Background Briefing on the Situation in Venezuela
MODERATOR: Hello, everyone, and thanks for joining us this afternoon. Today we have with us two senior State Department officials to discuss the situation in Venezuela. We have with us [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. Hereafter for the rest of the call, they will be Senior State Department Official One and Senior State Department Official Two. This call is on background, so for all attribution we will refer to them as Senior State Department Officials.
So without further ado, I’m going to turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number One for some opening remarks before we get to your questions. Go ahead, Senior Official One.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much, [Moderator], and thanks to everyone for being on the line. Good afternoon. Let me start off just with a couple of quick things and then we can go to questions.
Yesterday was obviously a very, very busy day on Venezuela. First we had the press conference by Vice President Maduro in which there were a lot of allegations made about the United States and two of our officials were expelled, or PNG’d; and then just hours later, Vice President Maduro, of course, announced President Chavez’s death. The White House has put out a statement on the death of President Chavez. We, of course, have also responded to inquiries.
It’s a very difficult time for Venezuela right now. We are aware of that, and we have conveyed our belief that as they look forward beyond the death of President Chavez there will be elections upcoming according to the Venezuelan constitution, and we are hopeful that those elections will go forward according to their constitution, according to the regional documents, the Inter-American documents on democratic practices that we’ve all signed up to, in the coming days and months.
Let me also just say a word about one other thing that we have obviously been paying some attention to over the last 24 hours, which is the security situation in Venezuela, both for our official Americans and for American citizens more generally. The situation is really very calm. We have had conversations with all of the Venezuelan various security services – police, military – and they have been very responsive to us. We have no concerns about our own security at this point. We did put out – our Embassy did put out a Warden Message last night for Americans, the kind of thing that we do pretty regularly when we think there are reasons for Americans to be cautious. So we put that out yesterday.
My understanding is that because of the national days of mourning, the schools are closed today. Our Embassy did not process visas this morning because they felt that it was better if they did not. So people who had not gotten the word that we were not going to do our visa appointments today were turned away this morning, but there were no problems with that. So I just want to make mention of the fact that we are very conscious of security issues but that everything seems to be going very well for now.
With that, I think I’ll stop unless Official Number Two has anything to add.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Nope, I don’t. Let’s go ahead.
MODERATOR: Operator, let’s go ahead to our Q&A session. Go ahead and get our first question.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your phone (inaudible). If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, any questions, please press * then 1 at this time.
And our first question will come from the line of Elise Labott with CNN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. Can you talk a little bit more about – I mean, this – the White House statement was kind of a little bit curt, didn’t necessarily offer condolences. We understand that Senior Official One put out a statement. If you could release that to the rest of the – of us, that would be great. It just seems as if you’re unsure how to respond in terms of showing condolences. The rhetoric coming not only from some of the Republicans on the Hill, talking about the fact that it’s good that he’s dead. I’m wondering, given what’s going on on both sides, what you see the prospect is for improved relations between the U.S. and Venezuela as you move forward.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Elise. Let me start out by saying that I can’t really explain or otherwise characterize rhetoric that may be coming out from members of Congress or others. Let me say that I think it’s really important that I make clear that we definitely wanted to – we definitely understand that Venezuela is going through this incredibly difficult period. Their leader has died. We – and I don’t see any problem with making that available – and in the guidance that we’ve used have made clear that we expressed our sympathy to his family and to the Venezuelan people. I think frankly, the way I was raised, when someone dies, you always express condolences. So we’ve done that.
But it’s obviously been a pretty complicated relationship, and this announcement was preceded by a 90-minute press conference in which we were accused of some pretty awful things that were pretty outrageous. But I think that reflects to some extent just how difficult it’s been to try and have the positive relationship with Venezuela that we’d like. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of conflict over President Chavez’s death. He was the leader of Venezuela. There are a lot of people who are feeling the effects of that death, taking it quite personally. There is a family involved here. We sympathize with that.
Looking forward and how the relationship will go in the future, I think we’ve also been pretty clear that we would like a productive, more functional relationship with the Venezuelan Government. And we remain, perhaps because we’re Americans, optimistic that that can be the case. But we’ll have to see how that progresses going forward. Obviously, yesterday’s first press conference, if you will, the first address, was not encouraging in that respect. It disappointed us.
