Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas, in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants, who have dialed in from across the region and from the United States.
This is an on-the-record conference call with Deputy Assistant Secretary, Jon Piechowski, of the Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. The topic of today’s briefing is the current status of human rights in Venezuela as the country pursues a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
We will begin with remarks from the official, and then we will open it up to your questions.
And with that, I will turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Jon Piechowski.
DAS Piechowski: Thank you very much, Namita. Thank you, everyone, for joining the call.
Next week the members of the UN General Assembly will elect new members to the Human Rights Council. Venezuela, specifically the illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro, is running for one of those seats.
The United States believes that the election of an egregious human rights violator such as Venezuela would be an affront to the Human Rights Council, to the protection of human rights both in Venezuela and globally, and I wanted to discuss our reasons for that and kind of explain why this is such an outrageous proposition.
Maduro presides over a regime that uses its security forces to repress its people. The Office of the High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in her recent report found evidence of more than 7,000 extra-judicial killings since 2018. Clearly, this is a system that uses violence to terrorize the population. Maduro also is currently holding approximately 470 political prisoners in his jails, both in the secret police and in his military systems. The detainees range from activists to politicians to members of Venezuela’s military, and they inhabit prisons where they live in terrible conditions and where we have heard of credible reports of torture. We recently passed one year since the apparent murder of Venezuelan politician Alban, and the anniversary is a reminder to the world that Maduro represents someone – or is a – represents a country and a system that has no respect for diverse political voices.
Lastly, I want to talk about press censorship in terms of the fundamental rights and freedoms. Maduro has pretty much shut down all independent media outlets, from newspapers to radios, television, and they even undertake periodic internet blackouts to prevent the Venezuelan people from being able to access accurate reporting about what is happening in their country.
Finally, I’d just like to say that Maduro even uses food as one of his tools for repression, which I think also goes to this idea that having Maduro’s representative sit at the Human Rights Council is such an outrageous proposition. The food program that he presides over, called the CLAP, has been used and is distributed primarily to people who show political support for Maduro. For those who either don’t want to sign on or who don’t profess allegiance to him, they receive either less or no food. So this use of food as a political weapon, as a tool of repression, I think alone disqualifies Maduro from sending someone to Geneva. But with those other three reasons I’ve put forward, I think the world can see that there’s a very strong case for Maduro not to seat someone at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
And with that, I will take your questions. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question comes from Nora Gamez of Miami Herald. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Good morning, and thank you for doing this. Can you describe U.S. diplomatic efforts to prevent Maduro to be given a seat and do you think there’s enough votes to elect Costa Rica instead of Venezuela?
DAS Piechowski: Well, I don’t want to speculate, and I believe this vote does take place as a secret ballot at the General Assembly. So I don’t want to speculate on that. But I think I will say that it’s clear that when you look at the slate of countries going forward, Maduro’s Venezuela is definitely not fit to be on the Human Rights Council.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Carla Angola of EVTV Miami.
Question: Good morning. Thank you for this opportunity. Even if the world managed to stop Maduro’s intentions of obtaining a position in the Human Rights Council, Maduro continues to besiege and torture, imprison, and kill civilians and military just for thinking differently. The question is: How to prevent those human rights violations from being committed? Venezuela’s illegal [inaudible] with that executioner, and they don’t understand how a report, a motion, or resolution can save their lives. Can you please explain it?
DAS Piechowski: That’s a great question. Clearly, a resolution by itself cannot save lives. But at the same time, the reporting that has been done by brave Venezuelans as well as by international bodies like the Office of the High Commissioner are telling the story to the world of the repression and the inhuman conditions that so many Venezuelans have to live under. And we will continue to work with countries throughout the world to increase pressure on Maduro so that ultimately there is a transition back to democracy, a restoration of Venezuelan democracy, and so that Venezuelans won’t have to live in such – in fear or with the possibility that they can be killed without – killed by security forces like this.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question was submitted in advance by Dario Mizrahi of Infobae in Argentina. He says, “Human rights abuses in Venezuela are on the rise. Could the United States change its strategy to put more pressure on the regime? What other measures could the United States take against the regime?”
DAS Piechowski: Well, thank you. I don’t want to speculate on specific actions that the United States can do. I will say that the United States has – in terms of our own tools that we possess as a country, we have increased the sanctions against Venezuela as well as against Venezuelan officials. And I think you’ve also seen an increasing number of sanctions undertaken by other countries, including the European Union.
