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 the United States and across the region. This is on-the-record briefing with Ambassador Michael Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Ambassador Kozak will discuss U.S. participation in the Organization of American States General Assembly. We’re pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation in Spanish for this briefing. I request everyone to keep that in mind and speak slowly.
I’ll now turn it over to Ambassador Kozak for his opening remarks.
Ambassador Kozak: Well, thank you very much and I thank all the participants for joining us today for this call to preview the 50th OAS General Assembly. The General Assembly continues to be an important forum for OAS member states to promote democracy, human rights, security, and development in our hemisphere. As Secretary Pompeo has said, the OAS is an example of multilateralism that works.
This year, the United States is advancing strong resolutions to restore democracy to Venezuela and Nicaragua through free and fair elections, to support religious freedom, and to approve a responsible 2021 OAS budget. We will also urge OAS members to take stronger action on Cuba. Cuba has helped the Maduro regime in Venezuela with resources and know-how on repression. In this way, it is contributing to the misery the Venezuelan people are still experiencing and the instability emanating from that country.
Nineteen years after the countries of the hemisphere signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter declaring the right of all people in the region to live in democracy and choose their leadership via free and fair elections, the Cuban people remain unable to enjoy that right.
In times of crisis, citizens deserve an open and transparent government. Instead, Nicaraguans suffer lies, fear, and intimidation from Ortega and Murillo. The Nicaragua Resolution is a strong and forward-looking text that urges the restoration of constitutional order, respect for human rights, and the holding of free and fair elections in Nicaragua. The resolution specifically calls for the meaningful restructuring of the Supreme Electoral Council and the technical reforms necessary to create the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. For meaningful progress to be achieved, the resolution calls for these measures to be implemented in a timely manner so that the conditions for free and fair elections are in place months ahead of the date of the 2021 elections in Nicaragua.
On Venezuela, the United States expects the OAS to approve a resolution condemning the illegitimate Maduro regime and not to recognize its illegitimate elections scheduled for December 6th. Our goal for Venezuela is a peaceful, democratic transition through free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections that reflect the will of the Venezuelan people.
The UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission report in September gave more evidence of the Maduro regime’s abuses. There can be no free and fair elections in Venezuela when the regime systematically attacks citizens and democratic institutions. Indeed, the UN found it likely that Maduro and some of his senior ministers were guilty of engaging in crimes against humanity. A democratic Venezuela means a more secure, stable, and prosperous region for all. The democratic transition framework for Venezuela, which we issued in March of this year, provides a path for a return to democracy and prosperity through free and fair elections.
I also want to highlight the annual OAS General Assembly Civil Society Dialogue which took place just today and in which I participated. This dialogue allows civil society actors to present their OAS General Assembly recommendations for consideration by member states and the OAS Secretary General.
And I would also like to address – since this has been a topic of the OAS in the past – this weekend’s elections in Bolivia. The United States supports the Bolivian people and their right to choose a government that is freely and fairly elected. We commend the Bolivian people on the peaceful and credible October 18 national elections and we congratulate Bolivian President-Elect Luis Arce and Vice President-Elect David Choquehuanca. President Trump and the United States look forward to working with the elected Bolivian Government on shared interests of our citizens. The United States has proven that it can be a successful partner to a wide range of governments. We will continue to promote democracy, human rights, press freedom, and economic prosperity in Bolivia and throughout the region.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. When you ask your question, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. If you submitted your question in advance, I have incorporated them into the queue.
Our first question will go to Rafael Mathus of La Nacion.
Question: Hi. Good afternoon and thank you for this opportunity. Regarding the Bolivia election, my question is: Has there been any contact with the President-Elect Arce and either the State Department or the White House? And is the U.S. Government concerned about the possible influence that former President Evo Morales might have in the current administration – the new elected administration in Bolivia?
Ambassador Kozak: Okay, well, thank you. On the question of contact, our charge d’affaires in Bolivia met with all the different candidates before the election, so we’ve had conversations with the president-elect in that context. I do not believe that we’ve had any since the election today simply because they’re busy doing a lot of other things, but we look forward to that in the near future.
And in terms of other influences, we recognize that Mr. Arce and Mr. Choquehuanca were the ones that were elected over the weekend, and we look forward to working with them. Obviously, they have a lot of people in their constituency, but they’re the ones who we’ll look to as the elected representatives of the Government of Bolivia.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted in advance by Ariel Jara of Canal 19 in Paraguay. “In terms of the OAS General Assembly, what will be the health actions that will be presented as mitigation measures for the COVID-19 pandemic in the region?”