OPERATOR: And next in queue we’ll go to the line of Luis Alonso. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, everybody. Many thanks for doing this call. I have two quick questions. The first one is if the United States will reciprocate the expulsion of the two military officers in Caracas, will ask Venezuela to do something similar? And the second question is, after these accusations yesterday by Vice President Maduro, do you plan to have any direct contact with him like the November contact that there was? Is there any prospect, any plan for talks in the near future? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Luis. I think on the question of reciprocal action for the expulsion of our two officials, that’s something that we’re obviously reviewing right now and we’ll see where we go from here. It’s obviously always our right to take that action, and so we’re not ruling anything out at this point.
On the issue of contact with Vice President Maduro, [Senior State Department Official has] not had contact with him since November, but contact between others [in the State Department] have continued, not in a while now. We’ll see whether those can continue at this point.
Official Number Two, did you want to add anything to that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, I think that’s right.
OPERATOR: And next we’ll go the line of Jo Biddle, AFP. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, my question was actually just answered, which was about the rhetoric and whether there’d be any reciprocal actions by the United States on – after the expulsion of these two Air Force officers. But perhaps going forward, maybe you could talk a little bit more about how you think you might be able to build your relationship with Venezuela perhaps once we get past the elections and where you would like to see that going in the future.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. I think that we’ve – we’ve said from the beginning that we think the best way to move ahead in this relationship is twofold. One is to have conversations on things where I think there may be mutual interest in moving ahead, and there are clearly some areas in which we think that could be possible – counternarcotics, counterterrorism, economic or commercial issues including energy.
But the second part of this is – and we’ve always been clear on this as well, I think – that we are going to continue to speak out when we believe there are issues of democratic principle that need to be talked about, that need to be highlighted. Obviously, Venezuela will also speak out and speak its own mind on – the Venezuelan Government will speak its own mind on issues they think that they have to speak out about.
So I think that’s part of this equation, but there clearly are issues in which we have mutual interest, and I think that’s the way you start this. You start by talking about the things that matter to both of us and seeing if we can make progress on those issues on those functional areas, and then you move on to trying to build on that as you build confidence. So for us, it’s a step-by-step process during which we will continue to speak out and to defend democratic principles if that is the appropriate thing to do.
OPERATOR: And next in queue we’ll go directly to the line of Brad Klapper with Associated Press. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, yes. Thank you for doing the call. I just wanted to ask for your reaction to the late-night tweet by Venezuelan State Television saying that Defense Minister Molero was pledging military support for Maduro’s candidacy. Is that something that worries you, and do you see already these democratic principles that you have said you would speak out in favor of already being challenged?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Brad. I actually had not seen that tweet, but I do think that it’s important that the elections be free and fair, that they be – that the democratic principles enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter and other documents be respected. It seems to me that if government entities guaranteeing a free and fair election, then that’s one thing; if they are acting on behalf of an individual candidate, that would probably cause us some concern.
It’s important that, to the greatest extent possible, everybody have a level playing field and a clear field, whether that’s candidates or voters or political groups, to express themselves, to have a vote that is secret and counted and not influenced by those outside the electoral process. So we’ll obviously be taking a look at all of these things as we go forward.
Official Number Two?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The only thing I’d say in addition to that is, and this is not – Official Number One’s comments about how we respond to this, I think, is right on. This is no different from positions that have been taken by the armed forces in the past, including things – saying things like we’re married to the revolution, et cetera. And the fundamental point here is about – and the separation of powers and ensuring that institutions in the democratic structure have the independence that they need to function as designed.
OPERATOR: And next, we’ll go to the line of Lucia Leal with EFE News Service. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for making this call. I was wondering if you could comment on the specific process announced by Vice President Maduro up until the elections next month, because some analysts are saying that the constitution provides for Mr. Cabello and not him to head the interim government. So I just wanted to know what your views are on that. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Lucia. We’ve obviously seen lots of comments by analysts. It’s not going to be our place to interpret the Venezuelan constitution for Venezuelans, so I really – I’m not going to make a comment on whether that interpretation is accurate or not.
From what I understand – and then I’m going to turn it over to Official Number Two, who is a much better expert on the process going forward – but from what I understand, there – like any constitution, there are rules that are laid out, and then interpretations of the same. We’ve also seen reports that elections need to be held in 30 days, which is an incredibly short timeframe. Or there have been comments that elections need to be called within 30 days.
