MR BROWN: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this on-the-record briefing with U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, who will discuss recent developments in Venezuela and our policy related to it.
Special Representative Abrams will begin with short introductory remarks and then he’ll have time for your questions. As a reminder, the content of this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call, and if you want to go ahead and get into the question queue, dial 1, then 0.
Sir, please, go ahead.
MR ABRAMS: Okay. Thank you. I am going to start with a few minutes of just comments about where we are now, particularly on the Bachelet report, then sanctions, then the fraudulent elections that are being planned.
First, many of you, I think, saw the recent reports from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. Taken together with previous reports from the same body, they document the continuing decline of the already – already miserable human rights situation in Venezuela.
I just want to read a few sentences: “Bachelet,” quote, “remains concerned about the lack of independence of the justice system in Venezuela,” quote, “is concerned about the continuing use of the military justice system to try civilians.”
Quote, “Relatives of victims also reported various forms of intimidation, threats, and reprisals by members of the security forces to stop them from seeking justice. In the most serious cases, this led to forced and prolonged displacement of family members or even, in some cases, their killing.”
Quote, “Documented cases included severe beatings with boards, suffocation with plastic bags and chemicals, submerging the head of a victim underwater, electric shocks to the eyelids, and sexual violence in the form of electric shocks to genitalia,” closed quote.
She was particularly concerned about the Arco Minero, the area where the goldmining takes place. Quote, “The information available to OHCHR indicates that much of the mining activity within and beyond the Arco Minero is controlled by organized criminal groups or armed elements. They determine who enters and leaves the area, imposes rules, inflict – impose rules, inflict harsh physical punishment on those who break them, and gain economic benefit from all activity within the mining area, including through extortion in exchange for protection,” closed quote from Bachelet.
Meanwhile, the killing continues; roughly 7,000 extrajudicial killings in 2019 and 2020. Repression by the Maduro regime is increasing. And in the years since Bachelet’s first report, which included strong recommendations for improvement, the regime has failed to implement any of those recommendations.
Now, sanctions: One way we are attempting to counter this downward spiral in Venezuela is by naming and sanctioning the individuals most responsible for it. You may have seen we sanctioned two more individuals this morning. The Secretary, several days ago, announced sanctions against the head of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno, due to his involvement in significant corruption. And we are offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest or conviction. Most of you know that Moreno was charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering and bribery, among other crimes. Simply put, he takes money to fix cases and he uses the office to keep the regime in power.
On the phony election, there is actually an important link here to the regime’s puppet supreme court and Mr. Moreno. The parliamentary elections in December of this year are already rigged. The CNE or National Elections Commission is supposed to be an independent body that manages them and is supposed to be selected by the National Assembly, but instead, the supreme court killed off negotiations on the membership of the CNE and appointed the members itself. Then the supreme court removed the leadership of most of the opposition political parties and put in place instead phony leaders, in effect stealing the political opposition parties.
This is yet another demonstration that with Maduro still in power and in a position to manipulate the elections and their outcome there can be no free and fair election in Venezuela. The conditions for free and fair elections are actually much worse today than they were in May 2018, when Maduro held the presidential elections that democracies all over the world have said were fraudulent. This is why the United States has supported interim-President Juan Guaido and others in the Venezuelan National Assembly in their calls for a legitimate, democratic path forward.
President Guaido has called for an emergency unity government. We’ve suggested a similar plan in our democratic transition framework for Venezuela. Both plans seek to move past Maduro’s corrupt influence and to incorporate the voices of all Venezuelans in a real transition. We continue to discuss these plans with countries in Europe, in this hemisphere, and all around the world, and to encourage our partners around the world to support these diplomatic efforts to resolve the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela. Free elections and a return to freedom, the freedom and prosperity that Venezuelans used to have, are possible. And the United States will continue to support the Venezuelan people until that day comes.
Thanks. And with that, I’m happy to take questions.
MR BROWN: Great. If you want to get into queue, remember to dial 1 and then 0. For our first question, let’s go to the line of Nora Gamez with Miami Herald.
