United States | Briefing With Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams

United States | Briefing With Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams

United States (STL.News) – MR PALLADINO: Welcome back. It’s Friday and we have with us Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. Thank you for joining us again. Please.

MR ABRAMS: You’re very welcome. I’m going to start taking attendance and see how much interest there is here. (Laughter.)

A few things to start with. The diplomatic staff from Embassy Caracas arrived at Dulles Airport just after 11 o’clock last night, and they will be meeting the Secretary at 2:30 this afternoon. They will in essence continue their mission from other locations – from the State Department for the most part – to try to support the Venezuelan people as they struggle to return Venezuela to democracy.

Just a – on consular services, I think we’ve said this before, but some time ago – actually a month ago – we said that non-immigrant visas would be handled in Bogota; immigrant – excuse me, immigrant visas would be handled in Bogota for Venezuelans; non-immigrant visas can be applied for wherever the individual is, at any embassy or consulate around the world.

Latest visa revocations: This week we have revoked 340 additional visas, and that’s a process that will continue.

In Venezuela, the diplomatic staff – when we had a full staff and in the last month or so when we’ve had a reduced staff – have been immeasurably assisted by the locally employed staff, which has really been, as is true in so many embassies, vital to the effort to restore democracy to Venezuela and to support a transition to a democratic government under Interim President Guaido. And so just want to express our gratitude toward them. They will remain employed by the United States in Caracas.

Finally, I would like to congratulate Ricardo Hausmann, who is going to be the representative of Venezuela in the Inter-American Development Bank. The voting is not closed. The voting closes at around 6:30 p.m. today, I think, but enough votes have been cast so that we can say he will be elected. And this is part of the taking authority over foreign rolls and assets of Venezuela by the Guaido government. So we congratulate him and you should see an official statement I guess after the voting is closed.

MR PALLADINO: If there’s any questions —

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR PALLADINO: — he can take a few. All right, go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Thanks. I’m just wondering if you’ve made any progress or how close you are to getting an agreement with someone for – to be your protecting power.

MR ABRAMS: We’ve made real progress. I don’t have an announcement, but we have been working hard on this. It’s moving forward. We’re happy about the direction it’s going in, and there’s a lot of legal process to do, but this will happen soon. I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION: I mean, any kind of a ballpark, like today, tomorrow?

MR ABRAMS: Oh, no.

QUESTION: Monday, Tuesday?

MR ABRAMS: A week or two.

QUESTION: A week or two from now?

MR ABRAMS: From now, yeah.

MR PALLADINO: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. The IDB has put out a statement already saying that Mr. Hausmann can begin as the representative there because enough – there have been sufficient votes cast. What does this mean generally speaking for any kind of economic help for Venezuela? Venezuela is in arrears to the IDB anyway.

And then also, the IMF has delayed a decision by the board, their board, to discuss or – a poll that would basically recognize Guaido, and as you know, the IMF is important as a seal of approval for other big institutions like the World Bank. But what does this overall mean to – for lending or economic help?

MR ABRAMS: I think most – the most important task that Professor Hausmann will be undertaking is to work with the IDB on the preparations for post-Maduro Venezuela. He has personally done a lot of work on this. We actually met yesterday. And there are – there’s been really an enormous amount of work done over the last several years by Venezuelans and by others, and the IDB has clearly a leading role in the recuperation of the Venezuelan economy when we think of things like the electric sector, the energy sector, which are in bad shape. So he will now be in a position officially to represent Venezuela in those IDB preparations, and that’s a lot better than doing it from a university. He’ll be inside.

MR PALLADINO: Washington Post.

QUESTION: There were reports coming this week from Maracaibo, if I’m pronouncing it correctly, the second-largest city – sort of the Houston of Venezuela, I guess, that had a lot of ransacking and it sounded like a terrible situation. I was wondering if you have any sense of how close the economy is and the infrastructure is in Venezuela to a total collapse, and following that, the impact on Maduro.

MR ABRAMS: Our information is that the situation is considerably worse in Maracaibo than in Caracas in a number of ways. I have not seen lots of looting in Caracas, although the blackout and the diminution of social media mean that we may not be seeing everything that’s happening. But we have seen it in Maracaibo. There’s been a lot that has been reported in social media and to us. Part of this I think is because the regime is directing its attention to Caracas. They seem to be taking the view that what happens outside of Caracas is not threatening to them. So, for example, power supply is better in Caracas than in Maracaibo or anywhere else, actually. So that’s a – I think a political judgment on the part of the regime.

