MS ORTAGUS: Hello, everybody. Okay, we’re going to jump right in. It’s going to be fully on the record. He’s got some opening remarks, and then we’ll go into Q&A. Per usual, try to give everybody a chance to ask a question, so please be respectful of your colleagues. And when I say last question, that means last question, so that way we don’t – avoid what happened yesterday with the confusion about what was off and what was on. Okay?
MR ABRAMS: Okay. To begin with, the safety and health of Americans is always a top concern for the Department of State. We’ve learned that the Citgo 6 have been taken from house arrest by the regime’s intelligence agency, SEBIN, and we believe they are now detained at its Helicoide prison.
QUESTION: Could you spell that?
MR ABRAMS: Yes. H-e-l-i-c-o-i-d-e.
QUESTION: Sorry, one more time?
MR ABRAMS: H-e-l-i-c-o-i-d-e. We condemn this cruel and indefensible action and demand that their long, unjust detention come to an end and they be allowed to leave Venezuela. We urge the regime to release unconditionally all persons who are being detained for political reasons, including National Assembly deputies Juan Requesens – he’s been held for 548 days, Gilber Caro, and Ismael Leon.
The past few weeks of meetings, from a meeting with Secretary Pompeo in Bogota on January 20th to those held this week with the Vice President and with Secretary Pompeo and, of course, most significantly the Oval Office meeting with the President, should make clear the commitment of the United States to support Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela and support the restoration of democracy to Venezuela.
The reception Juan Guaido received at the State of the Union speech was a reminder that support for him and for this cause remains an entirely bipartisan effort in Washington, and that display of support in the United States comes after Guaido’s visit to Europe and Canada, where strong support was demonstrated by a series of leaders of democratic nations. Our message to those nations is that increased and strengthened travel and financial sanctions on key figures in and around the Maduro regime will accelerate their abandonment of the regime and help to end it. But as Treasury always states, when imposing sanctions, sanctions need not be permanent for those who want to contribute to Venezuela’s democratic future.
As several administration officials have noted, the Russians may soon find that their continued support of Maduro will no longer be cost-free. Others who continue to profit from or support Maduro should take warning. And more generally, you will see steps unfold in the coming weeks that demonstrate the seriousness of our intentions in Venezuela.
What’s happening there is a great tragedy for the people of Venezuela and has imposed enormous costs on their neighbors as well. Venezuelans have the right to live in freedom, and we would be – will be taking additional actions to support them.
As Secretary Pompeo explained in his statement several weeks ago – I’m quoting here – “A swift negotiated transition to democracy is the most effective and sustainable route to peace and prosperity in Venezuela… 2020 presents the opportunity to provide the Venezuelan people with what they have been demanding for years: genuinely free and fair Presidential and National Assembly elections to choose their leadership and begin the long process of renewal.”
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: So on the Citgo 6, can I just ask – I realize you can’t speak for Maduro and his people, but is it your sense or do you get the idea at all that this, that their return to prison, is at all like a retaliation for the State of the Union, the White House meeting, the kind of reception that he’s been getting?
MR ABRAMS: I would not speculate on that. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, the timing is interesting.
MR ABRAMS: The timing —
QUESTION: And how long have they been in house arrest? I mean, it’s been months, right? So —
MR ABRAMS: House arrest is —
MS ORTAGUS: Longer than that. Oh, house arrest.
MR ABRAMS: House arrest is not that long. It’s probably just a couple of months. The timing is suspicious, but I can’t speculate as to why it happened now.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Nick.
QUESTION: Elliott, two questions. One, you talk about Russia will find its support is not cost-free. So what are you going to do to the Russians? Would that include possibly sanctioning Rosneft, or is that even on the table despite the turmoil that it would cause?
And second, it just looks more and more like Maduro is entrenched in power. There is some indication that the economy is coming back a little bit. What are the – what are the pressure points? What do you – what do you do about the fact that he is more and more entrenched? Guaido looks further from the office of the presidency.
MR ABRAMS: That, of course, is not the way we see it. Nicolas Maduro is the successor of, the heir to, Hugo Chavez, and yet we see significant abandonment of Chavismo. All of a sudden, he decides dollarization is just fine. There is report after report of privatization of PDVSA or parts of PDVSA, of turning over joint ventures to the foreign oil company partner. This is a complete abandonment of Chavismo.
