Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon on Venezuela

Special Briefing
Thomas A. Shannon, Jr.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Washington, DC
June 24, 2016


MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I have a special guest with me today, a special briefer. I think you all know Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon. Ambassador Shannon, as I think you also know, spent the last couple of days in Caracas meeting with Venezuelan officials in the government and the opposition and civil society. And as we talked about yesterday, we were going to make him available to discuss with you the context of those meetings and where the relationship with Venezuela is.

I know that there are a lot of questions about the referendum vote in the UK today. The – Ambassador Shannon is here principally to talk about his trip to Venezuela. I’ll be happy to engage the questions about Brexit in the regular briefing when the ambassador is done.

He’s on a tight timeline, so we’re going to get him right up to the podium. And I’ll be moderating the questions as I have in the past, and we’ve got to see if we can get him out the door here at about quarter ‘til. So with that, Ambassador Shannon.

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: Thank you. Thank you very much and good afternoon. It’s obviously a pleasure to be here, to be back in Washington after the last several days spent in Caracas. I went down on Tuesday and came back late yesterday. And the visit, as I think you know, was done at the request of Secretary Kerry and the invitation of the Venezuelan Government and was the product of the meeting between Secretary Kerry and the Venezuelan foreign minister in Santo Domingo during the OAS General Assembly. And on Tuesday, I had the opportunity to meet with members of the Venezuelan opposition and leaders of the national assembly. On Wednesday, I met with representatives of civil society. I also met with the Venezuelan foreign minister and the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. And on Thursday, I spent time with our embassy staff in Caracas. I also met with members of the diplomatic corps and also with foreign Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who along with the Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, and the former Panamanian President Martin Torrijos, are managing or facilitating a dialogue process between the government and the opposition.

Very quickly, the purpose of the visit, as I think you know, was twofold: First was to engage with the Venezuelan Government in order to maintain open channels of communication, explain our policy and approach towards Venezuela, and explore the Venezuelan Government’s willingness to work with us on issues of common interest; and second, to engage with the many sectors of Venezuelan society and to understand better the challenges facing Venezuela and how we, along with the rest of the inter-American community, can help Venezuela face some really significant crises, both political, economic, and social.

I think I’ll stop there for the moment. I’m happy to respond to your questions and use those questions to address whatever aspect of the trip you would like to address. But thank you very much.

MR KIRBY: Okay, we’ll start with --

QUESTION: Great. Well, Luis Alonzo, who knows a thing or two about Venezuela, will ask first.

MR KIRBY: Do you want to start, Luis?

QUESTION: I can try, yes.

MR KIRBY: Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. How are you?

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: Good seeing you.

QUESTION: Likewise, ambassador. I would like to ask you if you got any specific concession from Caracas on this trip, and also about the mediation of the three former presidents – we know that the Venezuelan position refuses to acknowledge there is a dialogue that said this is not – because only one side of the government only, well, designated them. So until when the U.S. will think this is a good – the best way to achieve dialogue, or is it – would it be better to designate a different trio of former presidents? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: Well, let me start with the dialogue. As we’ve noted several times, we support the dialogue process. Obviously, the dialogue process requires two people – two groups or two people to participate. Both sides appeared in Santo Domingo for proximity talks several weeks ago. They were able to identify an agenda of sorts for advanced talks. But since then, they haven’t been able to sit down together for any number of reasons, mostly related to things going on in Caracas and political battles between them.

Our own point of view is that given the political polarization that exists in Venezuela and given the different narratives that exist in Venezuela about what’s happening, dialogue is an important way to build bridges; it’s an important way to try to create common understandings. But it’s also a way for both sides to speak to each other outside of Caracas with international facilitation and with great international interest, with the hope being that this can be used not only to address political differences, but also to create a platform from which both the government and the opposition can ask for help from the international community to address some of the really significant crises that Venezuela faces right now. So from our own point of view, dialogue is important. It’s up to the two parties to determine whether or not the facilitators are the right ones. Our own point of view is that they are at this point.

And in regard to my engagement with the Venezuelan Government, I haven’t sat down to speak with them in quite some time. And so this was really an effort to re-engage in the aftermath of the OAS General Assembly and to try to establish, as I noticed, channels of communication. It’s our intent to try to create a certain structure for the use of this dialogue, and an agenda. But it’s something we’re still working on. So this is still tentative, it’s still nascent, but very important, and Secretary Kerry is quite committed to it.

QUESTION: But no concessions as such then?

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: By concessions, what do you mean?

QUESTION: Well, you tell me.

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: Well --

QUESTION: Did you get a pledge from President Maduro that he would not use the United States as a boogeyman for his country’s problems? Did you get a promise that he’d respect the role of the United States in the mediation process? I don’t know, anything.