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this, ambassador. I wanted to ask, President Trump recently made comments about a possible meeting with Maduro. He then clarified what he meant. But then last week, Ambassador James Story also said that the U.S. was willing to engage in some sort of communications or dialogue with the Maduro regime to seek a succession process. So has U.S. policy changed? Is the U.S. now willing to engage in direct talks with the regime?
MR ABRAMS: Thank you for the question. The answer is no. We have said from the beginning that we have one thing to discuss with Maduro, and that is the details of his departure. We’re happy to discuss that with him, but that’s the only thing to be discussed with him.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our second question, let’s go to the line of Karen DeYoung.
QUESTION: Elliott, there was a story this week that said that the United States was considering expanding its energy sanctions to diesel shipments to Venezuela from state companies in Spain, Italy, and private companies also in India, that the diesel is being traded for gas that is produced in oil fields that these companies have under contract in Venezuela and also with – that Venezuela is paying for it with its crude. Could you talk a bit on whether – why this – how important is this swap arrangement to Venezuela and its economy, and what consideration is being given to sanctioning it?
MR ABRAMS: Hi. Thank you. Well, the overall policy, as you know, is to deny income to the regime and to continue to apply pressure to the ways in which the regime operates, particularly in the oil sector, in the gold sector. What I cannot do is discuss possible future sanctions. We never do that. I think you’ve accurately described that there are several companies that engage in swaps of crude for diesel, but what we’re thinking about, possible future sanctions is just something we can’t get into. Sorry.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next question. Let’s go to Scott Smith with AP.
QUESTION: Yeah, good afternoon. Thank you, Mr. Abrams. Indira Alfonzo, she’s the new CNE chief of elections. She’s already been sanctioned by Canada for her role as a Supreme Tribunal of Justice judge. Now she’s been appointed by the Maduro government to see the next elections over which will determine the control of the National Assembly, which Juan Guaido now heads and uses that position to claim the interim presidency. Are there grounds for sanctions against Indira Alfonzo on behalf of the U.S. as well, or would you have to wait until after she presides fully over this election process to decide that? Or you just said that you can’t give any indication into future sanctions, but is there any room for comment on sort of an approach to her position and her position of power in Venezuela?
MR ABRAMS: Again, hard to comment on possible future sanctions. I can comment more generally and say that people who – we’ve said from the beginning that people who are actively engaged in suborning democracy in Venezuela are engaging in sanctionable activities. And we’ve sanctioned a number of them. So whether it’s in the system of justice or in this case injustice, we’ve sanctioned people such as Maikel Moreno. And we’ve done it, obviously, in the economic system. And we’ve done it in the political system for people who are subverting that system.
So for activities previously in the judicial sector and for activities involving and subverting elections, people would certainly be engaging in sanctionable activities. But I don’t want to discuss an individual case.
MR BROWN: Okay. For the next question – all right, let’s go to the line of Carla Angola.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for this opportunity, Daniel. Thank you so much, Mr. Abrams. The United Nations is warning Maduro that this military agreement with North Korea would violate the rules of the Security Council. UN investigators discovered that Diosdado Cabello himself signed that agreement. Do you have details of that military agreement? And how serious is this new move by Maduro for the United States?
And I also ask you, Mr. Abrams: Eighteen months have passed since Guaido rise and Maduro is still in power, increasingly clinging to the enemies of the United States. What went wrong? Are you going to try as far as the (inaudible) sanctions on waiting for an internal breakdown? Do you think the time has come to explore other maneuvers? Thank you so much.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks. On North Korea, I was unaware of this UN sanction and this correspondence between the United Nations and the Maduro regime until the press reported it. So we will be looking further into that correspondence, the lack of a reply from the Maduro regime, and what the implications are.
For democracies all around the world, the conduct of the Maduro regime has been conduct that they have been willing in many cases to condemn. But we’ve had a lot of countries say to us we don’t really have a means of imposing sanctions except through the United Nations or, in some regional cases, a regional body, whether it’s the EU or the African Union or the Rio Treaty. A violation of UN sanctions is therefore potentially a very serious thing for the Maduro regime, because there are a lot of countries that would be willing in that case to impose sanctions, though they have not yet done so individually. So we will be paying a good deal of attention to this.
It also shows, again, the nature of this regime. We’ve seen recently the regime begin to build its relationship with Iran. Iran, Venezuela, a pair of pariah states. Iran and North Korea now – North Korea and Venezuela. And I think one of the other impacts besides the potential sanctions themselves is reminding countries around the world about the nature of this regime and the partners that it seeks around the world.
Now, your second question was, well, you have been pursuing this policy for 18 months but Maduro’s still there, so what went wrong. I would have to say we don’t view it that way. Those of us who had experience with dictatorships can tell you that the removal of a dictatorship by the people of the country, the restoration of democracy, is always extremely difficult, and it’s extremely difficult because in most cases these dictatorships have control of the army and the police, the security forces. They have – they are willing to use violence. They have control of the means of communication, the mass media. And they have no conscience. They have no concern whatsoever about the people of the country. So removing them, particularly removing them peacefully, is an enormous challenge. People in Venezuela in a certain sense have been trying to do this for 20 years democratically, and more actively in the last couple of years as the Maduro regime has become increasingly repressive and especially since May 2018, when Maduro held a corrupt election and would not actually allow the people of Venezuela to speak about who they wanted to be president of the country.
So I would say my answer to what went wrong is what went wrong is that Nicolas Maduro decided to impose a vicious and brutal regime on the country, and look at the impact on Venezuela. We believe, as do about five dozen democracies around the world, that this is the correct policy, that we need to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle to restore what they had, which is democracy. So you will see the continuation of this policy. As I’ve noted, we imposed sanctions last week; we imposed some additional sanctions this week. I have no doubt whatsoever that this will continue and there’ll be more pressures imposed via sanctions and also diplomatic activity, which we’re very actively engaged in.
So this policy is going to continue. We think that it is putting immense pressure on the regime and we think that the outcome is going to be the demise of the regime, the restoration of democracy. I wish we had an exact timetable, and of course, in none of these cases is it possible to have one.
MR BROWN: Okay, next question. Let’s go to the line of Ian Talley.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) doing this. So I presume that there have been no – any negotiations, even indirectly, on the proposal for – the proposal you all offered (inaudible). Is that correct? And the – last week, the ambassador – well, Ambassador Story made some comments. I know you’ve talked about what you’re willing to negotiate with Maduro. Have there been any talks specifically on Maduro’s exit directly or indirectly?
MR ABRAMS: No, there have not. The framework – the democratic transition framework – remains something that we discuss all the time, and I would say that there are a lot of countries around the world who believe that the basic idea of a framework, which is you need a transition government to hold a free election because you can’t trust Maduro to hold a free election, so short-term transitional government, hold a free election, elect a president and a parliament, and restore the country to democracy is the best route. Dozens and dozens of countries who agreed with that basic formula. And so there is, I would say, a lot of diplomatic activity going on around that basic formula and discussion of it.
The Maduro regime rejected it – I think I’m right in saying the same day, the day that it appeared – so there is no negotiation with the regime about that. Maduro, as far as I am aware, has been unwilling as of yet to discuss the terms of his departure, and maybe he never will. I mean, maybe he will someday and maybe someday he’ll just leave.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next question, and I apologize if I mispronounce this. Let’s go to the line of Paula Lugones.
QUESTION: The Argentinian Government issued a statement some days ago about Venezuela and Mrs. Bachelet’s report when marking the violations of human rights and calling for free elections. Do you see as a change of the Alberto Fernandez government’s position regarding Venezuela? What can you say about that, and do you welcome that position? Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: We welcome the support for democracy in Venezuela from every country, particularly from every democracy around the world. We noted the remarks made in Geneva by the ambassador of Argentina about democracy in Venezuela. And I would say none of this is surprising to us. Argentina is a democracy. It’s predictable and it is right that Argentina as a democracy would want to see democracy spread finally throughout the entire Western Hemisphere. So we are always happy to see democracies in this hemisphere or anywhere else speak out about the conduct of the Maduro regime and the absence of democracy in Venezuela.