Why is this happening? It’s happening because their backs are against the wall. A lot of attention is paid, rightly, to what’s going on on the opposition side; but when we look at the regime side, we see that sanctions have had and are having a significant impact, and sanctions will increase. Every time I meet with the press, people say, “You’ve run out of sanctions,” and every time I say, “No, we haven’t.”
QUESTION: No, that’s North Korea. (Laughter.)
MR ABRAMS: So we – we’ll be taking – I have no announcement to make.
QUESTION: Embargoed until the end?
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. Sorry.
MR ABRAMS: I think I’ve discussed Rosneft with the press previously and drawn attention to its growing role in Venezuela. The national security advisor mentioned them, I think, yesterday. When we have an announcement to make, we’ll make it, and that’s not today.
MS ORTAGUS: One quick thing. I forgot to say this at the beginning, but can we keep this embargoed till the end? Okay, great.
Carol, go ahead.
QUESTION: I have a timing question, too. With the high-profile visits that Guaido has had here with the Secretary, the Vice President, the President, the State of the Union, and some of the strong language of the Secretary and the – the Secretary of State and the President both saying they hope that this will lead to a transitional government, are you more concerned? What’s going to happen to him when he goes back to Venezuela? Is he more in danger now by the very warm reception he got here? Doesn’t this put him at greater risk?
MR ABRAMS: He got a very warm reception from Trudeau and Johnson and Merkel and Macron and Mark Rutte. It’s a very broad international coalition. I can’t speculate as to what’s in Nicolas Maduro’s mind. Every day that he is in Venezuela, Juan Guaido is at risk. So are all the members of the opposition. And all you have to do is to read the report of Michelle Bachelet to read that people are actually executed – they are murdered – by the regime.
So we do not underestimate the risks to Guaido, and that is why many people, starting with the President, have called him brave. It’s true. We, needless to say, hope that, as happened last time he left the country, he will be able to return unmolested, and we hope that the regime makes the calculation, particularly after this trip, that the support for Guaido is strong and that the counter-reaction to any move against him would make it a mistake for the regime. I won’t appeal to them morally because I think that would be an extremely foolish appeal. But we’re very concerned about it and we hope that he will return safely.
QUESTION: And if anything happens to him, is the U.S. prepared to do anything?
MR ABRAMS: We are prepared. I’m not going to discuss it today because we would – we wouldn’t want to discuss it publicly anyway, and of course, we strongly hope that it will not be necessary to face that.
MS ORTAGUS: Robbie.
QUESTION: Last month there was a small scandal in Spain that seemed to indicate the new government there is softening its support for Guaido. Have you been in contact with any of your Spanish colleagues since then, and is there any indication that their support for Guaido might be wavering?
MR ABRAMS: Have we been in contact, first? Yes. You would expect that. I mean, we were in touch with the European governments all the time about Venezuela among many other issues.
We are – we think it’s unfortunate that President Sanchez did not agree to meet with Guaido. We have received a number of assurances that Spain’s commitment to the restoration of democracy in Venezuela remains firm.
MS ORTAGUS: Humeyra.
QUESTION: Two questions. Alejandro Betancourt is someone under federal investigation here in the U.S., but he met with Guaido’s father, and Rudy Giuliani was also there. I am wondering if you are aware of this meeting, because this meeting has to do with Guaido’s finances, and I am wondering if you know where Guaido’s finances are coming from and whether you’ve got any worries about his funding.
And my second question is with regards to the warning to the oil companies. Did the U.S. Government at any point told Rosneft outright that it would be okay to lift Venezuelan crude if it’s only to pay for the debts of PDVSA?
MR ABRAMS: On the second point, let me say we have sanctions. If you’re not violating the sanctions, then what you’re doing is not contrary to the rules that the United States is trying to set out. And there are a number of companies – we can start with Chevron – that remain in Venezuela and that are clearly not violating U.S. sanctions today. The rules about sanctions can always change. The licenses that are given can be withheld; those that are withheld can be given. So the rules of the game can change.