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: Yeah. Well, I mean, what we got was, first of all, a meeting in Miraflores Palace in the full light of day with a U.S. flag and a Venezuelan flag together, and photographers present. I think that was a clear indication that they recognized there was importance in showing the visit was taking place as a formal diplomatic engagement, coming as it did immediately after the OAS General Assembly and just before the vote yesterday in the OAS Permanent Council. That in and of itself I think was indicative that there’s an interest in engaging with us and a value in engaging with us. There’s still a lot more to do in terms of the conversation, and what we’re going to be able to achieve in terms of our engagement. And we’re going to have to see how far it goes. But as a first step, it was pretty good.

QUESTION: Can I --

MR KIRBY: Lesley, go ahead.

QUESTION: Ambassador, what – have you decided on a date for another meeting, the next meeting? And on another issue, is the dialogue about easing tensions between the United States and Venezuela? And then at the same time, are you going to try to push the – or you’re going to try to steer it into a bigger dialogue? And the other thing is: What steps can you take in the meantime to kind of clear the air, or what have you offered them?

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: We haven’t set a date for the next meeting yet. I hope to be able to do that soon. But quite frankly, a lot of that is going to depend on how the vote in the OAS Permanent Council is digested and understood back in Caracas. That was of concern, obviously, to both the foreign minister and President Maduro, because they sought a procedural vote to block it. They were obviously quite concerned about Secretary General Almagro’s report and looking for a way not to have it presented in the permanent council, and the fact that we openly supported that both in Santo Domingo when Secretary Kerry said we supported the secretary general’s efforts, and in my own assertion of that, it – they’re just going to have to digest this and see how we get to the next step.

QUESTION: But there was no support to suspend them.

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: There was no support to suspend them, which it why it didn’t go to a further vote, right?

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: No, but they just did – they’re uncomfortable with the whole process. They don’t like being called out, quite frankly. And – but anyway, my hope is that we’re going to be able to have a follow-on date in the very near future. I do think there are important things to talk about here, and it’s important for the United States to be able to talk to all parties inside of Venezuela to ensure that we can exercise our influence in a way that we think matches the situation and matches our interest.

MR KIRBY: We have time for one more. In the back there, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. So yesterday and the whole week the foreign minister was very critical of the United States and really harsh words during the whole process of the Organization for American States. And my question is how much this complicates the whole role of the United States. And to change when you are in Venezuela, talking to the officials, and here publicly the foreign minister is talking in those words about the role of the United States. And I wanted to ask you if you could also, when you answer in English, can you answer a little question – the same answer in Spanish?

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: The same answer. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Si, por favor?

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: Egualito.

QUESTION: Yeah.

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: La misma cosa.

QUESTION: Yeah.

AMBASSADOR SHANNON: Well, first, one of the reasons the meeting took place was because of the exchange between Secretary Kerry and the foreign minister in Santo Domingo. And the Secretary thought that the kind of rhetoric used in Santo Domingo wasn’t appropriate for the moment, and certainly wasn’t appropriate for the kind of relationship that should exist between our two countries. That said, it’s a rhetoric we’re familiar with. And it’s one we just have to push through as we try to, as I mentioned, pursue our own interests and promote our values, and try to exercise some degree of influence inside of Venezuela at a very difficult moment.

As everybody knows, Venezuela is a profoundly politically polarized country. And the narratives that are offered both by the government and the opposition are distinct and different, almost to the point that you wonder if you’re in the same country, which is one of the reasons why dialogue is going to be so important here, because being able to bridge this difference and recognizing that there’s a large segment of the Venezuelan population that sits in the middle between this polarization and are looking for some effective governance to address the really significant challenges they face on a daily basis.

And so the hope is that – through a dialogue process, that Venezuelans can begin to talk to each other in a way that allows them to identify a path forward. But it’s important to note here – and the Secretary noted it in Santo Domingo – that the dialogue does not replace other political channels of activity. It doesn’t replace the recall referendum, it didn’t replace the – Secretary Almagro’s invocation of Article 20. These are separate tracks that run along separate lines and are not mutually exclusive.

En espanol, pero mas cortito: Solo voy a decir que la retorica es inapropriada para una relacion madura, pero es una retorica que ya estamos acostumbrado hasta cierto punto, y tenemos que aguantarlo hasta cierto punto para buscar nuestros intereses y tratar de mantener alguna influencia dentro de Venezuela. Nosotros siempre hemos mantenido nuestro compromiso a Venezuela como pais y como un pueblo, y vamos a mantenerlo. Pero en rumbo de eso, o en la manera en que tratamos de acercar Venezuela, vamos a continuar en apoyar diferentes carriles de accion. El dialogo es muy importante porque es la unica manera que Venezuela va a construir los puentes necesarios de entendimiento para buscar una salida de sus multiples crisis en una manera democratica, constitucional y pacifica. Pero al mismo tiempo, como dijo el Secretary Kerry en Santo Domingo, el carril del referendum revocatorio, el carril de la Carta Democratica son validos, y no impiden uno al otro. Uno puede manejar los tres carriles al mismo tiempo. Pero muchisimas gracias.

And thank you all very much.

MR KIRBY: Thanks very much. We’ve got to get the ambassador on his way. Appreciate it. Thank you very much, sir.