they brought, what they’re doing there, and if we have any indication that we think Russia is planning to send more in the coming days or weeks?

MR ABRAMS: On the question of sending more, I don’t know. On the question of what equipment there is, such information as we have is through intelligence, so I can’t discuss it.

As to what they’re doing, one of the things they are doing seems to be – and we’ve thought this from the very beginning – helping the regime with the S-300 ground-to-air missile system, which apparently got all screwed up – sorry to use technical terms – by the blackout. So I don’t know what you’d call it, recalibration or resetting or – in any event, technical assistance. What else they’re doing, we’re watching.

MR PALLADINO: Michelle.

QUESTION: So how much of a threat do you see the Russian presence at this point being to what the U.S.’s goals are?

MR ABRAMS: There are not a gigantic number of Cubans – there are several thousand in the intelligence services – but their presence is extremely pernicious. The same thing is true, I would say, of the Russian presence. Obviously, this was about a hundred people.

One thing we can say is that their presence will do absolutely nothing beneficial to the people of Venezuela. It does nothing to address any of the problems they face, political, social, or economic. It probably is a kind of shot in the arm for the regime even though the numbers are not huge, because we’ve seen that the numbers of Cubans – which are admittedly a lot larger than the number of Russians – have actually provided real assistance to the regime to do things it could not otherwise do or not do nearly as well. So it isn’t a very large number so far, but it – the potential impact is considerable.

MR PALLADINO: Sir, I forget which outlet you work with.

QUESTION: NTN24.

MR PALLADINO: Thank you.

QUESTION: Gustau Alegret. Could you give us some more details about the agreement with the International Red Cross in order to prevent that this humanitarian aid is not going to end up in the Maduro regime hands and they are going to politicize the help?

MR ABRAMS: I can’t, and the announcements that were made this morning are fairly brief, and I would have to say you’ve got to ask – as we will – Guaido, the Venezuelan Red Cross, and the bishops for more details about the distribution. Because obviously, we want it to be, we insist that it be, independent. But the Red Cross has been absolutely insistent that they would only do this if they had no interference from the regime. So we’re interested in the details too, but it certainly sounds promising and it’s the first such agreement that’s been reached.

QUESTION: Is there any red line in this subject? I mean, if the U.S. see the Maduro regime politicizing the help?

MR ABRAMS: Well, I would say we have the same red line that the Red Cross and the bishops do. Distribution has to be based on need, not politics.

MR PALLADINO: Tejinder, go ahead.

QUESTION: You said that your main purpose is to deny the regime money. Now, what is going on and what is your take with the oil dealings with India, especially the – one of the biggest refineries, the Reliance refineries, which is supposed to be not only buying the oil but also supplying the – Indian and European oils? Like, we have reports that the ships are now at this moment being loaded in Venezuela.

MR ABRAMS: I would say that we have had contacts with Indian companies and with the Government of India, and that we have found there to be a very considerable amount of cooperation, which we are very happy to see. I’m going to leave it at that.

MR PALLADINO: Washington Post.

QUESTION: I know that you and others in the administration have repeatedly said that all options are on the table, but I’m wondering, with the Russian presence there now, do you feel that the United States is any closer to seriously considering or even exercising a military option?

MR ABRAMS: I’m going to leave it with the statement that the national security advisor made and not comment further.

MR PALLADINO: Sure, right there.

QUESTION: Two questions. Thanks. My name’s Alex Hoff of (inaudible). Ambassador, Maduro’s oil minister was in Azerbaijan last week, where he announced that he is going to divert some of the oil that originally bound for the U.S. to Russia. Is this something that is bothering you?

And my second question: I was actually surprised by seeing Maduro’s oil minister in Azerbaijan, which – where he attended OPEC event. If we recognize Guaido’s government, first, are we – what hopes do we have or what we are doing to (a) prevent Maduro’s cronies from traveling abroad, particularly when it’s about international events; and second, maybe we can secure some mandate or some voice for Guaido’s regime as well.

MR ABRAMS: Well, it’s not surprising that there is an increase in oil trade between Venezuela and Russia, because the first thing really that the regime did after the imposition of American sanctions on PDVSA was to turn to the Russians and say, “Rescue us.” And we know that oil shipments from Venezuela to Russia will be on the increase and we know that shipments of refined products – the diluents, gasoline – will also be on the increase. That’s predictable given the relationship between the regime and Russia.

In the international organization area, you know we continue diplomatic efforts to persuade people and organizations to give the credentials of Venezuela to the representatives of Interim President Guaido. In some cases we have already succeeded, like the Inter-American Development Bank; in others, we’re working on it, and we have a good-sized campaign to persuade governments first to recognize Juan Guaido; second, to then carry through with the implications of that recognition when it comes to diplomatic missions in their own capital and when it comes to the way they vote in international organizations.

That will be developing. That’s something we’re doing. We do it every week, and as meetings happen, you will see, I think, that we will have more successes of the sort we had in Chengdu.

