Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Participation in the General Assembly of the Organization of American States

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
June 10, 2016

MODERATOR: Thanks so much, Greg, and good morning, everyone. Welcome to the trip preview call. We’re going to be discussing today the Secretary’s travel to the Organization of American States conference in the Dominican Republic. As a reminder, this call is on background. For your information, we have two speakers today. We’re pleased to be joined by [title and name withheld], as well as [title and name withheld]. [Senior State Department Official One] will be known as Senior State Department Official One. [Senior State Department Official Two] will be Senior State Department Official Number Two.

First, I turn it over for opening remarks to our Senior State Department Official One. [Senior State Department Official One]?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Good morning. Thank you, everyone, for joining us this morning. I’d like to start by providing you with an overview of Secretary Kerry’s participation in the 2016 OAS General Assembly, which will meet June 13 through 15 in the Dominican Republic, along with our objective for this year’s General Assembly. My colleague, [Senior State Department Official Two], the [title withheld], and I will then take your questions.

This year’s General Assembly’s theme is institutional strengthening for sustainable development, which provides the opportunity to further our common goals of implementing the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. We are very, very pleased that Secretary Kerry will be leading the U.S. delegation this year. This underscores the U.S. commitment to our region, and the importance of the OAS and multilateral diplomacy as a vital tool of U.S. foreign policy. Secretary Kerry has been a strong and longstanding champion of the OAS, and of strengthening and revitalizing the institution. We remain fully engaged, and will work until the very last moment of this Administration to advance this important cause. We’re still finalizing the Secretary’s schedule, but we expect he will deliver remarks at the preliminary session of the General Assembly, and hold a press availability, as well as hold one or two bilateral meetings with yet-to-be-determined interlocutors.

I’d like to lay out some of our priorities and objectives for this year’s General Assembly. The OAS remains the region’s premier multilateral organization. We look forward to a constructive General Assembly, and to a fruitful discussion with our regional partners about the critical challenges we all face. It is important to highlight the commitment that we share as members – with the member countries, as we mark the 15th anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which states that the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy, and the governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.

While the theme of this year’s General Assembly is important, I’d like to underscore that sustainable development must include the building of effective, strong, and democratic institutions using the Inter-American Democratic Charter as our guide. While we have already made significant progress in our efforts to modernize and build a stronger, more effective OAS, it is critical that OAS continue to move forward on the path of reform by refocusing on its strengths, and aligning available resources to these areas. Our priority is to restore OAS commitment to its core principles: the defense and promotion of human rights, and preserving the autonomy and independence of and financial support for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We aim – our goal is to strengthen democratic institutions, and of course, of commitment to the democratic charter. As we work to strengthen the inter-American human rights system, we must also continue to bolster the role of civil society at the OAS.

In addition to addressing OAS reform, we will no doubt discuss the situation in Venezuela at this year’s General Assembly. A consensus is emerging among OAS member states that the organization can and must play an active role in averting a humanitarian crisis and political unrest in Venezuela. The OAS permanent council showed the region’s concern about conditions in Venezuela, and by consensus issued a declaration June 1st offering assistance, and highlighting the need for dialogue. We welcome the report by Secretary General Almagro, which highlights the concerns many of us have about Venezuela’s humanitarian situation, and its commitment to the core democratic principles of the organization.

We believe that the best way forward in Venezuela is respectful dialogue among all Venezuelans aimed at resolving Venezuela’s increasing political, social, and economic challenges in a peaceful, democratic, and constitutional manner. Venezuelans talking to Venezuelans, peacefully addressing the multiple and interrelated economic, political, and social challenges that exist today in their country, should be the desired end state of our region’s approach to supporting the Venezuelan people, and we believe that the OAS has a very important role to play.

In addition, we expect to discuss the electoral situation in Haiti with our regional counterparts. We regret the decision by the provisional electoral council to restart the presidential elections from the first round. The additional year added to the revised CEP electoral calendar of June 6th will have negative consequences for the Haitian people. We note with disappointment that this will increase the time and resources needed to complete the 2015 electoral process, and further delay the installation of a constitutionally elected president. The Haitian people deserve to have their voices heard through a democratically elected government. As highlighted in the June 6 core group statement, Haiti has an urgent need to have elected representatives at all levels of government.

We look forward to tackling these many issues in our discussions and deliberations with our regional counterparts this coming week. I’d like to answer any questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you so much, Senior State Department Official One. Greg, we can open the floor to questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press *1 at this time. And one moment, please, for your first question.

Your first question comes from the line of Carol Morello from The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I was hoping you could be a little more specific on what the U.S. position is on whether Venezuela is violating the Democratic Charter and whether the General Assembly, whether the OAS, should consider suspending Venezuela’s membership. And I was also hoping for your response to Maduro saying that the proposal is really a U.S. plot to provoke a coup against him.

MODERATOR: That’s great, thank you. I’ll turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number Two.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. Secretary General Almagro issued his letter – I believe it was May 30th – a letter to the rotating permanent chair of the Organization’s Permanent Council member states already invoking the one article of the Inter-American Democratic Charter calling for a discussion by all the member-states of the issue of the erosion of democratic institutions in Venezuela.

