Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela
MR BROWN: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining. The United States is committed to fostering a bright, prosperous future for the Venezuelan people. Today, Secretary Pompeo proposed a pathway to resolving Venezuela’s crisis by means of a peaceful democratic transition. To help provide some added context to this announcement, we’re – have joining us today for this on-the-record briefing the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams. Special Representative Abrams will begin with some opening remarks, and then he’ll have time for your questions.
A reminder that this briefing is embargoed, or the contents are embargoed until the end of the call. With that, I’ll turn it over to you, Special Representative Abrams. Go ahead, sir.
MR ABRAMS: Good. Thanks, Cale. Let me – just a few minutes of remarks at the beginning. Venezuela’s terrible political and economic crisis must be brought to an end so that the country can return to democracy and begin to recover. And the millions of Venezuelans who’ve had to leave their country must have hope for a reason to return. The United States believes this cannot happen while the Maduro regime remains in power. And we also know that Venezuelans need to see a path forward that treats all parties fairly and provide guarantees for the future.
So today, the Secretary announced a framework for a democratic transition. The basic outline is simple: We call for a transitional government that would govern for nine to 12 months and hold free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. The United States will recognize the results of a free and fair election no matter which party wins. What we oppose is the abuse of state power that enables one party to rule indefinitely.
The National Assembly would elect four members of a council of state – two from the democratic coalition led by Juan Guaido, and two from the PSUV – P-S-U-V – the governing Chavista party, with mutual vetoes on those selections. Each of the four must be acceptable to both sides. And those four select a fifth person who will act as interim president and may not run for president in the elections. This proposal follows on suggestions made by the team representing Guaido and the National Assembly last year and you may have seen repeated by Guaido in the last few days.
Venezuela also needs a renovation of its Supreme Court and National Electoral Commission. And the new members would also be chosen by the National Assembly, again, with each side having veto power. And the National Constituent Assembly would be dissolved.
Basic political rights would need to be respected. So no more censorship; freedom for all political prisoners; return of exiled members of the National Assembly; foreign security forces would have to leave the country. The U.S. would lift personal sanctions related to each individual officeholder’s position – for example, on the current Supreme Court – when a person left the position he or she had held. And that goes for cabinet members and the military and everyone else, when the sanctions are based on the position they held.
On the subject of prisoners, we did discuss this this morning a bit, but we are extremely concerned about the risk for the five U.S. citizens and one U.S. permanent resident from Citgo who are currently languishing in the notorious Helicoide prison in Caracas. And we strongly urge their release, the release of the Citgo 6, and the more than 300 political prisoners who are unlawfully detained in Venezuela.
I mean, the plan, once the council of state is in place and is governing and foreign security forces are gone – those two preconditions – the U.S. would suspend sanctions on the government, on PDVSA, the oil company, and on the oil sector. Those sanctions would be permanently revoked once the elections are held and observers agree they were free and fair.
The military will play an essential role in determining what this change looks like and in shaping the future of Venezuela. Today, the Venezuelan police and military are suffering as all citizens are. They can barely afford to feed their families, and they cannot afford medical care or medicines. Venezuela actually faces a great security challenge from drug traffickers, from terrorist groups, from criminal gangs, and it needs security forces that are better paid and trained and equipped to secure the nation’s borders and maintain peace. The armed forces support for the democratic transition framework would be a key step in this direction.
We also call – last thing – for a truth and reconciliation commission and an amnesty law, as have also been created in almost every country moving from dictatorship to democracy. And we urge that as soon as the council of state takes over as the interim government, the international community and the international financial institutions begin programs for Venezuela that will help cope with the crisis, especially focusing on water, electricity, and the medical system.
That’s the basic plan. There are more details, but that’s the basic plan. Many of the questions that arise in your minds I won’t answer – I won’t be able to answer – because they need to be decided by Venezuelans, as they work toward a better future.
Thank you. I’m happy to take questions.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the 1 0 again. If using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, for a question, it’s 1 then 0 at this time. And one moment for our first question.
MR BROWN: Yep. Can we open the line for Jessica Donati?
OPERATOR: All right. Jessica, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I was wondering if you could comment on a comment from Maduro saying that he’s in talks with moderate opposition figures but will not speak to Guaido. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR ABRAMS: The regime has been in talks for several months with a phony opposition that it is trying to create, which is known as the mesita, the little table, M-E-S-I-T-A. This is not the opposition. The opposition is led by Guaido and the multiparty coalition that he leads. The regime has tried to find one or two people here and there who are willing to cooperate with it. I must say that talking to Venezuelans, absolutely no one is fooled by this maneuver.
