Briefing on Venezuela

Special Briefing
Thomas A. Shannon, Jr.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
November 4, 2016


MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, guys.

QUESTION: Hello.

MR KIRBY: Happy Friday.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR KIRBY: Today, I think you know we’ve got a special guest briefer here for the first part of today’s briefing, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon. I think as you also know, Ambassador Shannon spent the last couple of days in Caracas meeting with government and opposition leaders as well as members of civil society. We asked the under secretary to come here to the podium, give you a debrief from those meetings and discussions. We will take a couple of questions after he’s done. As before, I’ll moderate them; I’ll call on you. Please identify who you are, who you’re with before you ask a question. And we’re only going to have time for two to three, so please limit the follow-ups if we can. Okay?

And with that, Ambassador.

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: All right. Thank you very much, John. As John noted, I just got back from Caracas. I was there from Monday through Wednesday. And I would start by making a couple of points about the trip itself. I traveled at the request of Secretary Kerry and at the invitation of President Maduro, and the visit to Caracas was the product of a meeting between Secretary Kerry and President Maduro that took place in Cartagena, Colombia. The immediate trigger for the visit was the successful launch of the dialogue between the government and the opposition last Sunday, October 30th. Just before that, I was in Central Asia, and so I had to get myself from Tashkent to Caracas, which I found was not an easy thing to do but --

QUESTION: No direct flight?

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: No direct flight, but I do want to thank the U.S. Air Force which came to my rescue at least for an important part of that trip. They got me to Dubai. And once from Dubai, I could make it to Caracas.

The purpose of the visit was to highlight our support for the dialogue and to consult with all of those participating in the dialogue and those not participating. And during the visit, as John noted, I was able to meet with President Maduro and members of his negotiating team, representative of the Democratic Unity Roundtable, those who are participating in the talks and those who are not, representatives of civil society, including the Catholic Church and the business community, and representatives of the international humanitarian community, and the diplomatic corps.

In regard to the dialogue itself, I’d like to make a couple of points. First, this dialogue has been about five months in the making, beginning as a UNASUR initiative under the leadership of the secretary general of UNASUR and being led by three former presidents, Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain, Martin Torrijos of Panama, and Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic. These three have acted as facilitators since that time. But the two sides, the government and the opposition, only agreed to sit publicly when the Vatican agreed to join the mediation effort at the request of both the government and the opposition. And the importance of the role of the Vatican in this dialogue process cannot be overstated.

The dialogue is taking place, as I think many of you know, in a highly-charged political environment and amidst economic and social distress. It’s a fragile but a very important process, and it’s a good-faith effort to find a peaceful way out of the political impasse that has crippled Venezuela.

In our opinion, it represents the best opportunity to achieve such a goal – in other words a peaceful way out of a political impasse – and it’s worthy of our support and it’s worthy of the support of the international community, and we will continue to do so as long as it remains viable.

So those are my points. I’m happy to take your question.

MR KIRBY: That was fast, and I was ready to – (laughter) – go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Extremely briefly. One, we understand from Kirby here, the spokesman, that you raised the case of Josh Holt. And I’m just wondering what you can tell us about what you said and what the response was.

And then secondly, there’s been a lot of criticism of this whole dialogue process – people saying that the government has not shown good faith, others saying the opposition hasn’t shown good faith. Why is it that you think that it is worthy of your support? Is there really just no other game in town?

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah. In regard to Mr. Holt, I did raise the case of Joshua Holt in my meetings with President Maduro, with other members of the government, and with others that I spoke with, as has Secretary Kerry and other Americans. We were very clear in terms of our intentions, but this is a process that is still in a delicate phase of Venezuela’s legal system. But it is our hope that, as we have in other cases, that we will have a successful outcome of that case, which means his safe return to the United States.

In regard to why now and in spite of criticism does the dialogue have a chance, at this point it is the only game in town. And the addition of the Vatican highlights just how important that is at this point. His Holiness the Pope’s decision to meet with President Maduro and Rome and to send one of his most experienced diplomatic fixers to Caracas to sit with the sides this past weekend and to lay out a dialogue process that will meet again on November 11th, from our point of view, really is the last best effort to try to find a negotiated peaceful solution to this. Absent this dialogue process, Venezuela will find itself in a state in which both the government and the opposition will have to measure themselves through their ability to put people onto the streets. And while mobilization can be an important part of a negotiated – a negotiation process, absent a negotiation process, mobilization is unpredictable and can be very dangerous.