We expect that meeting, that specific meeting in response to his call – we expect that meeting to happen after the General Assembly in Washington the second half of this month. So we’re not in this – at this point able to announce how we or the other member states are going to decide at that point. In fact, there may not even be a formal decision at that point, but simply the initial discussion of it as a formal issue before the Permanent Council. Of course, it will – as [Senior State Department Official One] noted a moment ago, of course it will be discussed as well at the General Assembly foreign ministers next week in Santo Domingo.

On the question of an American plot, we – we have spoken repeatedly and publicly on this, including to Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez of Venezuela when she appeared last month at the Permanent Council, and it’s simply not the case.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Now we’ll open it to our next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. I’m also going to come back to this issue, because I did cover the June 1 OAS meeting as well as the letter. From what I understood, that he wanted the process to begin during the OAS meeting on Venezuela. Given the meeting from June 1st where Venezuela and its allies basically opposed the discussion on this issue, how do you – number one is how do you see – do you believe you can get a consensus at this meeting for that next stage to happen in the middle of June in Washington, as you say?

Number two, do you believe – given that the opposition is pushing for Maduro’s recall and you’ve tried to push for dialogue led by the Dominican Republic and the former Spanish prime minister, do you really believe that that dialogue can actually happen given that the opposition is so determined to push for the recall?

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, Lesley. Senior State Department Official Two.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Let me go back to the first part of that question, and I have a different understanding of some of the facts about the June 1st discussion, number one. Formally, that actually was a discussion that was formally initiated by Venezuela and, in fact, there was discussion there on these issues. Both the dialogue and the recall are things that the United States has publicly repeatedly supported – number one.

Number two, the consensus agreement on June 1st reiterated respect for the constitutional processes in Venezuela, explicitly supported calls for dialogue, and generally and as well as specifically the Zapatero-led initiative ongoing at the moment.

What the Secretary General has separately called for, which was different than the member states dialogue that happened on June 1st – what the Secretary General is calling for in his letter, he officially asked for something in the middle of June. He was not specific on the dates, but he called for a Permanent Council meeting, not a – not a discussion at the General Assembly, but it’s a – it’s an internal procedural issue, but you need to start first in the Permanent Council, which he’s called for in the middle of June or towards the end of June.

MODERATOR: Great. Greg, we can move on to our next question.

OPERATOR: If there are any additional questions, please press * then 1. And you have a follow-up from Lesley Wroughton. Please go ahead.

MODERATOR: Go ahead, Lesley.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m sorry. I need to get back to this because I’m not – I don’t really – so will the OAS – what exactly is the OAS going to discuss on Venezuela? What would the U.S. and Secretary Kerry like to see from this discussion coming up? This is the – one of the few times that the General Assembly gets – comes together to discuss these issues.

And then on Haiti, what more specifically do you want to see? Because what the State Department Official Number One said was already told to us earlier at a – actually last week, or maybe earlier this week during the daily briefing. But what exactly is it that you want Haiti to do? Is it – I mean, surely you can’t push them forward to move beyond the first stage. If they’ve decided to do the first stage, that’s where it’s going to do – I mean, what more can the OAS do to push Haiti?

MODERATOR: So, first, we’ll go to Senior State Department Official Number Two on Venezuela.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: With regard to Venezuela, what we would like to see – whether it’s at the General Assembly, or in the follow-on conversations of the permanent council in Washington – is, number one, as we have called repeatedly, we would like to see the immediate freedom for all political prisoners in Venezuela. Number two, we continue to support dialogue efforts, whether it’s led by Zapatero or others. Number three, we support continuing efforts to move forward with a recall referendum in accordance with article 72 of the Venezuelan constitution. Number four, we would like to see increased recognition by the Venezuelan authorities of the legitimate constitutional role for the national assembly that has increasingly been stripped of its authorities and powers after the December 6th elections. Those are just a few to start with.

MODERATOR: Okay, and now we’ll go to Senior State Department Official Number One on the Haiti part.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On Haiti, what we would like to see the General Assembly do is express its grave concerns with the situation, and have a calendar that makes sense, and is not protracted.

MODERATOR: That’s great, thank you. Last check for any follow-up questions, please?

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Carol Morello from The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you know if the Secretary plans to have a bilateral meeting at all with the Venezuelan foreign minister while he’s down there? And there is so much animosity between Venezuela and the Secretary General. How does the Secretary intend to thread the needle of this buzz saw of animosity he’s walking into?

MODERATOR: Thanks, Carol. Senior State Department Official Number One?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We are open to a meeting with the Venezuelan minister. We do not have any confirmation yet, but we are working on several bilateral meetings at the same time.

MODERATOR: That’s great. And any last follow-up questions?

OPERATOR: At this time, there are no further questions.

MODERATOR: That’s great. I’d like to thank our senior State Department officials for their time this morning, as well as the press. Remember, this is embargoed until wheels down. We’ll do a transcript. Safe travels. Thanks so much.