MR BROWN: Next question. Let’s go to the line of Eli Lake.
QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing this. Can you talk a little bit, Elliott, about sort of over the last 18 months, are you still seeing any potential wavering from some of the top security officials that probably now stand with Maduro, and can you can you speak about that? Are there efforts to try to contact them to the opposition or things like that?
MR ABRAMS: I really should not speak about that. We have – we think, and we have said this from the beginning, that the military in Venezuela have a very important role to play, not just now obviously but in the future, because Venezuela is a country that has a lot of security problems. Guerilla bands from Colombia, ELN, the FARC, armed bands, colectivos, violence in the Arco Minero, so – and very long borders and coastline. So we think that for the future, for a democratic future, Venezuela needs a modern, modernized army to work with an elected civilian government.
As to the question of who we are talking to, I’m not going to get into that. The reason, probably the main reason – there are a couple thousand Cuban intelligence agents in Venezuela – is precisely to prevent that kind of activity. So I would say from – and as an official, I’d say the less said, the better.
MR BROWN: Thank you. Moving on to our next question, let’s go to the line of Luc Cohen.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. Thanks so much for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on Karen’s question from before about diesel. I do understand you can talk a little bit about the kind of different treatments given to swaps of diesel and gasoline on the – I suppose it’s not written in the sanctions, but in terms of the guidance perhaps, given to the companies involved in these swaps. I mean, I think regardless of the fact that the disrepair of the refining network is the main cause of gasoline shortages in Venezuela, we did see – the shortages do seem to have been exacerbated since the end of the gasoline talks with Rosneft. So I was wondering if you could explain kind of why the United States has been treating those two products differently.
And then just quickly on another topic, if you have any reaction to the Norwegian delegation traveling to Caracas. Do you think there could be an opening there for potential mediation like we saw last year?
MR ABRAMS: Why don’t I take the second one first and then go back to diesel.
On the Norwegians, we are, of course, in touch with Norway, and I’ve spoken to Norwegian diplomats since the return of that group that was in Caracas – a difficult journey for them if you think about it, from Oslo to Caracas in a time of COVID. And we are always hopeful that a negotiation will be possible.
The purpose – we’ve said this before and Juan Guaido has said it many times – the purpose of all these pressures on the regime is to force it to negotiate a transition to democracy, to force it to negotiate seriously. It’s been at the table several times but never seriously, never willing to negotiate the real question, which is a transition to democracy.
So we – I can’t say that I was particularly optimistic about this trip, because it does seem as if the regime has made up its mind it’s going to go forward with this phony election and that is its program for 2020. But it’s always encouraging to see the Norwegians remaining active and engaged, and if we get to the point of having a negotiation in the coming months or next year, I think it’s perfectly reasonable that Norway would turn out to be key to that.
Diesel and other sanctions issues. One thing that – we’ve noticed a few things. Let me start that way. We’ve noticed a few things recently. One of them is that the regime is working very actively with Iran both to improve the output at its refineries and simply to buy gasoline. And as you know, they did – I think it was four – four or five tankers landed with gasoline from Iran. They also import diesel.
But we’ve noticed something else too, which is that they export fuel. They export diesel, for example, to Cuba. They export gas oil to Cuba, which would suggest that from the regime’s perspective the shortages are declining because they can do more importing and maybe they can do more production, and so they now feel themselves able to export.
Well, we follow all of that very closely and we evaluate it intermittently as new numbers come in, and we will continue to take a look at both gasoline and diesel and the situation that the regime is in. And I would say it is significant for us that the regime feels its supplies are sufficient to be exporting, but I think I’ll just leave it at that.
MR BROWN: Okay, thanks everyone. Thank you, Special Representative Abrams, for your time today and for everyone who joined the call.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you all.
MR BROWN: And with that, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great day.