So all of this will have to be worked out going forward. I think the most important thing is that the rules be applicable across the board to everybody, and that there be an opportunity for Venezuelans to organize and to vote and to be independent in that vote. But beyond that, I’m not going to interpret Venezuela’s constitution.
[Senior State Department Official Two]?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I mean, this is right. I mean, it’s a constitution like many constitutions. It’s subject to differential interpretations. For their part, the Venezuelans and the Venezuelan Supreme Court in the past – and they had the tradition of judicial review – the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled that Maduro didn’t need to be inaugurated because there was a continuity of government. And as – the whole theory behind two-thirds of that article is that you would need to move the acting presidency to the president of the National Assembly because there was no inauguration.
So the point is, is that the judicial branch has kind of looked at this already. For our part, what’s important now is less that issue and more the conditions under which the election, which must be held, which Chavez, before he went to – back to Cuba said would be held, that that election take place in conditions that are demonstrably free and fair and that conform to the rules that the hemisphere had set up for itself with respect to democratic practice.
OPERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: My question’s been asked and answered. Thank you.
OPERATOR: You’re welcome. Thank you. Next we’ll go to the line of Juan Lopez, CNN Espanol. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. So what happens now? Will the U.S. send a delegation for Friday? Who will be in that delegation? How do you take it from here? And how do you deal? You’re saying you want – there’s a moment of pause and waiting to see what could happen in the relationship, but for example, Cabello is – he’s still on the kingpin list. And how does that affect any possible change for the future?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Juan Carlos. I’m going to start – let me start at the beginning, I think, if I can remember all the questions. You’ll let me know if I’ve missed some.
The question of what happens next, obviously, things are still pretty much in flux. It’s sort of early days. Whether a delegation will be sent for the funeral and ceremony that’s going to be held at the end of the week, I think on that all I would say is that’s a White House decision but I do expect that there will be a delegation. So, basically, stay tuned for that. I don’t want to preempt the White House on that.
In terms of moving forward, obviously we began a dialogue very initially with Vice President Maduro, and then with others beyond that, because we felt it was important to see if we could kind of reconstruct this relationship, starting with the issues where we have mutual interests. That’s been a little bit of a rocky road, obviously. And I think all of us know that electoral campaigns may not always be the best time to make – to break new ground on policy.
So we will continue to desire that positive relationship, to be open to having those conversations to try and move that ahead, while recognizing that it may take a little while before the Venezuelan Government that emerges from the elections that will be coming up is ready to have that conversation a bit more regularly and a bit more seriously.
But I think we’ve set out sort of a roadmap, if you will, of the way we’d like to do this, a sort of step-by-step process. And to some extent, it’s up to the Venezuelans to whether they want to head down that path and explore whether it’ll work.
Official Number Two, what am I missing of those questions? I can’t recall.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. What – there was another question at the end there. Can you repeat that question?
Apparently not. Locked out.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There was a question about Cabello, I think, at the end.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, the only – I mean, I heard – it may have gone to the constitution question, but one just point of fact is the questioner suggested that Cabello was on the kingpin list, which is not accurate. I mean, there are eight Venezuelans who are on the kingpin list, but he is not currently one of them.
MODERATOR: And next, we’ll go to the line of Lori Montenegro with Telemundo Network. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. Senator Marco Rubio, in his statement, was encouraging the Administration and others in what he called the democratic community to be aware and be vigilant of the security situation in Venezuela during the coming weeks and months. Is there – do you have any indication of – that there should be concern about the security situation in Venezuela and how that could affect security in the rest of the region?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. I started with security in part to try and get at this issue, but I appreciate sort of coming back to it.
We have no indication right now that there is any threat to our personnel or Americans in Venezuela. Now obviously, after you have the kind of broadside, if you will, that Vice President Maduro launched against the United States yesterday, we obviously have security concerns, and we will remain very vigilant and review security issues regularly within our Embassy and here in Washington. And we’ll put out any additional notices to the public that we think necessary.
But at this point, I have to say, cooperation with the Venezuelan security services has been excellent, and we have no reason to think that there is any unusual threat against Americans or our personnel. And as far as I know, so far today, things have been very quiet and very peaceful, although obviously I think there are people out in the street in mourning, et cetera. So, so far, I think things have been quite quiet.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: If I could just add, just briefly here, is the only other thing is that all that is so, and we need to concern ourselves with the security of American citizens and of our mission. But let’s be clear; I mean, Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world with 20,000 murders, 19,000 murders annually being registered, a rate which is five times what it was in 1999. It’s inherently a violent place.