As to private conversations with Rosneft officials, they’re private so I don’t want to answer that part of it.
The first part – we’ve been told by the Venezuelan embassy and by Venezuelan officials, and by that I mean legitimate officials not regime officials, that the facts as stated in the press are not correct and that Guaido’s father was not at that meeting. I don’t really know much more about it than I know in the press, except we’ve asked and been told he was not there.
QUESTION: Do you know —
QUESTION: You’ve been assured he wasn’t there? Because we’ve – if there was a videotape of him there, would that surprise you?
MR ABRAMS: We’ve been told he was not there. I get surprised by things every day.
QUESTION: That’s what – the videotape, would it surprise you? And also —
MS ORTAGUS: Wait, wait, wait. I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are, but this is not how we do things here. Thank you.
Lara, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Could you talk a little bit more about the Citgo 6, what kind of steps the United States is preparing to take if they are not released from the prison, what kind of conditions are in that prison, if you’ve had any kind of communications with them either directly or indirectly since they were taken from house arrest?
MR ABRAMS: We had – first, we have had communications with some family members, and indeed the first information we had about their being taken from house arrest – they’re not – I should say they are not in one place. They were in their houses where they didn’t all live together. So we heard first from one family member saying this had happened. And then, of course, the question was: Why this individual? Why this one of the six? We very quickly learned it’s not one of the six, it’s all of the six. Then the question was: Where are they? We think we know where they are.
The conditions of house arrest, while terrible in comparison with freedom, were better, obviously, than the conditions in the prison. We had real concerns about the health of all of the men in prison, questions about their access to doctors, their access to medicine, their diet, unsurprisingly, also their mood. And you can imagine that being returned to prison will raise in each of their minds, “How long will I be here?”
So we take this very seriously. And we’ve taken – we’ve made a number of efforts today that, for obvious reasons, I’m not going to talk about to find out more about what’s going on and to get them released from prison.
QUESTION: And they were moved exactly when? When did you first find out from that family member?
MR ABRAMS: Yesterday.
MS ORTAGUS: Kylie.
QUESTION: With regard to Rosneft, what would be a tangible benefit of actually sanctioning them? I know you won’t talk about if you’re going to or not, but why would that be an effective measure? And then on the flipside of that, you’ve often discussed getting funding to those who are supporting Guaido in Venezuela. Is there any success on that front? Do you see anything coming?
MR ABRAMS: Yes. On the latter, I can start with that. Money did not flow immediately when Congress approved it, because we wanted to make sure we had a system in place. Actually, this goes through AID, and AID wanted to make sure that it had a system in place that would be fully accountable to Congress and could count for every penny, because it was obvious that the regime would start telling lies about this money. And they are, and you can read regime accusations about how millions and millions of dollars have gone into Guaido’s pocket, for example. These are all lies. No money goes to Juan Guaido; not one penny goes to Juan Guaido.
The money is being used – just to give you an example of something that happened recently, we – in one of the embassies of interim President Guaido there was no office. That is, he had appointed an ambassador, the ambassador was in that country, but they literally didn’t have an office at which they could do work, serve Venezuelans who happened to be in that country. And one of the things we can do with that money is rent an office. That is the kind of thing that’s being done. For more details, probably AID is the most up-to-date place to go.
I guess I will not answer the first part of the question. If sanctions are imposed on Rosneft, then – or as always happens with anybody, Treasury would make an announcement. They would explain what they were doing. We would have further explanations. So if and when it happened that we imposed additional sanctions, come back to us.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
QUESTION: Any update on the status of the U.S. embassy, the status of the protecting power being worked out for that? And can you give us kind of a summary of what the – for lack of a better term, the embassy in exile in Bogota is doing? I forget the name of the unit, the facility over there.
MR ABRAMS: Yeah. We call it the VAU, the Venezuelan Affairs Unit, V-A-U. They’re at work.
MR ABRAMS: They keep in close touch with Venezuelans in the opposition, in civil society more broadly in the country. As you know, we have to have a certain minimal contact with the regime for things like UN affairs. They do that. They —
QUESTION: Who do they deal with in the regime? Lower-level guys like —
MR ABRAMS: They deal with people in the ministry of foreign affairs, as they did in Caracas. And they analyze. I mean, they offer cables, as any normal embassy unit would do. They send cables to Washington describing what they think is going on in Venezuela.