MR BROWN: Okay. For the second question, can we go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson?
OPERATOR: All right. Tracy Wilkinson, your line is open.
QUESTION: Oh, yes. Hi. Thank you. You – as you said, Elliott, this plan for a transitional government came up last year. But wasn’t it John Bolton who pretty vigorously rejected it then? So what has changed? And second of all, now because of the indictments, not that Maduro has a bounty on his head essentially, doesn’t he have even less incentive than ever to talk or to make a deal? Thanks.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks. This plan was raised – not exactly this plan, but the outlines of this plan were raised by the team representing Guaido and the National Assembly last year. And parts of it were seriously discussed. The problem – this was in Barbados. The problem was that obviously this plan requires that Maduro leaves power and the negotiating team for Maduro was not ready, not able to discuss that. They would not allow that to be put on the table.
So what has changed? Well, I’d say first the condition of the regime is much worse today. If you go back to last summer, they were producing something like 800,000, 900,000 barrels a day at the then prevailing market prices, which – I may be wrong, but I remember as being $ 50, $ 60 a barrel. Today, they’re producing under 500,000 barrels a day. And you know what’s happened to market prices and you know what’s happened to the supply. So for example, former purchasers in Asia can buy Saudi oil with lower transport costs. The income the regime is getting from the one thing it has to sell, which is oil, has dropped precipitously between the talks in Barbados and today. So we think there’s a lot more pressure on the regime.
Now, you asked about the indictment, and don’t the indictments mean Maduro will dig in. First, just – I mean, you all know this, but I should say it: The indictments come from our system of justice, from U.S. attorneys in New York and Florida, from grand juries in New York and Florida. They’re not a matter of policy in the way sanctions that are worked on by the State Department and the Treasury Department are.
But I would say our plan is in some ways less addressed to Maduro than it is addressed to every other Venezuelan. Clearly, by leaving the presidency, which we believe is – which we and 57 other countries believe is illegitimate anyway – by leaving power, Maduro loses a great deal. It’s obvious that Maduro is going to resist any plan that calls for him to leave power, but the framework that we’ve proposed we think protects the legitimate rights of the Chavista party to contest elections and to be treated absolutely fairly in a transitional government.
We think it protects the interests of the military. We think it protects a lot of people even within the regime. And we think there’ll be a lot of people in the regime and in the military and in the party who may look at this plan and say, “I’m okay here. We do pretty decently here. I mean, Maduro doesn’t, but we do.”
So the plan is not so much an effort to change Nicolas Maduro’s mind as it is to appeal to everyone else in Venezuela to change his mind for him.
MR BROWN: Okay. For the next question, can we go to the line of Nick Wadhams?
OPERATOR: Hi, Mr. Wadhams. Your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, just to follow up, Elliott, to that question, the foreign ministry – Maduro’s foreign ministry is now out saying they wholeheartedly reject this plan. So I’m just trying to figure out if that changes your calculation at all. They’re calling this a false agreement and saying no such thing will distract the government from its current crisis. So it looks like they’re rejecting it out of the gate. Do you have a response to that?
MR ABRAMS: Yeah, it’s totally predictable, would have bet you a million dollars that that would happen and that it would happen immediately. And I think it’s not all that important. What’s important is the conversations that takes place – that take place privately within the military and within the regime and within the party and within Venezuela, in labor unions, in the business community. Those are the important conversations as they think about this. That Maduro would immediately come out and say no was completely predictable.
MR BROWN: Okay. For the next question, can we go to the line of Gabriela Perozo?
OPERATOR: All right. Ms. Perozo, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you so much for the opportunity. I want to apologize with my colleagues, but I would like to ask if – can be possible an explanation in Spanish for the Venezuelan people, please? (In Spanish.)
MR BROWN: Excuse me, please. Sorry, this is – yes, if you could ask your question in English, I would appreciate it.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay. I will like to ask you, and can you send you a little message for the Venezuelan people in Spanish: Can you explain a little more about the details, like Guaido needs to quit before the government will be – create this council? And today, the attorney general, the Maduro attorney general, Tarek William Saab, says he needs to go there to speak with him. If he is arrested, this plan can be finished?
And another question: You said —
MR ABRAMS: Well —
QUESTION: — that you can – about the sanctions, Guaido tell us that he don’t want anyone related to narcotics or some violations. Can you explain a little more about that?
MR ABRAMS: Yeah. We’ll have to do Spanish some other time.
MR ABRAMS: But let me say first about Juan Guaido: As you know, the Secretary addressed this earlier today. In our view and the view of 57 other countries, he is the legitimate interim president of Venezuela and he is the president of the National Assembly, and he remains that. If this plan were adopted and the National Assembly did in fact elect the council of state and the council of state was in existence and ready to govern Venezuela, then obviously Juan Guaido would step aside as interim president at that point down the road because someone else would be filling in as the interim president during this, let’s say, nine-month transition. Guaido, during that transition, would remain president of the National Assembly until there were elections, and in those elections it’s reasonable to think he might well run for president, because all the polls we’ve seen show that Guaido is the single most popular political figure in Venezuela.
So Guaido, I think – right now, Guaido does not do anything. He remains interim president and head of the National Assembly, and U.S. support and I think it’s fair to say international support for Guaido is not going to diminish one iota.
The request for – or order, whatever it is – for Guaido to show up at some ministry is illegal, because as a member of parliament under Venezuelan law, he has immunity, and they have with their phony Supreme Court made efforts to take that immunity away. It’s, again, something that everyone in democracies around the world understands is a completely illegitimate and tyrannical move, and it has forced more than 30 deputies to go into exile.
So they may try to do this. I don’t know what Guaido will do in response to this illegitimate order that has been made, but we remain committed to President Guaido and committed to doing all we can, and I think I speak for lots of other governments here, to securing his safety.
On the – you asked one other thing about drugs. I want to make it clear that personal sanctions, as I said, are lifted when those sanctions are related to employment status. So if you were sanctioned because you are, let’s say, a member of the Supreme Court or because you are a member of the Constituent Assembly and you stop being on the court or a member of the assembly, then the sanctions are lifted. Those are employment-based sanctions. Sanctions that relate to drug trafficking or human rights abuses or money laundering or pure, plain corruption are not automatically lifted just because you change jobs.
MR BROWN: Okay. For the next question, can you open the line of Carol Morello?
OPERATOR: All right. Carol Morello, your line is open.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR ABRAMS: Yes.
QUESTION: Great. Do I understand this to mean that you would not lift sanctions against Maduro? And I was also hoping you could give a little bit of insight into your decision to do this. Were the indictments part of your strategy? And one other question I would just like to be clear on: When Secretary Pompeo says Maduro will never govern Venezuela, he – what – he also meant to say – he intended to say he will never allow him to run; is that correct? Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: Well on the latter point, we’ve – the United States always respects the results of free and fair elections. There are lots of free and fair elections around the world whose outcomes, whose results, we regret because we think the wrong guy one. We nevertheless respect the outcome, and we would do that in Venezuela.
If you look at the polls – and this is consistent now for certainly the more than a year now I’ve been looking at it – the level of support for Nicolas Maduro is something like 12 or 15 percent. One of the reasons I suppose he doesn’t want a free election is that he reads the same polls. There is no possible way that Nicolas Maduro remains in power if Venezuelans get to choose their own fate and get to elect their own leaders. That’s why we can be so sure that an – a free electoral system provides no possibilities for Maduro to actually win in a free election.
Now, previous question. First of all, again, the State Department does not indict people. The Treasury Department does not indict people. Indictments are not part of any policy. They’re the product of the system of justice. They’re a product of U.S. Attorneys’ work around the country. They’re the product of grand juries. So criminal indictments are not a foreign policy matter.
Now, we can all speculate as to the impact of those indictments. I think they certainly make Maduro and the other indicted more toxic around the world as governments and individuals look at them, but they are not part of a policy process. That’s our system of government. It’s sometimes difficult to explain to people from other systems where they are part of a policy process, even in some democracies, but that’s not how it works in the U.S. The Justice Department informs people about indictments that have occurred that – about indictments that have actually happened. They don’t confer with other agencies of government about it as a matter of foreign policy.
I’m not sure if I got your first question.
OPERATOR: And Ms. Morello, I’ve opened your line again if you want to repeat your first question.
QUESTION: Thank you. My first question is if you would ever lift sanctions against Maduro himself.
MR ABRAMS: Oh, well, to the extent that he is sanctioned for illegitimately holding the office of president – or claiming to hold it – yes, that sanction would be lifted. My memory is that he is sanctioned for various reasons, but the employment-based sanction would be lifted. Obviously, the indictment stays.
MR BROWN: Okay. I think we have time for maybe a couple more questions, if we could try to keep them down to maybe one question as opposed to a handful. If you could open the line of Robbie Gramer, please.
OPERATOR: All right. Robbie Gramer, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I’m wondering how much the pandemic, with its economic impacts, plunging oil prices, factor into the timing of the release of this plan. Do you believe the knock-on effects of the pandemic could help drive Maduro to talk on this? And then quickly, do you see this proposal as a take-it-or-leave-it plan or as a starter? In other words, are you open to direct talks with Maduro? Thanks.
MR ABRAMS: The pandemic had nothing to do with the timing. We’ve been working on this for several months, and when we were finished with all the work and it was approved by the President, we published it. The only relevance of the pandemic is that it’s followed the collapse of oil prices due to the feud between the Russians and the Saudis that had so greatly increased supply. The effect of the pandemic narrowly in the oil market is, of course, to reduce demand further, so it creates greater difficulties for the Venezuelan regime, but it didn’t factor into this. I mean, we started thinking about whether the United States should put together and publish our view of a good path forward several months ago before any of us knew there was such a thing happening or about to happen, so it didn’t really figure in.
I would say on the latter part, this is a framework. This is a proposal. As you know if you’ve seen it, it’s about – I’d call it a one-pager – it’s actually about a page and a half with many, many things that would need to be decided by Venezuelans. It is certainly not take it or leave it. We’re not Venezuelans. What we’re hoping is that they will get into discussions of this plan or anything like it that would move the country forward toward free elections, a free presidential election, a return to democracy. If someone has an alternative plan that’s better, we would love to see it.
One of the problems here is that no plans have been put forward that people have really discussed except the proposal that the democratic parties put forward in Barbados. And so we looked at that very carefully and, in essence, built our framework around what we think are the bones of that plan. So it is structured on the basis of that proposal by the National Assembly team, the Guaido team, last year. But it’s not going to lead us into a negotiation, it’s not going to lead the United States into a negotiation with the Maduro regime.
Our hope is that Venezuelans talk to each other and work this out. We’ve said that if that happens, we, and I know many other governments, would want to be helpful, but this is not about a U.S.-Maduro negotiation. This is about Venezuelans solving their problems, and this is an American proposal for how we think they can do so in a way that treats both parties fairly.
MR BROWN: Okay, I think we have time for maybe, maybe one more. If you could open the line of Matt Spetalnick.
OPERATOR: All right. And your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. So another question about the indictment: There were more than a dozen charged along with Maduro. Is there anything in the plan that would prevent those others from – possibly Diosdado – or Cabello – for – to be part of the transitional administration in any way, shape, or form? And if not, what’s the cutoff for those who can and cannot participate as far as the U.S. is concerned?
MR ABRAMS: Well, we think we have – let me start again. If you look at the proposal that we have made, there are mutual vetoes. That is to say that the members of the Supreme Court, the Council of State, the National Electoral Commission have to be selected by the National Assembly with a supermajority, which means that both – each side, the democratic political parties led by Juan Guaido, and the Chavista party, the party of the regime, can veto people on the other side. I think it is as clear as it can be that if the regime side proposed Diosdado Cabello or some of these other people, they’d be rejected.
The reason we built it this way, built the proposal this way, is that we think it pushes toward moderation. That is, it pushes towards individuals who, though they are on one side or the other, are understood widely in the society as being able to talk to the other side, to be thoughtful people, to be reasonable people, to be decent people, so that each side is going to have a veto over the other’s selection of people who don’t fit that description. We think this is a way of getting the best people, people most likely to be able to reach agreement, people most likely be able to govern for a period of nine or 12 months in a decent fashion that has the support of most Venezuelans. So I don’t think we need to worry about people such as those being selected because the democratic parties in the National Assembly would, I think very clearly, not permit it.
MR BROWN: Okay. Thanks, everyone, for joining the call today. As this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Thank you once again. Thanks to our briefer.
MR ABRAMS: Thank you. Bye-bye.