The US will lift sanctions on Russian state-controlled Rosneft’s trading arm if it has effectively withdrawn from Venezuelan business, US special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said today.
“If Rosneft Trading has nothing to do with Venezuela” and has legally transferred its activities to another Russian entity, the sanctions would be lifted, Abrams said. “We will judge this on the ground.”
Abrams confirmed that the US government has been in contact with Russia over its proposal, unveiled on 31 March, that lays out a step-by-step political transition plan for Venezuela, under which sanctions would be gradually eased. Oil sanctions in particular would be “suspended” once a plural Council of State was formed, and definitely lifted once elections that were certified free and fair take place, Abrams said today.
After unveiling the transaction, Rosneft pressed the US to lift the sanctions on its subsidiaries. “We took this decision in the interests of our shareholders, as a publicly traded international company,” Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontyev told Russian state-owned Tass news agency on 28 March. “And we have a right to expect, indeed, that the US regulators fulfill their public promises (to lift sanctions)”.
The US sanctions on Venezuela are aimed at removing President Nicolas Maduro to make way for a transition government and new elections. Russia as well as China and other countries still recognize the Maduro presidency, in contrast to the US and Western allies that recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president instead.
Below is a full rush transcript of the Press Briefing by Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. U.S. Department of State.
Special Representative Abrams: Let me just make a few remarks to begin. Venezuela’s terrible political and economic crisis must be brought to an end so that the country can return to democracy and begin to recover. The millions of Venezuelans who have had to leave their country must have hope for a reason to return. The United States believes this cannot happen while the Maduro regime remains in power. And we also know that Venezuelans need to see a path forward that treats all parties fairly and provides guarantees for the future.
So this week, we announced a framework for a democratic transition. The basic outline is simple: We call for a transitional government that would govern for nine to 12 months and hold free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. The United States will recognize the results of a free and fair election no matter which party wins. What we oppose is the abuse of state power that enables one party to rule indefinitely. The National Assembly under our proposal would elect four members of a Council of State – two from the democratic coalition led by Juan Guaido and two from the PSUV – the PSUV, the governing Chavista party – with mutual vetoes. Each of the four must be acceptable to both sides, and those four would select a fifth person who would act as interim president. And that person under our proposal may not run for president in those elections. This proposal follows on suggestions made by the team representing Juan Guaido and the National Assembly last year in Barbados and repeated by Guaido last weekend.
Venezuela also needs a renovation of its supreme court and its national electoral commission. And new members under our proposal would be chosen by the National Assembly, again, with each side having veto power. The National Constituent Assembly would be dissolved. Basic political rights would need to be respected, so no more censorship, freedom for all political prisoners, return of exiled members of the National Assembly, foreign security forces would have to leave the country. The United States would lift personal sanctions related to each individual office holder’s position.
I was saying that when individuals who are holding office in the constituent assembly, in the supreme court, the electoral council, leave those positions, the sanctions on them that are based on their holding those positions would be lifted.
Once the Council of State’s in place and governing and foreign security forces are gone, the United States would suspend sanctions on the government, on PDVSA, and on the oil sector. And those sanctions would be permanently revoked once the elections are held and, of course, observers agree they were free and fair.
So again – and we will respect – the United States will respect the outcome of a free and fair election no matter who wins. The military will obviously play an important role in Venezuela in determining what peaceful change looks like and in shaping the future. Today, the Venezuelan police and military are suffering, as all citizens are. They can barely afford to feed their families and cannot afford medical care or medicines. Venezuela faces a great security challenge from drug traffickers, terrorist groups, and criminal gangs. And it needs security forces that are better paid, trained, and equipped to secure the nation’s borders and maintain peace. The armed forces’ support of this democratic transition framework would be a key step in that direction.
We also call – last point – we also call for a truth and reconciliation commission and an amnesty law, as have been created in almost every country moving from dictatorship to democracy. And we urge that as soon as the Council of State takes over as the interim government, the international community and the international financial institutions begin programs for Venezuela that will help cope with the crisis, especially focusing on water, electricity, and the medical system.