What is the impact of this situation on the longevity of the regime? It’s obviously going to shorten the life of the regime. Now, I’ve said before we’re not making predictions, and as we look back we see that, generally speaking, neither we nor anyone else has been very good at predicting when regimes fall. But this blackout has really intensified the difficulties in the country – the difficulties of average families, the difficulties of government institutions – and I think it demonstrates that the longer the regime stays, the worse the economic and social situation are going to be. So what I’m – I can’t give dates, but it seems to me it’s obvious that more and more Venezuelans will be coming to the conclusion that there is no decent future for the country with Maduro in power.

MR PALLADINO: Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. Two quick questions. To the best of your knowledge or your opinion, what is the cause of the blackout? What is the exact cause of the blackout?

And second, could you explain to us the article under which Mr. Guaido declared himself president? It is said that it has expired last month. Could you explain that to us? What is the —

MR ABRAMS: Yeah. Yes. On the blackout, we’re not there. I believe there is a consensus now that by far the most likely explanation is that these extremely high-voltage lines, which tend to bow as the months go and years go by – that is, they are not straight; they tend to —

QUESTION: Sag.

MR ABRAMS: — sag is a good word – into trees and bushes, and that creates the possibility of a fire. That is what more – I would say more experts have given as the explanation. So how do you avoid that? It’s simple: You cut and prune and keep trees and bushes from approaching the lines, and they haven’t done that. There’s really been no maintenance, not just for years but for decades on those. They have three high voltage lines coming essential from Guri Dam. That’s our best explanation. It is not formed, obviously, by examination but rather by reports that we’ve seen from a fair number of experts.

As to the Venezuelan constitution, the National Assembly has passed a resolution that states that that 30-day period of interim presidency will not start ending or counting until the day Nicolas Maduro leaves power. So the 30 days doesn’t start now, it starts after Maduro. And they – that’s a resolution of the National Assembly.

QUESTION: When did they – they did that after he —

MR ABRAMS: They did that – this is roughly a month ago. We could try to find the date for you.

QUESTION: When he was – when he was – took the mantle of interim president, that wasn’t there.

MR ABRAMS: Yes, when – that’s correct. And so people —

QUESTION: Can you do that ex post facto like that?

MR ABRAMS: When people ask a question how do —

QUESTION: That seems to be like saying I was elected for four years to be president, and then two years in you change the rules so that your term didn’t start – hasn’t even started yet. How does that happen?

MR ABRAMS: Well, you don’t get a vote because you’re not in the National Assembly.

QUESTION: Well, you don’t. You’re not in the National Assembly either.

QUESTION: If it matters, does the U.S. view that as constitutional under their system?

MR ABRAMS: Yes. I mean, we’re taking the – the National Assembly is the only legitimate democratic institution left in Venezuela, and their interpretation of the constitution, as you know, is that as of the date of this alleged term for Maduro, the presidency is vacant. But they have also said that that 30-day period starts when Maduro goes.

QUESTION: So Juan Guaido is the interim president of an interim that doesn’t exist yet?

MR ABRAMS: The 30-day end to his interim presidency starts counting. Because he’s not in power, that’s the problem. Maduro is still there. So they have decided that they will count that from when he actually is in power and Maduro’s gone. I think it’s logical.

QUESTION: So then he really isn’t interim president, then?

MR ABRAMS: He is interim president, but he’s not —

QUESTION: With no power.

MR ABRAMS: — able to exercise the powers of the office because Maduro still is there.

QUESTION: So their interpretation is that until and unless he actually has the power to run the country, he’s not actually the interim president?

MR ABRAMS: No. Their interpretation is that the constitution requires a 30-day interim period, but it – those 30 days should not be counted while Maduro is still there exercising the powers of his former office.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go AFP.

QUESTION: Have you engaged directly again with countries who still recognize Maduro as president? I think you said last week that you hadn’t spoken with China yet. Have you had a chance to —

MR ABRAMS: The ambassador has, I believe, been out of town, so – but we have spoken to China in Beijing, that is the ambassador has spoken to the Chinese Government about this.

QUESTION: What – is there something – some progress on —

MR ABRAMS: Have they – have we changed their position? Not yet. Not yet.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to Janne.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. It is reported that North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un willing to support Maduro regime. Any comment on that? Because it resembled Kim’s regime and Maduro regimes. So any sense of this?

MR ABRAMS: Well, we have noted that among the 54 countries that support the people of Venezuela and Interim President Guaido are many of the most influential democracies in the world. We have really not been trying to get North Korea to support Juan Guaido. That has not been a mission of ours.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to ABC.

QUESTION: Two questions on the Americans that remain behind. When we were in Cucuta, you said that there are between 30- and 40,000 U.S. citizens. Some estimates put that as high as 50,000. Do you have an update on the number of American citizens you believe are still there? And American Airlines announced today that they are cancelling commercial flights into Venezuela. As more airlines consider that and take that action, is the U.S. considering any sort of evacuations for citizens that remain behind?

MR ABRAMS: Well, first, we’ve had a Travel Warning for quite a while, and the Travel Warning has been one of the strictest, saying to Americans “don’t go.” Obviously, it makes it harder to leave when the largest commercial carrier is no longer serving the airport in Caracas. We are trying first to do the consular activities from the State Department, and we will have a protecting power.

As to the question of a major threat that would lead lots of Americans to want to leave, there – there were always plans to help people leave in a situation of danger. We have those for lots of countries, and I think I’ll leave it at that.

MR PALLADINO: Please.

QUESTION: Olivia Gazis with CBS News. Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque, said in a recent interview that he doesn’t believe that military intervention by the United States is the right thing for Venezuela. How do you countenance that with the very real implicit and repeated threat that the United States has held out that all options remain on the table?

MR ABRAMS: Well, I don’t think that —

QUESTION: And very quickly, just a quick follow on that one: Have you identified a protecting power in Caracas for remaining staff? Because there – I know there was discussion as to identifying one.

MR ABRAMS: I’m just going to leave that where it is on the protecting power; that is, we are in discussions. They are reasonably advanced, but they’re not done yet, and it will take some more time.

I don’t see a contradiction between what President Duque said and what we always say. We also believe that the military outcome is not the right outcome for the future of Venezuela, for the people of Venezuela. A peaceful democratic transition is the right outcome. Our policy is a peaceful transition to democracy. Our economic, financial, diplomatic, political pressure is designed to achieve that goal, or better put, to help the Venezuelan people recover their democracy. But there are lots of contingencies and dangers in the world, and therefore all options are on the table.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go in the back right there, please.

QUESTION: Yeah. Francisco (inaudible) Spain. Do you know how many Americans you have still in Venezuela, a rough number? And then can you explain more the sentence that you said, that you have closed the embassy because the situation there has become a constraint for the U.S. policy? What do you mean for that?

MR ABRAMS: Well, we don’t – I’d say first we don’t ever know exactly how many Americans are in any country, because Americans are free to travel. We urge them to register – particularly in a situation like Venezuela – register with the embassy. For one thing, they can get onto an email program or a text program where they get warnings, where the embassy can send them messages instantly. But they don’t have to do that. So we’re guessing, and the guesses are in the range of 30,000. As was said, there are higher ranges – 35,000, 40,000, even higher than that. But we don’t know the exact number because we have no way of knowing.

What was the other?

QUESTION: Second one – the situation has become a constraint for the U.S.

MR ABRAMS: Oh, I mean, we answered that already several days ago.

MR PALLADINO: Many times.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate that?

MR ABRAMS: No.

MR PALLADINO: All right, great. Let’s go CNN, Michelle.

QUESTION: Thanks. The International Energy Agency is saying that it looks like the entire oil industry could collapse in Venezuela. What’s your view of that possibility, and how do you see that affecting the situation on the ground, including for the humanitarian situation?

MR ABRAMS: Well, I’m not sure what “collapse” means there. There is certainly a steady drop in Venezuelan oil exports. Partly that reflects the blackout. But even if you take the blackout out of it, there is a very steady drop of maybe 50,000 barrels a month in production so that they’re heading down toward a million now, and in a month or two they’ll be below a million. This is a country that used to export more than 3 million barrels a day.

QUESTION: When do you think that – where did you say they could be below?

MR ABRAMS: A couple of months. I think they’re just above a million now. Again, they may have dipped below it because of the blackout, and they may come back 50- or 100,000 barrels. But that’s the neighborhood they’re in, and it is a steady decline.

It is true that you can do long-term damage if you don’t maintain the infrastructure. One of the reasons that, in our announcement of PDVSA sanctions, we gave some American firms 180 days to transition out was precisely to avoid this kind of damage. We – I think it’s fair to say that the Maduro regime has been a very poor steward of the infrastructure in Venezuela. We see that in the electrical infrastructure, and we also see it in the oil infrastructure. Our sanctions had nothing to do with them coming down from 3 million barrels a day to a million barrels a day. But it would certainly be better from the point of view of democracy and human rights, and it would certainly be better from the point of view of the economy and the oil sector if the regime were to come to an end.

MR PALLADINO: Last question, please, in the back there.

QUESTION: Yeah. (Inaudible) Hernandez from the Spanish newswire EFE. Have you had any conversation lately with Vice President Arreaza?

MR ABRAMS: No. We had two conversations in – god, I don’t remember. One was in late January, one was maybe a week after that. And that – those were the – that was it.

MR PALLADINO: All right, very good.

QUESTION: Mr. Abrams, can you (inaudible) diplomats yesterday (inaudible) in Caracas?

MR PALLADINO: That’s good, we’ll call it there. All right, thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.