MODERATOR: So this is connected to sort of a series of bureau retrospectives on 2019, looking forward to 2020. So of course you all have talked to [Senior State Department Official] before, and he’s going to start with a statement and then take some of your questions. This is all on background, attribution to a senior State Department official.
Sir, whenever you’re ready, go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, good. Well, happy – again, Happy New Year to all and good afternoon. A pleasure to be here today and talk about the Western Hemisphere Bureau and to discuss what is a region, I think, increasingly of critical importance to the administration.
And 2019 was a historic period of cooperation throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Just some of the accomplishments: The U.S., Mexico, and Canada signed the USMCA. This treaty achieved the administration’s key goals of modernizing and rebalancing the North American trade agreement. Once in force, the Agreement will result in more balanced, reciprocal trade with Mexico and Canada. It will support high-paying jobs for Americans. It will grow the North American economy and it will ensure our region remains the world’s economic powerhouse.
We also in the region saw a major success for democracy in Bolivia. Then President Morales ignored the will of his people expressed in a referendum and had his Supreme Court declare the constitutional term limits unconstitutional. This is always interesting to me how people can do that. He had – he’d – in order to win in the first round, he had to win by at least 10 percent in the elections. When he failed to do that, he tried to alter the vote count and got caught at it. Popular protests forced his resignation and his own party is now working with the interim government to organize new elections that are scheduled for May 3rd. So we’re seeing Bolivia get back on the democratic path.
On September 23rd, the U.S. joined 15 countries to invoke the Rio Treaty for collective action against the undemocratic actions of the Maduro dictatorship. This was the first time the Rio Treaty had been used since 9/11, since 2000, and it was the first time since the 1960s that it had been used to deal with a circumstance in the hemisphere. And this for us is a big deal. The Rio Treaty was designed to be the sort of Chapter 7 authority of the Inter-American system, and when you don’t use it for 50 or 60 years it means you’ve taken a powerful tool off the table. And so we’re pleased to see that it’s back and able to be used in the – as part of the Inter-American system.
We’re also pleased to see the voices of the Venezuelan people continue to be highlighted by the democratically-elected National Assembly. Just a few days ago it reelected President Guaido, overcoming the regime’s desperate efforts to buy off votes, physically bar Deputies from entering the premises of the National Assembly, and other measures.
Maduro remains in power only because of the support he receives from Cuba and Russia. The United States will cut off Cuba’s remaining sources of revenue in response to its intervention in Venezuela. We’ve already eliminated visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vehicles. We suspended U.S. air carriers’ authority to operate scheduled air service between the U.S. and all Cuban airports other than Havana. This will further restrict the Cuban regime from using resources to support its repression of the people of Cuba. Countries in the region have also taken action regarding the Cuban Government’s program which traffics thousands of Cuban doctors around the world in order to enrich the regime. Brazil insisted on paying the doctors directly at a fair wage. The Cuban regime in response withdrew the doctors from Brazil. Doctors have also now left Ecuador and Bolivia.
The U.S. has been faced with an uncontrolled mass migration, as we all have seen. During 2019 we negotiated the June 7 Joint Declaration with Mexico enlisting Mexican Government support in reducing the number of irregular migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border. This has reduced arrivals by 62 percent from four hundred and – 4,600 per day in May down to less than 1,500 per day in October. So really steep decline. The State Department also supported the creation and expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols in Mexico with the Department of Homeland Security, and negotiated signing of Asylum Cooperation Agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, along with other arrangements to bolster border security, combat migrant smuggling, promote information sharing, and expand H-2 visa access to the United States. This all promises to thwart human smugglers and to channel migration back into safe, orderly, and legal avenues.
As a result of aggressive counternarcotic efforts under President Trump and President Duque of Colombia, Colombia made early progress in rolling back a record-high coca cultivation and cocaine production levels. This – data has indicated the first decrease for the first time since 2012.
Our renewed engagement with Caribbean countries following President Trump’s meeting last March in – with the Bahamas, Haiti, St. Lucia, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic at Mar-a-Lago. We’ve established the U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership through which 10 federal agencies share expertise and information to our Caribbean partners during natural disasters. We drew on this framework in response to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas last September.
And finally, the United States launched the Growth in the Americas, America Crece initiative, a partnership with Latin American and Caribbean countries to attract private sector investment to create high-quality and secure infrastructure of all types, including energy, airports, ports, roads, telecom, and digital networks. Building prosperity in the region is key to our interests in building a stable neighborhood with stable democratic partners.
And in 2020, we will continue to seek a secure, democratic, and prosperous hemisphere so all people can build a future in their own countries and communities.
So with that, I thank you, and would look forward to questions.
MODERATOR: Yeah. We’ll take some questions. Who’s first? Matt? Carol?
QUESTION: Is the State Department – is the United States anticipating any sort of response in Venezuela to what’s happened in the last couple days with blocking the opposition and Juan Guaido from entering the National Assembly? What kind of range of things might you be considering doing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That we would do to Venezuela, or something that they —
QUESTION: No, the U.S. response.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think you’ve seen a steady increase in the pressure on the Maduro regime in response to a whole range of anti-democratic actions, the last couple days just being the latest of them. And so we – I mentioned in the intro the Rio Treaty invocation, that’s kicking in, which is multilateral travel restrictions so that it’s not just that the people who are behind these things don’t get to come to the United States; they’re now going to be banned from traveling to most of the big countries in the region. We’ve steadily increased, and I think you will see more sanctions on both individuals and institutions. We’ve been trying to cut off their sources of revenue with, I think, significant success.
So not – I wouldn’t say that we have something specifically linked to the events of the other day, although there are people who have engaged in corrupt activity that may have gotten themselves on the radar screen for the first time.
QUESTION: In the last couple days, they’ve done —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I mean, when you see people taking money from people that are already under sanction in the United States for criminal activity. So – but I don’t want to make it sound like we only are going to be doing something in response to their efforts to block people entering the National Assembly building. That’s just – it’s part of a piece.
Our whole policy is designed – I mean, this is what’s been going on in Venezuela, is a year ago when I got back in this business, everybody was saying if you don’t get Maduro out in a month, the opposition will fall apart. Because that had been the history of the situation in Venezuela.
And Maduro works overtime to try to divide and split and conquer the opposition parties. And he’s tried everything in his playbook this last year. He tries to come up with a sort of mini negotiation, picks off a couple of the small parties, and says okay, we’ll have the little negotiation, and we – maybe we’ll give better prison conditions to some of your members if you agree with us on this and that. In the past, that kind of activity has resulted in big splits in the opposition. It didn’t. They’ve tried holding out the prospect of maybe having an opposition person on the electoral tribunal. The opposition people have said no, we want a genuinely free and fair election, not just a little piece of a bad election.
And so basically what’s been going on is Maduro has been trying every one of those tricks, and he’s been shut down on every one of them because of opposition unity. So I think that’s been the real news this year. So what you’re seeing now, we’re going to keep increasing the pressure. The opposition is increasing the pressure by remaining unified. And what we’re hoping is that people around him will look and conclude, say, look, he’s got no way out of this. He can’t get the sanctions lifted, he can’t get the opposition to fragment, he can’t get any – the only way out is a free and fair election organized by a transitional government that’s widely acceptable. That’s what we’re trying to drive his side to that conclusion. And in my view, the events of the last day show that we’re actually making a lot of progress on this. Because he was forced to, in the end, resort to just naked repression of trying to bar people from entering the building. And even that didn’t work, because they went and met elsewhere and carried out the election. So it’s real.
QUESTION: Just to be sure I understand, are you saying you are considering placing sanctions on some of the 15 deputies who voted against Guaido because they accepted bribes?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I want to say – no, we don’t put sanctions on people for the way they vote.
QUESTION: But if they accepted bribes?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The people who work with and – I think you’ve seen this in the past, with some of the people who’ve been sanctioned – that if you collaborate with, give aid and comfort to, aid and abet, and – or profit from the anti-democratic behavior of the regime, you could be subjected to sanctions. That doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily sanction anybody on that basis, but you are asking if something could happen, and the answer is yes, of course.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Shaun?
QUESTION: Can I follow up on your statement on Bolivia? You mentioned the May 3rd election that coming up.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: How confident are you that it’s going to be free and fair? Are you concerned at all about either Morales personally or his allies playing some sort of role in that? And added to that, what’s your view on Mexico giving him asylum? Is that something that the United States has had discussions with Mexico on? Do you think that’s something you’re okay with? Is that something that – would you like him to be tried, as some of the current Bolivian authorities are seeking?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think we were – first, we were happy that he had a place to go so that he could go away and not further the strife inside the country. And that actually worked; it ended the strife. On the elections, his own party, the MAS party, has been working with the interim government to pass a new election law. I mean, I think it passed unanimously. So it’s – this is not a one party trying to impose a system on the other. It’s a genuine – I mean, the MAS party has, like, a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, so anything that gets done there is going to require their agreement, and so far so good. They’ve scheduled the elections now for May 2nd. We have a USAID team – I think they’re there now or – are they there today?
STAFF: Yeah – I think it’s May 3rd.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So they’re there to – precisely to work with the interim government on what do they need to do to get the election machinery back in good shape so that they can have a free and fair election with international observation and all. So we’re pretty confident that that is going to work.
What we are concerned about is when Morales, who’s now in Argentina, starts making threats of going and stirring up violence in the country, and, obviously, we don’t want to see that, and I don’t think the neighboring countries want to see it either. But I think it’s also telling. He claimed he was going to have a meeting in Buenos Aires to select the candidate for the MAS party to run in the new elections, and very few people showed up. And the leadership of the party back in Bolivia said publicly that the MAS nominee would be picked in Bolivia, not in Buenos Aires, which was kind of a – saying to him, “You don’t have the juice anymore,” that we’re going to – so that, to me, is a promising thing, is that the socialists – or Movement Towards Socialism party – is thinking ahead and thinking about the future. How do they name a good candidate and compete in the elections rather than trying to go back and deal with the legacy that he left by messing with the last election?
MODERATOR: Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So that’s why we feel pretty positive about the whole equation.
MODERATOR: Next. Yeah, Lara.
QUESTION: This may be a very broadly addressed question, but at the end of last year, we saw all sorts of unrest in many different countries across the continent, and I – understanding completely that every country had its own specific situation, I’m just wondering if you think the moment has passed. Obviously, it has not in Venezuela, but that’s always been the issue there. Do you feel like things have kind of calmed down for the moment or do you feel like they are still brimming and we should be on high alert for another rash of unrest?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I will quote you back to yourself. Yes, each country is different. And things are calmed down for the moment, I think, in most of the countries, but the – some of the issues are still there. Each government has been handling it differently.
The ones that I think have been successful have – like in Ecuador, they figured out – I mean, there the underlying issue was that they are faced with austerity measures because they’re trying to dig out of the hole that they were left by the previous government. And they put those on hold, they engaged with the groups that had actual concerns about those kinds of issues, not with the violent groups. So they did – I think they managed to effectively separate the people who had legitimate concerns about the price of gasoline and that kind of thing versus the ones who were just trying to create violence against the government. And they were able to reach some kind of an accord with them and go back and renegotiate with the international financial institutions. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re completely out of the woods. They’re still having to impose austerities because of the fiscal situation, but at least they’ve managed to, I think, work it politically and in an intelligent way.
You’ve seen in Colombia, the government also has done outreach to peaceful protestors. In Chile, they’re trying to do much the same. The issues and the dynamic and the groups involved are all different, but I think what is in common is that the – the successful way of dealing with these are: don’t give in to the violent protestors, but do listen seriously and try to negotiate with people who have legitimate grievances that they want to petition their government about. So we’ll see. I wouldn’t say that that – problem solved because the underlying problems are still there in each case, but the process that they’re using to deal with it seems to be working for the – at least for the time being.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that news, to expand a little bit more on Chile and how they’re handling it. And then second of all, what’s your concern about Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere? Have you seen an uptick in that as —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, Chile, I think you can see what they’re doing as well as I can. They’re trying – I mean, one of the things that they agreed to do was make some changes in the constitution. I don’t think that the unrest was driven by sort of abstract unhappiness with the constitution, but you look and say, okay, this constitution was written by the Pinochet military dictatorship, so there was, I think, sort of an emotional reaction against it, and we’ll see if that bleeds off. But that wasn’t the underlying cause of the protests, so we’ll see how they do in dealing with those, but it does get at something that had bothered people for a while and they seem to have come to an accord on that.
On the Iranians, they continue to play around. I’m not sure I would say there’s been an uptick in there. I think it’s probably steady state would be my own assessment of how – they’re not constructive actors, though.
MODERATOR: Yeah, Rich.
QUESTION: Thanks. What’s your sense of – this might be more of a law enforcement question, but the trajectory of violence in Mexico – in a weird way, it almost seems as – after El Chapo’s extradition to the U.S. – that cartel violence got even worse there. It just —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just your sense of the state of play and where things might be headed.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not a law enforcement expert, but I sort of remember back when – D.C., in the ‘80s or something, when we had a lot of drug violence and so on, and part of that was due to having – the Federal Government having taken out the chief drug dealers. And then what happens is you get the – there are spoils to divide up and people start fighting with each other, and I think there’s some of that going on in Mexico. But the real problem is just the degree of influence and power and of ability to intimidate and corrupt people that the transnational criminal organizations have achieved there. And it’s really concerning. I mean, we have said that to our colleagues in Mexico and, obviously, they’re concerned about it too. I think you saw the attorney general was down there recently and is trying to work with Mexico, and is sort of the point person for us in what can we do to further downgrade – or degrade the abilities of the drug cartels to inflict this kind of damage on Mexico.