That’s the basic plan. There are, of course, more details. But most of the questions that arise, of course, must be answered by Venezuelans as we hope they work together for a better future. Thanks, and I’d be happy to answer some questions.
Question : Nicolas Maduro has already rejected the plan proposed by the State Department. In the region, there is no dialogue between Maduro and Colombia and Brazil. Under these conditions, which actor could put the proposal on the negotiating table between the two parties?
Special Representative Abrams: First, the immediate rejection by Maduro or a spokesman for Maduro was obvious, it was predictable. We thought it would happen. What’s really important is not what they say in public; it’s what happens in private within the government, within the regime, within the Chavista party and movement, within the army as people look at the proposal and think about what it might mean for Venezuela and what it might mean for they themselves.
Who could put this on the table for negotiation? Well, the church is certainly a possibility. I would think the most logical possibility may be Norway, which led the negotiations – or hosted the negotiations last year in Oslo and Barbados. But if the regime is willing to think about it and negotiate, that probably will not be a problem.
Question: In the possibility of free and fair elections that is mentioned in your plan, could Nicolas Maduro run for those elections? And the other question I have is why in the framework is it specified that Colombia, Peru, and other countries drop the referral to the International Court?
Special Representative Abrams: The plan as we’ve drawn it up suggests that there’s only one person in Venezuela who cannot run, and that is whoever serves as the transitional president, the interim president, under the Council of State. And we took that view because in a fragile situation like Venezuela, we thought nobody is going to believe that someone is going to run the government and also be a candidate and everything will be fair. So yeah, Nicolas Maduro could run, Juan Guaido could run. We’ve looked at a year of opinion polls, and the approval rating for Nicolas Maduro is somewhere between 12 and 15 percent, so we think in a free election he has zero chance of winning, which is why Secretary Pompeo said he won’t be governing Venezuela again.
As to the International Criminal Court referral, our thought was that this is a piece of the situation that should – it’s part of the current crisis and that it should be removed once the country begins to move into preparations for a democratic opening and then is in a democratic opening.
Question: Formerly Russian Rosneft and Rosneft Trading now have nothing to do with Venezuela. Does is mean you can waive sanctions imposed on the latter one? When do you expect this could be considered?
Special Representative Abrams: In principle, that’s correct. If Rosneft Trading has nothing to do with Venezuela, then the sanctions that are based on its conduct in Venezuela or with respect to Venezuela should be lifted. I don’t know if that’s true yet. I have seen the press reports, but I – it’s not clear to me, for example, whether legally the transfer of activities has taken place, the transfer of funds from the Russian state, the transfer of activities to a new company that apparently was going to be formed to take over these activities. We will judge this on the ground. What’s happened to Rosneft’s activities with Venezuelan oil, trading Venezuelan oil?
If the facts are that Rosneft Trading is no longer involved, then the sanctions – it would be lifted, yes.
Question: The Venezuelan case passed from being a political cause to a criminal cause and this hardened the case. Diosdado Cabello said yesterday in his TV show that the United States is making a joke of those who believe in military intervention. Textually he said, “If they put a foot there, we will go against them.” Is this considered as a threat if Nicolas Maduro regime interferes in anti narcotic operations? What will be the scenario?
Special Representative Abrams: Well, two things there. First, on the indictments by the Department of Justice – those are very serious charges against Maduro, Cabello, and others. They are drug-trafficking charges. It’s hard to think of anything much more serious than that. And the – those charges were made because these individuals have made millions and tens of millions and probably hundreds of millions of dollars from permitting drug trafficking. That is, basically they take bribes to permit drugs to move through Venezuela and then north across the Caribbean. Those are no kind of trick and no kind of joke.
As you know, yesterday President Trump and the Secretary of Defense announced additional activities on both the Caribbean and Pacific side meant to stop drug trafficking activities, and we know that those activities continue. Everyone on this call may be primarily concerned about the coronavirus crisis, the political crisis in Venezuela, and the economic crisis. Drug traffickers are not. They are continuing their activities. And so those military activities are meant to stop them, to interfere with what they’re doing.