The first part?
QUESTION: The protecting power for the embassy, is that any —
MR ABRAMS: Yes. No change. I would like to thank the Swiss – because they are not our protecting power; the agreement did not go through – but they have been willing when we’ve asked them to undertake some tasks to protect Americans or to help the interests of the United States informally, and they have always been willing to do that. The reason the agreement has not gone through is that the Maduro regime is unwilling to accept the agreement, and I don’t expect that will change.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you know how President Guaido paid for his travels around the world? Is any U.S. aid money being used to fund those travels? And then on the Citgo 6, one of their lawyers said he had raised concerns about their safety under house arrest to stakeholders. Do you know if the State Department had heard any of those concerns, and was anything done to try to address that before they were taken last night?
MR ABRAMS: They’re under – they were under constant surveillance. There were varying numbers of spies, of intelligence agents, constantly around the – their houses. It would not be unreasonable to assume that they’re being bugged, that they’re being eavesdropped on. So it’s a quite stressful situation in addition to being kept from their families by not being allowed to leave Venezuela.
So we’ve been aware of this, and the regime obviously has not been – has not been willing to let them leave the country or to improve their situation. Now we regress to their being in jail.
QUESTION: And then on the first, how is —
MR ABRAMS: Oh, sorry.
QUESTION: How are they funding the travels?
MR ABRAMS: In principle, paying for travel is a legitimate expense. Again, AID can tell you more, but in principle, this is something that we are able to do. Whether we did it for this particular travel, I don’t know.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Shaun.
QUESTION: Sure. Could I ask you about the talks with Guaido, whether there was any discussion about Venezuelans here in the United States, the issue of protected status for the Venezuelans? Was it something that he has raised – that he raised? Was that a discussion that you had? What message did you give on whether Venezuelans can actually stay and be protected?
MR ABRAMS: The Venezuelan officials, President Guaido, Ambassador Vecchio, Foreign Minister Borges always raise that question. And members of Congress raise it too, particularly those who have a lot of Venezuelans living in their districts, that is, to say – in mostly parts of Florida. Since I last talked to you, that situation has not changed. There is a – I wouldn’t say there is a complete freeze on the deportation of Venezuelans, but the number of deportations is extremely low. But no further steps have been taken with respect to regularizing their presence.
QUESTION: And why is that that no further steps have been taken? Is there an interest in doing that?
MR ABRAMS: Well, as I said previously, I would say the administration view is that TPS has been changed by the courts. And they have essentially removed the “T,” which makes it very unattractive, I would say, not only for this administration, but for its successors to grant TPS if it’s going to be permanent, because it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be temporary. So we continue to discuss what the other options are.
MS ORTAGUS: Last one. You had your hand raised.
QUESTION: Oh, yes. I wanted to ask you: So, to follow up on Humeyra’s question before, do you have much insight into how Guaido and the opposition is funded and who funds them, and do you have some concerns about who funds them and how they’re funded and a lack of transparency?
MR ABRAMS: Well, I wouldn’t call it a lack of transparency. This is, as far as we’re concerned, a foreign government. You saw the treatment of President Guaido in Washington. It’s exactly the same treatment that any foreign head of state would get. I don’t remember ever asking a Mexican diplomat, “Tell me how your president funds himself, tell” – or a Spanish diplomat or a German diplomat. So I —
QUESTION: But they don’t control the government.
MR ABRAMS: I know that —
QUESTION: It’s a little different here, isn’t it?
MR ABRAMS: I know that we will be in a better – we are already in a better position, and we’ll continue to be in an increasingly good position to help them in ways that they need help. But I would – I hear all the time from ambassadors representing President Guaido who tell me, “I’m going to have to leave in two weeks or four weeks because there is no salary and I am running out of money.” I hear from Guaido representatives who say, “I don’t have an office. I’m working out of my bedroom, out of my living room.” So for anybody who thinks there’s a lot of money sloshing around, that’s completely, completely false.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.