Ambassador Kozak: Well, I think the – our view is that the OAS is not a health organization per se. We have the Pan American Health Organization, which is a component part of the Inter-American system. It’s very closely related to the OAS and we think that is the right forum to be discussing and have been discussing mitigation strategies.
I also would note that the U.S. has provided substantial assistances to the countries in the region in response to the COVID crisis. I think on top of our normal major contributions to PAHO and to other health NGOs and so on who work in the region, we also put in something in the order of $141 million supplemental for dealing with COVID. We’ve distributed I think something like 4,500 ventilators in the region. So we’re working on that and then working through PAHO both through our assessed contributions and then through voluntary contributions that they implement. So that’s the way we think it ought to be done rather than on the floor of the General Assembly, which isn’t really an expert organization.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Beatriz Pascual of EFE.
Question: Hi. Thank you, Ambassador. My question is specifically about the resolution regarding Nicaragua. You mentioned that the resolution will call for reforms in a timely manner. Will there be a date in the resolution? There has been some talk about asking the Ortega government to implement those resolutions by May. Is that something that is being considered? Thank you.
Ambassador Kozak: Yes, thank you. Well, hopefully they will implement it even before then, because what the effort in this resolution is designed to do is to say, here are the reforms you need to undertake to be able to have the conditions in place to have a free and fair election. And obviously, you don’t put the conditions in place on the eve of the election – freedom of the media, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, having the political opponents able to go out and campaign rather than being locked up or shot at. All of those things need to be done months and months in advance of the election.
So our view is they should do that now. And I think the May date is a notion of if it goes any later than that, it’s too late to really have a good influence on the election and make it credible, which is what we’re looking for as a solution to the problem. So that’s – I think that’s the thinking behind that kind of language. But what we’d like to see if for the Government of Nicaragua to act immediately to put those conditions in place so people can carry out a political process within those conditions of relative freedom and democracy, and hopefully bring an end to the crisis in that country.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Carla Angola of EVTV.
Question: Thank you so much. Let me just thank you, Ambassador. My question is: The foreign minister of Colombia said this morning that she expected not only political or judicial decisions from the OAS General Assembly. Is that what we can expect from these meetings – the application of universal justice, collective decisions of the region against the Venezuelan regime, arrest warrants, for example? Thank you so much.
Ambassador Kozak: Yes. You have a bit of an advantage on me, because I was in the meeting with the Colombian foreign minister this morning, but thanks to the wonder of our technical equipment I missed her speech. She was the first speaker. So I’m not quite sure what she meant and wouldn’t want to comment on her call. However, I would note that, as I mentioned, the fact-finding mission of the UN found reason to believe that Maduro and some of his top lieutenants are likely guilty of crimes against humanity, and they recommended they should be investigated for that. We also know here in the United States that they’re guilty of involvement in illegal narcotics trafficking, for example, illegal gold – illegal mining and trafficking. As you’ve seen, many of them have been indicted in the United States and will be put on trial here. So certainly, we would favor other countries taking similar measures to bring to justice those who deserve it for their activities.
At the same time, I should note that in the transition framework that I mentioned – and I talked about this in the meeting that Foreign Minister Blum held this morning – part of a solution in that country is for the people who – on both sides who are charged with crimes, in many cases largely political crimes – Maduro’s brought all kinds of actions against his opposition – they will need to work out what they want to do about prosecuting those and have some kind of transitional justice arrangement. That’s part of what’s to be negotiated. Our point has been that none of – you’ll never reach any of that with Maduro in power. He’s interested in staying in place so he can keep stealing money. He – his motivations are criminal rather than political.
And so our message has been: Those in Venezuela who want the country to get back on track, it never will get back on track with him there. They need to find a way to initiate a negotiation for transitional government, whether he likes it or not. And that’s what we’re hoping will come about. Every bit of pressure helps and the criminal charges, where they’re warranted, are certainly helpful.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Karen Veras of Diario Libre.
Question: Oh, yeah. Good afternoon and thank you so much, Ambassador, for having us in this meeting. Have you had conversations with the Haitian Government about the political crisis they are facing right now? What are the plans you have to motivate them to hold presidential elections as soon as possible? Thank you.