As to the possibility of Venezuelan interference with those operations, I think that is, frankly, inconceivable. I think that the Venezuelan military consists of intelligent professionals who can measure today’s strength of the Venezuelan military after years and years of inadequate budgets. And I think they’re much too intelligent to come into a confrontation with the United States.
Question: Why does your government include Argentina amount those who support President Trump’s recent initiative called the Democratic Framework for Venezuela? The Argentine Government would not be supporting that initiative. So what, Mr. Abrams, is the position of the Argentine Government? And Nicolas Maduro called President Alberto Fernandez to thank him for his position on Venezuela. That is not the same as that of the United States.
Special Representative Abrams: One thing has been clear about the position of Argentina, and that is that Argentina supports democracy throughout Latin America. And President Fernandez has spoken several times about the need for democratic opening in Venezuela.
What exactly is the official reaction to the American proposal this week? That really isn’t a question for me. It’s a question for spokesmen for the Government of Argentina.
But we have – I can tell you this, there’s a very open and fluid communication between the United States Government and the Government of Argentina. And we know that Argentina supports in Venezuela and everywhere else democratic procedures.
Question: I just wanted to ask you again about the military operation that President Trump announced yesterday in regard to the Caribbean. Now, this was billed as a narcotics operation, but I wondered whether the assets that are being deployed there could also be used potentially for a naval blockade of Venezuela, which is something the President has spoken about before; or for some kind of operation similar to the 1989 invasion of Panama, against General Noriega, who also faced similar charges to the ones to President Maduro?
Special Representative Abrams: Well, you see the American policy in the proposal that we made on Tuesday. It is for a peaceful, democratic, political opening in Venezuela that would lead to a transitional government, where both sides politically would be fairly represented.
You’re asking a sense of fact question, I guess, about whether military forces can be used in a variety of ways. And I suppose the factual answer to that is, of course, they can be used in a variety of ways.
But they are there to interdict the very large amounts of drugs that are moving toward our country not least through Venezuela and with, in many cases, with the cooperation of the regime.
And we have many examples of this where, for example, drug flights are stopped in Venezuela if there has been no payoff of regime officials, and they are permitted if a payoff is made. And we’ve seen a real increase over the last couple of years in the number of these small planes flying north out of Venezuela carrying drugs.
Of course, that’s not the only way drugs get to the United States. But the President is determined to interfere with the use of the Caribbean as a path to bring drugs into the United States.
Question: what would be the other option if Maduro does not accept this proposal?
Special Representative Abrams: Well, we’ve seen him, of course, reject the proposal. But that, as I said, is predictable. And we think the real question is what happens in the coming weeks as people in Venezuela think about the proposal.
I’m afraid that the other option in the near future is for the terrible situation in Venezuela to continue and even to get worse. You saw Maduro appeal to the IMF for a $5 billion loan. And the IMF immediately rejected his request, saying that it did not have – Venezuela did not have a government that had international recognition.
So if the Maduro regime stays in place, one can predict, I think, greater economic and social problems for Venezuela, which is why we’re hopeful that there is a good deal of public and private messaging to the regime. And we have asked a number of governments to send those messages, suggesting that this is a real opening and opportunity for Venezuela to engage and try to find solutions to the country’s problems.
Question: My question goes back to the charges from the Department of Justice. In the past few days from both people from the State Department and people from the Justice Department we have heard that the justice system in the United States is independent, and that the charges are different from the framework proposed by the State Department.
Do you see these charges being part of a negotiation with Maduro and his inner circle? Do you see it as a way to force Maduro to the negotiation table? Or do you really see them as a two different – completely different negotiations, and that even if Maduro relinquished powers, he will still have to face the charges presented by the Department of Justice?
Special Representative Abrams: We in the American system, the bringing of criminal charges is completely independent from foreign policy. We in the State Department were informed that U.S. attorneys in Florida and New York would be bringing these charges.
We were not asked our opinion or our permission because that’s not the American system. Nor can we negotiate over them.
That is, we in the State Department can engage in political negotiations with other regimes, other governments, other foreign embassies. But when people raise a question about indictments, what we tell them is you need to talk to the Justice Department. We cannot negotiate over those indictments.