But there’s a distinction there between that sort of violence and then violence which might be – and it would appear that the comment of the senator was directed about sort of political violence. And Senior Official One’s comments were on point in that regard.
MODERATOR: And next we’ll go to the line of Ginger Thompson, New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, you all, and thanks for doing the call. I’m wondering if, [Senior State Department Official One], you could give us a few more details about what has happened specifically in the relationship between your – the time of that phone call with Vice President Maduro to yesterday’s press conference. I mean, there was the phone call. Have there been regular diplomatic communications between the two governments? Were there meetings planned? How did things begin to sort of unravel, if you will – not that they were ever fully together?
SENIOR STATE DEPATMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I think, Ginger, what you’re asking for is a more logical progression than actually exists. (Laughter.) The phone calls took place at the end of November. There were some – a couple of follow-up meetings after that phone call. We laid out, if you will, what we thought was kind of a good plan and where we could start. And to be honest, we did not get much response. We didn’t really begin the substantive portion of those conversations. We were still kind of meeting to meet and laying out what we would talk about.
So we really hadn’t gotten very far and were not sure whether the Government of Venezuela wanted to continue down that road when yesterday occurred. I could not tell you that there was a lot of preparation or anticipation of what happened yesterday, or something that’s built up or that tensions were growing, and that’s why yesterday occurred. In fact, I don’t think that’s the case.
I think yesterday was a part of an election campaign, and therefore not necessarily directly related to the process we’ve had of trying to improve the relationship. But it is directly related, from our perspective, obviously, that is to say regardless of reasons for it, there were some outrageous charges leveled against the United States publicly yesterday. And that’s really unfortunate and we rejected those.
But I can’t tell you that those two events are linked – the process that we’ve had to try and improve to have a conversation on the functional issues, as I call them, and what happened yesterday.
OPERATOR: The next in queue, we’ll go directly to the line of Jay Newton-Small with Time Magazine. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Yes, I wanted to know whether you see relations improving in the short or in the medium term now that Chavez is gone. Was he the biggest hurdle in this relationship, or are there other hurdles?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks. I’m going to start this one off and then I’m going to ask Official Two to continue a little bit.
I think one of the things that happens over 14 years in a government like Venezuela’s is it really did revolve around one man. So while I hesitate to say that a change in an individual or the passing of an individual completely changes the relationship, I do think your question, in a way, comes from an acknowledgement that he played an outsized role in that government, and therefore his absence can have an outsized implication, if you will.
But it’s very hard for me to tell. Obviously, there’s an election that’s going to take place in the coming weeks or months. And that campaign itself may raise issues; it may be a difficult campaign for many. We will no doubt continue to hear things about the United States that will not help improve this relationship. But it’s very hard for us to know right now whether the current government, as they preside over elections, or the government that comes out of those elections will, in fact, either accelerate or continue or stop the momentum towards a better relationship. [Senior State Department Official Two], you want to jump in?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The only thing I would add there is if you go back over time and look at how Hugo Chavez managed things politically in his country, one of the consistent elements was using us as a foil, using us as sort of a straw man that could be attacked.
And the regrettable part about this is that, notwithstanding his political needs, there are issues on which we’re really compelled to cooperate or at least talk to one another because there’s – they’re generally issues of mutual interest, where our interests coincide.
The speech yesterday, the first speech yesterday by Maduro, was very consistent with the way that this government has traditionally addressed these matters. And in that respect, it wasn’t very encouraging. On the other hand, it’s our obligation to see if there’s any space to work these things, and I think that if there’s space to do so on their side, then we’ll find out. But we can’t make these decisions for them, only they can.
MODERATOR: Operator, we’ve only got time for two more questions.