Ambassador Kozak: Well, what we have been urging the Haitian Government to do is hold legislative elections. They’re a good year overdue on that and they still haven’t put in place any of the legal framework for conducting those elections. So our view is you can’t maintain a democratic government if you perpetually are ruling by decree and not having one of the main components of democratic government, which is a freely elected legislature in place. So we’ve had many conversations with the Haitian authorities about that. We’ve noted that they’ve taken some steps in that direction by naming a new electoral commission, and that should put them in good stead eventually when presidential elections are due to come up.
But our main thing has been to say to each side, don’t link everything together to where you can’t do anything. That tends to be the nature of crises in Haiti. And have said, look, take these in components. You should have a legislature; that’s part of democracy. That’s one way to work out problems is have elected representatives that represent the spectrum of people in Haiti, and so let’s get that in place. I know others are making efforts to come up with some kind of political understanding amongst the parties. That’s fine. But those two things should be dealt with separately so you don’t hold everything hostage to something that everyone has a veto over.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Gabriela Perozo of VPI TV.
Question: Thank you for this opportunity, Ambassador. We have seen the results in Bolivia – Argentina is a similar example – where people are still choosing socialism even though it could lead to autocracy. The U.S. continues to invest millions into free elections and the return of democracy in nations like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. When the voting public reelects the same socialist party that has been bringing down their quality of life, how are these investments evaluated by the U.S. and also in the General Assembly of the U.S. [sic]? Will these investments be directed to other areas like education? Thank you so much.
Ambassador Kozak: Well, thank you. And we and others invest plenty in education, so I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. Providing support for free and fair elections has I think proven to be a very good investment. It’s not all that costly. It’s a very technical type of operation and involves a few dozen people going and observing the elections, but also working with the electoral authorities in each of these countries so that they have good, credible procedures in place.
So we’re still strongly in favor of that. Every election people – there are people on both sides, and one side is always going to be unhappy. What we have said from the beginning, and I think the interim government in Bolivia was – we were supporting their effort on this, was that there should be a free, fair, credible election and that we would respect the will of the people. The reason that the election last year in October failed was that the government that was in power then tried to rig the election, and people protested against that. This time the procedures were, as best everyone can tell, above board and credible and I think the main opponent has conceded the race. The interim government has recognized the result. So we recognize it too. And as I said, we’re going to try to work with the elected government and see where it takes us. We don’t make any presumptions about what its policies are going to be. We’ll work with it and if it’s willing to work with us on areas where we have shared interests and shared values, we’ll look forward to that. It’s worked out in other places.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Alina Dieste of AFP.
Question: Good afternoon. Thank you for doing this, Ambassador. I’d like to know what countries support the U.S. draft resolutions on Venezuela and Nicaragua, and when you’re planning to vote on those resolutions during the General Assembly.
Ambassador Kozak: Well, I don’t want to speak for other countries, but I think we’re expecting it to be a good, strong majority of the member states. So I’ll leave you with a little suspense to wait until the vote occurs, which I think is Wednesday, if I’m remembering correctly.
Question: Thank you.
Ambassador Kozak: But stay – yeah. And we can always hope more people will join on.
Question: Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Denis Chabrol of News Talk Radio Guyana.
Question: Good day. My question is whether the United States is aware of any gold smuggling from Venezuela to Guyana and Suriname as a means of propping up the Maduro dictatorship financially, and how is the United States dealing with this?
Ambassador Kozak: Well, I wasn’t clear. What did you think Venezuela was providing in Guyana and Suriname?
Question: Whether you’re aware that Venezuela is smuggling gold. So —
Ambassador Kozak: Yeah. I am not aware of specifically to your country or Suriname, but they have been smuggling gold elsewhere and we have been doing our best to get the cooperation of other governments to put a stop to that. There are two kinds of gold that Venezuela deals with. One is Maduro has been selling off the gold reserves of the Venezuelan treasury. Those are – at least that gold was lawfully mined, but it’s being unlawfully spent by a usurper kleptocrat.
In the case of other gold, though, it’s being illegally mined, damaging the environment, involving trafficking in persons issues and so on, and we’ve put a special effort on trying to put a stop to that. We’ve seen a lot of it being smuggled to the Middle East and in – even into – well, to the Middle East. And so if you have evidence [inaudible] do our best to cooperate [inaudible] stop in.
Moderator: And that concludes today’s call. I want to thank Ambassador Kozak 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. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a good day.
Ambassador Kozak: Yes, and I also thank all of you. Have a good afternoon. Bye-bye