What many people do in Venezuela where these are not the first indictments for drug trafficking and for other crimes, many people hire lawyers and start negotiating with the Department of Justice.
I don’t know about all those cases, but I know about a few of them, and there – you would be surprised at the number of regime officials over the last several years who have, in fact, hired lawyers to begin a negotiating process at the Department of Justice.
We do not have an extradition treating with Venezuela, so I guess it’s true that if the people who are under indictment never left Venezuela or only went to a country with which we also do not have an extradition treaty – for example, Cuba, Russia – they would be beyond the possibility of being reached by our system of justice.
But we view these as separate issues. The indictment deals with Maduro as an individual. The proposal deals with Venezuela as a country, as a government, as a society.
Question: I wanted to ask if the U.S. administration is in contact with President Nicolas Maduro over your framework, if you have had any direct engagement with him or his circle, so to say, regarding all this?
Special Representative Abrams: Of course, the proposal was made public on Tuesday. Not much time has gone by. But the answer is: No, we do not have that relationship with the Maduro regime.
As you know the U.S. embassy in Caracas was closed. U.S. diplomats were withdrawn, and the representatives of the Maduro regime were withdrawn from Washington. Juan Guaido’s team, because he is respected now by 58 countries as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaido’s ambassador is in Washington. We have not.
We have had contact on the situation in Venezuela with Russia, with the Government of Russia over the situation there and the American proposal. We have not had contact with the Maduro regime.
Question: I was wondering if you could tell us your reaction to the comments from retired General Cliver Alcala before he surrendered. He said that he had a contract with the Juan Guaido administration to free Venezuela. Do you know what he was talking about? And have you or any other U.S. officials met with him since he’s been living pretty openly in Colombia the past two years?
Special Representative Abrams: I’ve never met with Cliver Alcala. I cannot tell you if any American officials have ever met with him.
It’s pretty clear, I think, that the wild allegation he made while still in Bogota against Juan Guaido is a lie because Guaido is not involved in any form of violence or seeking any form of violence or any form of military coup.
What he is seeking is what he proposed in Barbados last year. And that construct is the one on which we have built the U.S. proposal, which is a transitional government.
I think these were really despicable and quite dangerous charges that Alcala threw out when he was in Bogota and then really about 24 hours later, he surrendered himself to the United States and has left Colombia.
Presumably we’ll find out more – or at least the Department of Justice will – about what he was doing in Colombia. But I think clearly he was put up to making those terrible charges by the regime, and then realized he’d better get out of Colombia and get to a place where at least he was physically safe, which was the United States.
Question: What is the United States position of the meeting held last week between Delcy Rodriguez and the prime minister of Trinidad and sanctions imposed to her? Yesterday, we spoke with Mr. Story, and he said that the United States has contact with some people related to Maduro. Jorge Arreaza is one of them. Can you explain a little more?
Special Representative Abrams: Well, we do think that because of the sanctions on Delcy Rodriguez, she should not be received anywhere. As you know there was quiet a controversy – still is – in Spain about her visit there a few weeks ago.
It’s become a controversial matter in Spanish politics because under EU sanctions, no EU country should allow her to enter the country. So we would hope that countries would not permit her to make those visits.
As to contacts, there are always going to be some contacts with the regime. At least because – well, there are several reasons. For one thing, they retain a seat in the United Nations, so there need to be communications between our charge, Mr. Story, and Arreaza over things like visits to UN headquarters, participation in UN delegations, the fact that they retain a UN mission in New York. So these contacts do continue.
We also have a presence – a physical presence in Caracas that is all the buildings that were part of the U.S. embassy and the residences that American diplomats lived in. So there’s also communications from time to time about that.
And there could also be communication for other practical reasons. For example, the treatment of American citizens who live in Venezuela and these days may wish to leave Venezuela.
So those kinds of very practical communications do take place, and they will continue to take place. But we have no dialogue with the regime over broader political issues right now.
We have said that if a political negotiation restarts, based on our plan or on any – really any plan for return to democracy in Venezuela, the United States will seek to make those a success and do what we can as we know many, many other governments would to try to make those negotiations fruitful and successful.