But the other half of it is Mexico needs to strengthen its own institutions, and I think they’re working on that. And obviously, we’ve been working with them now for a number of years. But there’s a – there’s not a direct equation, though, in my view, between success and – the metric isn’t lack of violence. You can have lack of violence because the cartels have completely taken over and have an agreement amongst themselves and now are running everything. So that would not be a success. But neither is mass blood shed a sign of – that you’re succeeding either.
So I mean, what we’re looking at is are we able to strengthen Mexican law enforcement institutions and so on so they can’t be corrupted and that they’re able to deal with these things in an effective and rights-respecting way. Are the cartels being degraded in terms of their power? Are their sources of revenue being cut off or diminished – because that’s where their power comes from is money. Are their leadership being broken up? Now, yeah, when you break them up, sometimes it sets off fights amongst their henchmen, but they’re not as effective in taking over and controlling territory or in being able to influence decisions by governmental authorities. So it’s a big mix.
But it is an issue of big concern. I mean, I don’t want to minimize that – the degree of presence and influence that those transnational criminal organizations have in Mexico is really concerning, and we’re just looking for any way we can to help the Mexicans bring it under control.
QUESTION: How’s the institution building going? What’s your assessment of that process?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They’ve passed good legislation on a lot of things over the last few years. They’ve created this new federal prosecutor’s office, but here again, you get the long-term, short-term thing. The old prosecutor’s office tended to – every time there was a change in – of the attorney general or a change in administrations, all of the investigators and everything would get removed and replaced, so you didn’t have continuity to follow cases.
This new system is supposed to address that, but it means you’re starting over again, so there’s a lag time there. They’ve also moved from a civil law type, paper-based system more to a accusatorial system, more akin to what we have. Again, I think our law enforcement people think in the end that’s going to be much more effective, but the transition between the two systems – there’s a learning curve for people and so on.
But the – you can look at it and see the Mexicans really have been trying on these things. But you have the problem of plata o plomo – that if you’re the chief of police in a small town and a drug dealer come to you and say, “Okay, you can retire in a year with $2 million, or I can kill you and your wife and children tomorrow.” Which is your choice going to be? That’s the kind of influence you want to cut off.
QUESTION: I’d go with plata.
QUESTION: You would – the plata?
QUESTION: I had a question.
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, first of all, it’s good to hear you – someone in this administration extol the virtues of the deep state like you did just then. (Inaudible.)
But secondly, it seems like every week or so, there’s a new rumor – or it’s rather the same rumor – because it circulates and it comes out of Havana that you guys are shutting down the embassy, that you’re going to break all relations – like, not even have an intersection, this kind of thing.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And the Cubans – several Cuban officials are promoting this idea.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I know.
QUESTION: What the hell is going on? Is this – is there any contemplation of even further draw down of the already skeletal staff there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, it’s pretty skeletal right now. I would just say – I mean, as I mentioned, as long as the Cubans keep doing what they’re doing, especially in Venezuela – I mean, we’ve had problems with what they do in Cuba forever, but they’re back – intervening in another country now. We’ve been pretty clear with them that the pressure on them is going to continue to rise. And we haven’t ruled in or out any specific – I mentioned some of the measures we’ve already taken; there will be more.
QUESTION: Right, I know. But yeah, but —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But —
QUESTION: — those are sanctions related. I’m talking about —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But I don’t know why they’ve seized – the question is why have they seized on this one particular possible —
QUESTION: But is their contemplation of breaking up all —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m just saying that I don’t know why the Cubans have – or promoting —
QUESTION: Okay. So there is a —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — I don’t think you’re hearing it from anybody here. You’re hearing it from the Cubans.
QUESTION: No. Every time I get it from our Havana group, I ask here and I’m told —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So maybe they should be careful – they should be careful what they wish for maybe, but —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They’re – I gave up trying to explain them a long time ago. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: All right. One last question. Jennifer?
QUESTION: Can you tell us where the administration’s position is on TPS for Venezuelans now that we’re coming up on year of this crisis there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I think the factual situation is that very few people are being sent back to Venezuela simply because it’s physically impossible. So the question of whether you need TPS doesn’t really arise. I mean, I think they’ve managed to send a few convicted criminals back, but it’s not – there are no direct flights or anything anymore, so it’s just not a – it’s not a big issue.
I know some people have really gotten into it as sort of a – this would signal how bad things are in Venezuela, but nobody’s being returned anyway, so it’s just not a – or very few.
QUESTION: And in the end, it’s a DHS call, right?
QUESTION: Yeah, but the State Department has a say in it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Thank you. Again, Happy New Year.
QUESTION: Happy New Year.