So from our point of view, for those of us who see the issue in front of us not just as how you address the immediate problems of elections and addressing the issues of political prisoners, but how you also begin to create a process whereby Venezuelans can talk about their future and talk about how they’re going to address the really significant economic and social crises that they face, this dialogue is the best hope we have.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Lesley.

QUESTION: Tom, you’ve mentioned several times the best, the last game in town and the best hope. What do you think came out of those meetings? Was anything achieved in the first meeting?

Number two, one of the things you’ve seen was Maduro and the opposition criticizing each other straight afterwards, although during the meeting I believe that it was asked of them to kind of lower their rhetoric. So how do you see this moving forward? When is the next meeting, and what happens if this dialogue fails?

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, first, the fact that they’ve sat down together and they’ve done it publicly is a huge step. And the fact that it has taken place with the presence of the Vatican as the facilitator along with the other facilitators that I mentioned is also very important, because what this means is that there’s now global attention and global engagement and support for the process.

That said, it’s important to recognize and remember that this is a Venezuelan process. At the end of the day, it’s the Venezuelans that have to solve their own problems. The most that the facilitators can do, the most that the rest of the international community can do, is try to create a space and hold that space open for this dialogue and, to the extent possible, find ways to work with the different sides to push them towards a happy conclusion. But at the end of the day, nothing can be imposed. And a lot of this is going to depend on the goodwill and the good faith of those participating.

In many ways, the government holds the key to the success of this dialogue, because they’re the ones who hold the prisoners, they’re the ones who control the electoral organization that will make decisions about elections, and they are the ones that have to agree to sit down with members of civil society and the opposition to determine what next steps Venezuela can take in its economy and its larger social policies to address some really significant challenges that Venezuela faces. But at the end of the day, it’s going to require both sides to come to terms.

So we are hopeful. We’re determined. We’re persistent. But at the end of the day, it’s the Venezuelans themselves that will determine the success or failure of this. And the next meeting is November 11th.

MR KIRBY: Just one more. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Tracy Wilkinson from the Los Angeles Times. A couple of quick questions and then a longer one. You just alluded a couple of times to political prisoners. Did you raise that issue specifically with Maduro, asking for them to be released (a); (b) is the recall effort dead, or did that come up at all? And then my third broader question is you and others have talked about how difficult it is for the United States to take this role with Venezuela given the history and the animus, et cetera. Do you see signs from Venezuela that they’re more receptive to an American role?

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah, thank you. First, on political prisoners, we always raise political prisoners. But this is an important part of the dialogue itself; in other words, how you address issues, the rubric is human rights and kind of social peace, but this certainly refers to people being held by the government for political reasons. And in the immediate aftermath of the Sunday meeting, the government released five people associated with the opposition. The opposition itself wants more releases, more gestures, by the government in that regard. And in fact, one of the major parties that is not participating, Voluntad Popular, has its leader, Leopoldo Lopez, in prison and has indicated that it will only participate if there are significant releases of political prisoners. So how the issue of prisoners is dealt with is obviously going to be key to the success of this process going forward.

Your second point was --

QUESTION: The recall, if that’s dead in the water.

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Oh yeah. No, no, it’s not. I mean, again, the thing about this process is that both sides have decided that they need to address the issue of elections and they need to establish some kind of electoral agenda going forward that will send a very clear message to Venezuelans that they will have a right to vote, that they will have an opportunity to vote, and that they can express themselves publicly through their vote. The question is what that electoral agenda looks like. And everything can be negotiated, and so it’s really going to be up to both sides to determine how best they want to manage an electoral process and what is convenient for both of them.

And then again, forgive my faulty memory, but your --

QUESTION: The third was, yeah, the U.S. role.

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Oh yeah.

QUESTION: Are you seeing more reception, more friendliness or --

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, I mean, as complicated as our relationship has been over time with the Government of Venezuela, we’ve always been able to talk with the government. And we are actually, along maybe with the Vatican, one of the few groups out there that can talk with both sides of this equation and get the access that we need to have. And the fact that I went down at the invitation of President Maduro was indicative of that. When Secretary Kerry met with President Maduro in Cartagena and discussed the dialogue process and the role we could play in it, he was very happy to have us come down. And I know that’s certainly the case for the opposition, with whom we also have a very fluid and open relationship.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, sir. We’re going to have to --

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: So, listen, thank you all very much.

MR KIRBY: -- stop it there. Appreciate it.

UNDER SECRETARY SHANNON: Really appreciate it.

MR KIRBY: Thank you. Thank you, sir. Thank you.