QUESTION: And the number of countries that recognize Guaido government – is it still 54?

MR ABRAMS: Yes, yes.

MR PALLADINO: Go ahead. Reuters.

QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Abrams. I wanted to pick up on my colleague from AFP who was talking about the way that the U.S. had reached out to trade – oil traders and companies and governments. Are you seeing – are you doing this because you’re seeing additional leakage coming out of – are you seeing Maduro basically pushing more assets out of the country? What are you – what is behind this?

MR ABRAMS: Yeah, well --

QUESTION: Because it’s not – it doesn’t pertain to the sanctions. I mean, you’re doing this in addition.

MR ABRAMS: No, it’s all – right. I mean, it’s all very – I would say it’s very logical. We impose our sanctions. What does the regime do? The regime tries to figure out other ways to get around them. It tries to find new customers. It tries to find new sources of imports. So what do we do? We watch carefully, and we can see ships moving and we can see new contracts with new companies, and when we do, we talk to shippers or we talk to refiners or we talk to governments and we say you should not be doing that. That’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION: So who are you seeing it with? I mean, how about naming and shaming a few?

MR ABRAMS: The first thing we do – it’s not going to work maybe in the case of Russia, but the first thing we do is talk to people. That is, we don’t – we don’t go in and sanctions them or threaten them. What we do is go in and say, look, here is the situation, here is our policy, and we would really appreciate your cooperation. And we do say, look, the sanctions net is wide and you don’t want to get caught in it, and we would appreciate cooperation. And in a very large number of cases, we get it.

QUESTION: So are you – what I’m – I’m gathering what you’re saying is that you are seeing more kind of leakage going on. Where --

MR ABRAMS: No, we’re seeing efforts. We’re seeing efforts and we’re trying to shut them off.

QUESTION: Efforts, efforts going to getting assets out.

MR ABRAMS: Yeah.

QUESTION: Right. And you’re saying you’re seeing ships and contracts, and so is that mainly to do with shipping out oil or is it – I mean, clearly not cash.

MR ABRAMS: I mean, the regime is – again, it’s pretty logical. The regime is trying to do what it can to get its hands on cash, refined products, other things it needs. And so it – one of the ways it does that is go to the Russians and say, how can you help us? But in other cases there is selling, there is reselling, there are oil traders involved in this, and we have pretty decent information about this so we try to follow up and say, don’t do that.

QUESTION: So you focused on Russia and China – I mean Russia and Cuba.

MR ABRAMS: I focused on – yeah.

QUESTION: But China has just offered additional help over the last 24 hours. What is its role? It seemed to have pulled back, now it seems to be kind of spiriting up to help again.

MR ABRAMS: Yeah, I’m – I will be persuaded of that when we actually see it. That is, I think the – my impression has been that the Chinese concern is essentially to protect the pretty considerable loans and investments that China has in Venezuela for the future, and has not seen it as an area of geopolitical challenge to the United States, which appears to be the way the Russians see it. So we’ll see what the Chinese do.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR PALLADINO: All right, let’s go to the last question. Right there, please.

QUESTION: Mr. Abrams, Lara Nico from Caracol Colombia. It’s been over two months since Guaido proclaimed himself the interim president. Recently, Germany did not accept who he designated as an ambassador. Do you fear that this subject of the democratic transition in Venezuela may be losing some momentum internationally?

MR ABRAMS: I really don’t. I mean, I don’t know how one judges that scientifically, but how can one judge this? How many people are here today? There is one way to judge. Column inches – very old-fashioned, I know, for today – but let’s say minutes of broadcasts, minutes on the air.

QUESTION: Clicks.

MR ABRAMS: Concerns – clicks, that’s a good one. (Laughter.) Concerns that we hear – how many foreign ambassadors want to come in and talk to us about Venezuela? I see no diminution of interest. I certainly see no diminution of interest in the administration – that is, the concern of the President, the Vice President, the national security advisor. Certainly, Secretary Pompeo spends a good deal of time on this, and did up on the Hill. I see no diminution of interest in the American Congress.

So as I look around the country and around the world, I don’t see it. I don’t see any lessening of interest and concern. And one reason for that, I think, is the situation of Venezuela is dire. We have seen this worsen because of the blackouts. Every report – now we have a new UN report apparently – every report is filled with just horrible statistics about the suffering of Venezuelan people. So it would be wrong to turn away from this because the effort that we’re making here really is on behalf of the Venezuelan people, who deserve better and who are struggling to return their country to prosperity and democracy.

QUESTION: Can I just ask – you said there’s no diminution --

MR PALLADINO: Wind it up. All done, all done. We’re going to end there, Matt. Thanks.

QUESTION: Can you – hold on a second. He’s --

MR PALLADINO: All right, no. We’re done. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: He just said there was no diminution. Well, there’s only 54 countries; it hasn’t increased.