I think the recent invocation of the Rio Treaty provides for an additional mechanism for countries of the region to increase pressure on Maduro and on his henchmen so that they realize that the current – current state of play in Venezuela is not tolerable and that they should make the right decision and step aside for democracy to return to Venezuela.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Emanuel Villalobos of TV Venezuela. Please go ahead.
Question: Good morning, everyone. Good morning, Mr. Piechowski. Venezuela and Russia renewed a contract in support and military advice. What is your opinion in relation to this, and how the issue of the human rights can be complicated with this arrangement?
DAS Piechowski: Well, thank you. I think the United States has spoken clearly that Russia is not playing a helpful role in Venezuela. We think that the support that Russia has provided really bolsters Maduro in a way that is not consistent with what the Venezuelan people want. I would also say that it is interesting that Venezuela is spending so much of its budget on weapons from Russia when they could be helping their people. The United States will continue to engage both with Russia as well as with other countries in the international community to find ways to isolate Maduro so that he steps aside and the Venezuelan people can once again enjoy democracy in their homeland.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Ben Fox of the Associated Press. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hi. The coalition to – that’s been calling for Guaido to be put in as interim president has sort of stalled at about 54 for quite some time, and I’m wondering is the U.S. doing anything to grow that coalition and, if so, why isn’t it making more progress and does that tell us anything about how Venezuela might fare in this General Assembly vote? Thank you.
DAS Piechowski: Thanks for the question. I would say, first of all, I believe that the number of countries recognizing Guaido as interim president of Venezuela stands now at 56. But beyond that, there is a variety of things that countries can do, a variety of measures they can take to support democracy in Venezuela, from recognizing Guaido as the interim president to, I think, more direct measures of sanctioning Venezuelan officials and preventing Maduro from enjoying a presence in international organizations. I would say that denying Maduro a seat on the Human Rights Council is one way that countries of the world can show their rejection for his utter disdain for the human rights of the Venezuelan people.
Moderator: We have a follow-up question. And we’ll take a follow-up question from Nora Gamez of the Miami Herald.
Question: Hi, hi. Yes, thank you again. If you could just describe a little bit more what sort of efforts the U.S. is pursuing to stop Maduro from getting this seat at the UN Human Rights Council.
DAS Piechowski: Sure. Well, obviously I’m talking to you; that is one way. Of course, there’s a lot of diplomacy that goes on, engagement with countries that believe strongly in human rights that recognize that the Human Rights Council can only be an effective place if the members that sit there in Geneva embody the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I think when you look at the countries that have presented themselves for – as candidates, speaking clearly that respect for human rights, respect for democracy should be a basic criterion for sitting there is, I think, one way. But of course, we have a lot of diplomacy that we are pursuing as well beyond engagement with the public so that the whole world knows that this is taking place and that Nicolas Maduro is not fit to send a representative to Geneva.
Moderator: Thank you. And we now have a follow-up question from Carla Angola of EVTV Miami.
Question: Thank you very much again. Talking about the future human rights violations in the hemisphere, I want to ask you how is the United States prepared to face the sabotage plans from Venezuela against the region? It is no longer just about terrorist groups or FARC dissidents announcing from Venezuelan territory that they will return to violence. It is now reported that Ecuadorian ex-President Correa has planned outbreaks of protest in Ecuador from his hiding place in Venezuela. Maduro’s head emissaries are being arrested with sensitive information about President Moreno. How are you going to prevent Maduro from continuing to give refuge to international justice fugitives and continuing to destabilize the entire hemisphere, and even from becoming a major threat to the United States? Thank you.
DAS Piechowski: Well, thank you for that question. I think in the first place, the fact that the countries of the – the members of the Rio Treaty came together to invoke that treaty was recognition not only that Maduro is oppressing the people of Venezuela, but that through his repression, through his mismanagement, and ruinous rule over Venezuela, that he is also posing a threat to the stability and security in the region. More than four and a half million Venezuelans have fled their country, and that has caused the neighboring countries to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants. This is not sustainable.
We have seen and heard from the Colombian Government, their statements that there are different terrorist groups and members of terrorist groups and obviously narcotics-trafficking organizations seeking safe haven in Venezuela. We have also heard different things coming out of Ecuador. In the case of Ecuador, we are actively monitoring the protests there for any involvement of external actors. We do not support violence in Ecuador and we believe that all protests there should be done peacefully. But we are looking to see if there is any malign activity by external actors.
Moderator: Thank you, and that concludes today’s call. I want to thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Piechowski for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a good day.