OPERATOR: Very good. We’ll go directly to the line of Keith Johnson with the Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks a lot for doing this call. The main question I had, just to broaden things out a little bit, I mean in recent years, despite all of the provocations – and [Senior State Department Official Two], you just mentioned his use of the U.S. as a foil constantly, but the U.S. had consistently sort of refused to take that bait. And I wonder, dealing with this post-Chavez transition and all the uncertainty there, if this is going to have any impact on the broader western hemisphere agenda that you’ve laid out, whether it’s energy cooperation, Connect 2020, democracy institutions, social inclusion. I mean, does this change your broader goals for relations with Latin America? Does this create any sort of openings or should it basically not alter the path you guys have already laid out?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Let me start that one. I guess my own view is that, at least initially, I don't see this changing that much. What we said from the beginning was we’ve laid out, obviously, the issues that we think are important to move ahead on, includes defense of democracy, economic opportunity and social inclusion, moving on energy, including clean energy, citizen security issues, which obviously, as Official Number Two pointed out, are critical in Venezuela. But I don't see the overall goals in the hemisphere changing or being affected all that radically by these events.
That said, the other thing that we’ve done procedurally, if you will, since the beginning of the Obama Administration, the first term, is we’ve sought partnerships with countries that wish to partner with us, where we have things in common that we want to achieve. And we’ve tried to continue to say we want to have a positive relationship, even with countries that seem not to demonstrate much will to do so, to leave that door open, to make sure that they recognize that we’re ready to do so should things change.
Now, that’s what we’re hoping for Venezuela, that whether before, during President Chavez’s years, or now, that they’re ready to actually have that relationship that’s more productive around stuff that I think matters a lot to Venezuelans, not just to Americans, whether it’s working on citizen security issues, whether it’s talking about counternarcotics and the way it’s impacting both of our countries. I mean, this is the kind of discussion we want to have.
I don't know whether more space has opened up to have that discussion now. I do know that, as Official Number Two pointed out earlier, if you look at what’s affecting Venezuelans day to day, whether it’s the highest inflation rate in the hemisphere, or whether it’s number of homicides and other crimes, or whether we’re talking about shortages of foodstuffs on the shelves, Venezuelans are not, I don’t think, in a very good place right now. There’s a lot of things that they are demanding of their leaders that I’m not sure are being met. That’s not something that the United States can necessarily do for Venezuela. Those are things the Venezuelans have to decide to prioritize and their leaders have to decide to respond to.
But surely these are conversations throughout the hemisphere on common issues that Venezuela would benefit from greater engagement in, and that’s what we would hope. So I don't see changes in our policy, but I would love and be very encouraged if we found Venezuela joining those conversations more actively.
OPERATOR: And our final question at this time will come from the line of Margaret Warner, PBS NewsHour. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Just back to the concerns about the coming election and your wish that it be – hope that it be free and fair, what is it in the conduct, if anything, of past elections, like the one in October, that would raise concerns on that score?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, thank you, Margaret. I think that we’ve been pretty clear that one of the ways that you ensure that elections really do qualify as free and fair is you invite in observers, international election observers. Election observers in this hemisphere have a particularly long and distinguished history. Election observers have been deployed most recently to Ecuador. Former President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias is heading an election observation mission right now in Paraguay to prepare for their elections.
Venezuela has not invited the OAS to observe its elections in at least certainly the October elections. I’m not sure much before that. [Senior State Department Official Two] may recall. But that would be one thing where the absence, frankly, often concerns us and the presence would be extremely helpful we think. There are lots of groups that do election observation, the OAS being one. The EU is another that does a good job. So it can be any of a number of organizations, but they haven’t been allowed to do so.
But we also think it’s really important that the playing field be as level as it can. The opposition, obviously, is looking to try and get its message across, just as the government is doing, but the government has resources that are used in that process. And it’s important that fairness and some kind of equal shot be given to all the participants. And so we think that would be pretty important. That hasn’t always been the case.
Most people that we talk to in Venezuela – and I think – let me mention about election observation – it is perhaps even more critical not just that international observers observe an election but that domestic observation groups in Venezuela be allowed to observe any and all electoral processes that they can. And I think that’s going to be critical moving forward, and that always – hasn’t always been as transparent as it should be.
On the day of election, in general terms, election observers in Venezuela have felt that things go pretty well. But it’s often in the preparations of elections that kind of the fairness and the evenness of the space gets laid, and I think that’s what we’ll be looking for as things move ahead.
[Senior State Department Official Two].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think that that’s exactly right. I don't have anything to add to that.
MODERATOR: Thank you all for joining us this afternoon. That’s the conclusion of our call.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you all very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks.