MR BROWN: Good morning, everyone.
QUESTION: Good morning.
MR BROWN: Welcome to the State Department. Appreciate you coming today. Joining us today in the briefing room are Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, and the charge d’affaires of our Venezuelan Affairs Unit James Story. They’ll be presenting the latest developments with regard to the situation on the ground in Venezuela. We’ll begin with an opening statement from Special Representative Abrams, and then they will both take a few questions. All right.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you. Morning.
QUESTION: Good morning.
MR ABRAMS: I want to begin with a word about the Americans in detention in Venezuela. The recent improvement in conditions for the Citgo Six is progress, but it is not enough. The group has been waiting two years for trial in their case and has suffered continuous cancellations of hearings 18 times now. They should be fully released now to be reunited with their families for the holidays.
On January 5th, the Venezuelan National Assembly will vote on who will be its president for 2020. The National Assembly is the last democratic institution of Venezuela. And throughout 2019, it has been the target of attacks by the Maduro regime, designed to make its functioning and impossible. We join UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet who said on Wednesday, quote, “I urge the authorities to unconditionally release all persons who are being detained for political reasons,” close quote, and we join in her call for, quote, “the unconditional release of parliamentarian Juan Requesens,” close quote, who’s now been held for 500 days.
To date, out of 167 deputies, 32 have been detained, forced into exile, or had their constitutional immunities from prosecution revoked. These attacks have actually increased in the last week. On December 15th, the regime’s communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez, accused two parliamentarians of conspiring to seize military installations with the aim of, quote, “destabilizing Christmas,” close quote. DGCIM military intelligence officers then raided the home of one of them, Fernando Orozco, and soldiers attempted to detain his son. DGCIM officers tried to seize the other deputy, Annette Fermin, and detain her, and they raided her home and seized her passport.
The next day, December 16, the regime’s captive supreme court removed the immunity of four additional parliamentarians so they can be tried for alleged crimes against the state, including treason, after the regime’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, accused them of being involved in an alleged terrorist plot. On December 17, two of the four denounced SEBIN intelligence agents for threatening their homes and their families. Why? The two deputies said the regime’s motive was to stop the deputies from voting in favor of Juan Guaido on January 5th in favor of his reelection as National Assembly president.
So what’s going on here is simple. The National Assembly will vote on January 5, and the regime is using a combination of threats, arrests, and bribes – up to $500,000 per vote, we have been told – to stop the reelection of Juan Guaido. Threaten, exile, detain, bribe – that is step one. Step two will be to try to grab control of the National Assembly by preventing free elections in 2020. The Venezuelan constitution calls for National Assembly elections next year, and opinion polls make it obvious the opposition will win them – if they’re free.
In her latest report on Venezuela a couple of days ago, High Commissioner Bachelet said this, quote: “2020 will be an election year. It is crucial to guarantee public freedoms which are fundamental for creating the necessary conditions for free, impartial, credible, transparent, and peaceful elections. In this regard,” she went on, “I am concerned about the lifting of parliamentary immunity of five opposition parliamentarians, bringing the total to 30 parliamentarians who have been stripped of their immunity, as well as harassment of opposition representatives, including the president of the National Assembly,” close quote, from High Commissioner Bachelet.
Free elections for the National Assembly and free presidential elections are the way for the Venezuela to emerge from its deep crisis. The Maduro regime appears intent on stopping them, and closing off that peaceful path back to democracy and prosperity. The United States, the other nearly 60 nations that have recognized Juan Guaido as interim president because the May 2018 elections were fraudulent, and every country that seeks a peaceful way out for Venezuela through free elections can see exactly what’s going on in Caracas. That is why we will continue our sanctions and strengthen them, it’s why we applaud the sanctions against regime officials adopted under the Rio Treaty, and that’s why we hope the EU will follow with additional sanctions on the regime. The Maduro regime fears free elections, so pressure is needed to get the free elections that can bring Venezuela out of the repression and poverty that have been the hallmark of the Maduro years.
MR BROWN: Francesco.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Abrams. We are now almost one year on since the U.S. recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, and what you seem to hope would be fast at the beginning is now taking much more time. You said you will continue your sanction and strengthen them. What other options do you have now, and is the U.S. ready to back some talks between the opposition and the Maduro regime, as some countries as Colombia are asking you?
MR ABRAMS: First, I think everybody has to hope that change comes to Venezuela fast. We hoped it a year ago; we hope it today. Why? Because the humanitarian situation is terrible and getting worse. So everyone hopes for change as soon as possible.
As for discussions, there were discussions – the Oslo talks, which did not work because the regime is not really ready to have a serious discussion about presidential elections and the replacement of Nicolas Maduro through free and fair elections. Ultimately, there’s going to have to be some kind of negotiation among Venezuelans and the sooner that some kind of agreement can be reached to move to free elections, the better, because that’s the way out.
QUESTION: And the U.S. is ready – the U.S. is ready to be involved backing, brokering some kind of discussions (inaudible)?
MR ABRAMS: Well, we are not brokering discussions. But if there are serious discussions, we would certainly want to see them succeed.
MR BROWN: In the back.
QUESTION: Mr. Story, a few days ago – Juan Camilo Merlano, Caracol TV Colombia. A few days ago, Mr. Maduro said that you are in charge from Bogota to a plan of a coup against him. And what do you think about that?
And Mr. Abrams, in terms of the next steps, are you thinking maybe a navy block to the trade – all trade between Venezuela and Cuba?
MR STORY: Well, thank you for your question. Actually, he accused me of engineering a blood bath in Venezuela. I’d point you back to July and the report from High Commissioner Bachelet that laid out that thousands of Venezuelans have been killed through extrajudicial killings through this regime. Our focus is clear: free, fair presidential elections leading to a constitutional change of government. So therefore, my response to this particular series of ad hominem attacks is simply to look at the record.
MR ABRAMS: I guess I won’t answer your question, because we won’t telegraph our punches to the Maduro regime.
MR BROWN: Lara.
QUESTION: Elliott, good morning. You said a few minutes ago that you’d been told that the Maduro regime is trying to bribe people up to a million – half a million dollars per vote.
MR ABRAMS: Yeah.
QUESTION: What is your evidence for that? And also, I understand that there were opposition leaders up here this week. Can you describe what their purpose was, what those talks entailed? Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: The evidence comes from people who have been offered bribes and who have told us about it or have told us about the acceptance of bribes by some people in the national assembly.
QUESTION: To clarify, so these are parliamentarians who some have accepted those bribes?
MR ABRAMS: That’s my impression, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you know how widespread that is?
MR ABRAMS: I think it is not widespread enough to change the outcome.
We talk to Venezuelans all the time. We do here in Washington and, obviously, Charge Story does in Bogota. Opposition people, but also people from the broader society – civil society, NGOs, the business community – and we don’t talk about it much. And the reason we don’t talk about it much is the nature of this regime which jails people, which kills people – as the high commissioner has documented – which attacks families, which seizes passports. So we’re just not going to talk about the conversations we have with Venezuelans. Unfortunately, they don’t live in a free country.
And so we can talk about conversations we have with people from a lot of countries, but in the case of Venezuela, we have to be careful.
MR BROWN: Michele.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Can you talk about Erik Prince’s recent trip to Venezuela? Was he going on behalf of the administration? And what have your contacts been like with the Maduro government?
MR ABRAMS: As to Mr. Prince’s travel, I only know what I read that all of you have written. He carried no message from the United States Government. He was not a messenger for the United States Government. He was not going on our behalf.
MR BROWN: Mike.
QUESTION: Yeah. So you recognize, obviously, Juan Guaido, but recognize him because you recognize the constitutional legitimacy of his position. So if Maduro were to succeed in buying the votes to push him out, what do you do then, and what other leverage do you have at this point to punish the Maduro regime? What message do you have for him about what the consequences would be?
MR ABRAMS: The real – the fundamental pressure on the Maduro regime is the fact that they’re destroying the country, and that as every opinion poll shows, people want it to come to an end. Venezuelans want their country back. Venezuelans want a return to the freedom and prosperity that they enjoyed for so many years. The symbol, the personification of that struggle for a return to democracy, is Juan Guaido. I think, at least as of now, he has the votes to be re-elected. And I guess I shouldn’t engage in the hypothetical of what if he isn’t.
From a regime point of view, it doesn’t really change anything. I mean, you’ve still got a country that their – whose economy and whose political freedom they are destroying, and you still have a country that the – whose people want a change and don’t want to continue to be ruled by this failed regime. So I guess I – I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: But obviously, Maduro does not think that there would be any consequences for this. I mean, you guys are doing everything you can at the moment. So what is your message to him?
MR ABRAMS: I don’t know – I didn’t say we’re doing everything we can. We keep adding, and we will continue to do that.
MR BROWN: Humeyra.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Do you have – have you had any luck in terms of getting Russia and China from preventing to – from supporting Maduro, and are you getting squeezed by Wall Street, like pressured by Wall Street to lift or ease some of your sanctions on Venezuela?
MR ABRAMS: The answer to the second part is no, no pressure from Wall Street or the American business community to lift sanctions. I have felt none at all. I think – we’re talking about Americans. They recognize what American policy is, and they recognize its goal, which is the restoration of prosperity and freedom to Venezuela.
As to Russia and China, it’s interesting. If you look at – take 2019 or take the last six months or some reasonable period, there’s no new Russian or Chinese commitment to Venezuela. Maduro went to Moscow in September to look at the communique, and the news reporting since then: no new investment, no new loans from Russia. The same is true of China. And when we talked to the Russians and the Chinese, they’re well aware of the way in which Maduro and the regime are ruining the economy of Venezuela. They say it. They understand it full well. They’ve not diminished their political support for the regime, but I think it’s striking that they don’t seem to be willing to give him another dime, because they know it will be stolen or wasted, and I think they know the regime is going to go.
MR BROWN: Corey.
QUESTION: Thank you. I know that the hope is that 2020 perhaps is the turning point. But in the interim, neighbors, particularly Colombia, have been absorbing a lot of refugees from Venezuela. Is there discussion of potential U.S. or other foreign assistance to further mitigate the strain on those neighboring countries?
MR STORY: First, I think it’s important to underscore how incredibly important and successful and supportive the Colombian Government, the Peruvian Government, and others have been in dealing with a tremendous crisis. Nearly 2 million Venezuelans in Colombia, and this is a huge strain on a country going through a peace process, reconstructing itself after multiple decades, over 50 years of basically civil war. So I think underscoring that Colombia’s done a tremendous job is important. Certainly, the U.S. Government, we have invested over 600, now I think 650 —
MR ABRAMS: Six fifty-four.
MR STORY: — $654 million both outside and inside of Venezuela to support this issue. But I think it’s important for us to also focus on why this is happening, and it’s happening because of a repressive regime who has absolutely no interest in supporting its own people, and those people have to flee, and they have to flee because they have no access to food or medicine, good housing, education, hospitals, hope, frankly. And when hope goes away, they seek it in other places. And I’ve been on the border many times, both up at Maicao and Cucuta speaking with young people who just realized that they have to fill their lot in in a different country.
So for – in order for us – as we look at 2020, in order for the Venezuelan people to have that which they so richly deserve, which is a government that represents them, supports them, presidential elections are obviously key to getting out of this political crisis. The international community has a role to play. It’s not just the United States with sanctions, it’s not just United States supporting with humanitarian assistance, but it’s the region and the European Union as well who have a role to play.
QUESTION: Is there concern that the crisis could spread absent support?
MR BROWN: Carol.
QUESTION: Do you – are there any talks underway to get the Americans in prison there freed? And do you have anything to offer the Maduro government if they were to release the Americans?
MR ABRAMS: Well, they have been moved from prison, as you know, to house arrest. As the Secretary has said many times, we are constantly working on the freeing of every American who’s held anywhere. There have been a lot of progress in 2019. So we think about and work on the Citgo Six really all the time. As to what we would offer the regime, that’s a very dangerous road to go down, which is to say turning people into hostages and rewarding regimes that illegally detain American citizens.
MR BROWN: Jennifer.
QUESTION: Following up on that, are there any interlocutors on the ground working on this case? It’s my understanding there’s still not a protecting power agreement that’s effective and in place there.
And then following up on my colleague’s question, are you prepared to recognize Juan Guaido regardless of the outcome of the elections?
MR ABRAMS: Well, on the first part – you may want to talk about a protecting power – but obviously, the answer to whether there are people – even though we do not have the embassy open, are there people working on this case, the answer is clearly yes, or they wouldn’t have been moved to house arrest. That’s the product of people working on the case, and we continue to work on it.
MR STORY: Yeah, at this moment, we do not have a protecting power agreement or arrangement. We certainly have our methods of communication across – across society, and that includes all aspects of society.
MR BROWN: Nick —
QUESTION: And the second: Are you prepared to recognize Guaido regardless of the January election?
MR ABRAMS: Well, I’m just not going to get into the hypothetical.
MR BROWN: Nick.
QUESTION: Elliott, can you – just to follow up on Michele’s question about Erik Prince, can you talk about who Erik Prince briefed or may have met with from the U.S. Government before and after his trip?
MR ABRAMS: I have yet to find an American official who says he or she was briefed by Mr. Prince, and I have asked. So I don’t know if he briefed an American official, and if so, who it was.
MR BROWN: Tracy.
QUESTION: Going back to the refugee question for a second, is there any conversation, discussion now at all about offering TPS to Venezuelans, as had been mentioned at one point but was sort of discarded? And then also going back to the math at the National Assembly, if you’ve got 167 deputies, 32 of which – of whom have been detained, forced into exile or whatever, and then you’ve got some taking bribes, I just wonder how the math really does add up.
MR ABRAMS: Well, there was a great victory in 2015 which gave the opposition a considerable majority, A. B, the National Assembly actually passed a law this week allowing people who were not physically present – that is to say they were driven into exile – to vote.
MR STORY: And just a further point on the – on whether or not they have the votes, you also have suplentes, so these are the people that sit in for the deputies. To underscore something that the senior representative from Venezuela spoke about earlier, the regime is using a very focused attack. For those deputies they feel as if will vote with them, they’re leaving them alone and attacking their replacement. For those deputies who are – still remain aligned with the democratic opposition, they’re attacking them and supporting their replacement. It’s very laser-focused on how they’re attempting to undermine the last democratic institution in the country.
MR BROWN: Yes.
QUESTION: Hi, Emiliana Molina from NTN24. In regards to the militaries that did abandon the regime when Juan Guaido rose to power, where are they now? Is anyone helping them? And are they receiving trainings in countries like Colombia?
MR STORY: Our understanding is that the – you’re talking about the 16 people in the Panamanian embassy —
MR STORY: — correct? Those 16 people are in El Salvador at – currently, is what I was just told this week.
QUESTION: May I follow up?
QUESTION: Sorry, just to follow up and clarify on something: That law that you’re talking about that allows virtual voting was actually overturned by the supreme court earlier this week in Venezuela. So, like, would you still expect Guaido to win under these circumstances?
MR ABRAMS: No. The supreme court of Venezuela is a farce. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the regime. It is complicit in the exiling and the jailing of many, many citizens of Venezuela. So its rulings have nothing to do with the law or the constitution of Venezuela.
MR BROWN: Yeah, right there.
QUESTION: Me? Okay. Well, going back to the question about the elections of the National Assembly, is – I know you said you have – you would not talk about, but is there a scenario where Juan Guaido would not be elected and would you be able to recognize it? Or are you planning on – given the bribes and everything that you’ve been talking about – also calling those elections as illegitimate?
MR ABRAMS: Again, that’s a hypothetical that I don’t plan to get into. Yeah.
MR STORY: I’m not going to get into it, but I’d like to —
MR ABRAMS: Okay. Careful, careful. (Laughter.)
MR STORY: I would like to say that it’s clear that the majority of the National Assembly continue to support Interim President Juan Guaido, as does a vast majority of the Venezuelan people. He is by far the most popular politician in the country. It is – it’s equally clear the game, frankly, that the regime is playing, which is to undermine that support through any means possible, most of which are non-constitutional in nature. The fact that the TSJ immediately came out saying that the vote in the National Assembly – not only did they say it was unconstitutional; they said those who engaged in the vote are guilty of treason.
So consider if you will that this press conference that we’re having right now is something that could never happen inside of Venezuela, and that all of the institutions inside of the regime are actively conspiring with the regime to undermine that last institution that remains in the country. Even with all of that in front of Interim President Guaido and the National Assembly, they continue to side on the side of democracy.
MR BROWN: One more.
MR ABRAMS: One more.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m just following up on my colleague’s question. I wasn’t sure if you answered it. What are the latest contacts with the Maduro government? And do you feel any more or less positive about being able to convince him to leave the country and flee somewhere else?
MR ABRAMS: Well, there are – there are one form of necessary contacts, and that’s in New York, because they hold the credential at the UN. They have a UN mission, which is – consists of people and buildings. So we – under the headquarters agreement, we have to deal with them in that context, and we do. We do in New York and there are some contacts that the charge has over that kind of, I guess, technical aspects of UN business. Other than that, we have ways of sending messages to the regime when we want to, but there are no talks or negotiations underway.
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: Last one, last one —
MR BROWN: Thank you very much.
MR ABRAMS: I appreciate it.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: Merry Christmas, everybody.
QUESTION: Same to you.