5 min read
Discussion on Venezuela with Professor Elliott Abrams

We are honored to have Professor Elliott Abrams join Platform for an interview to discuss the recent talks that are going on between the Venezuelan political opposition and the government to resolve a political crisis that has been ongoing since 2017, when the supreme court disqualified a political candidate from participation in the April seventh elections, leading to mass demonstrations across the country and an opposition of the country’s elections, ever since. Professor Abrams was a special representative for Venezuela for the Trump Administration and has also served in the Bush and Reagan administrations as deputy NSA advisor and assistant secretary of state respectively and is currently a senior fellow at the council of foreign relations. Thanks for taking the time to speak with Platform and welcome!

The Platform: There are rumors that there may be EU oversight of the [upcoming Venezuelan] elections. Assuming the opposition participates, why would Maduro make this move now? What could be his motivations, considering that he had his own elections for quite some time, which the opposition didn’t participate in?

Professor Elliott Abrams: I think Maduro is trying something that may work. He’s going to hold the election. He needs the opposition to participate in order for the election to be somewhat legitimate. It won't be a free election as it would be understood in Israel the United States or Europe, but it might get the Europeans to observe and maybe the Jimmy Carter Center in the United States to observe, and what he's hoping for is a reduction in sanctions. And he's hoping for legitimation, and legitimation is not an abstract concept; it means he wants people to regard him as the legitimate president and not Juan Guaido. He wants people to send their ambassadors back; he wants the opposition, the people who may be elected, to do so too. He might allow a few election returns to be legitimate and the opposition to win let's say a few states, to win the governor elections, [but] to be sworn in they need to be sworn in, in front of him, which is tantamount to saying he is the legitimate president. So the game Maduro is playing is, can he do all that while giving up almost none of his power. And obviously what I think is, what the United States, the Europeans and others need to do, is to keep the pressure on, so that he has to give up a substantial amount of power, for example by respecting human rights. From the election point of view, what would lead it to being a more free election? Ensuring greater freedom of the press and the ability for people to run. I know for a fact that Maduro and the regime have said to some political exiles, if you're willing to run in the election you can come home and you won't be arrested. The regime has said to some people in prison, if you're willing to run in the election, we will let you out. It has said to the people under house arrest, we will let you out from house arrest, if you're willing to run. So this is the game he's playing. About a year-and-a-half ago, the regime took control of all the opposition political parties. They said to the leadership of those political parties, you no longer control the party, we will appoint through (their captive) courts the officials of the parties, who will have the offices, bank accounts and the symbols of the party. That should be reversed for these elections. So it's really up to the opposition, but much more to the foreigners, to insist on these things and make Maduro pay a real price.

The Platform: Why do you think Russia and China supported him? Was it merely a way of thumbing their nose at the US, or is Maduro serving their legitimate interests? If so how?

Professor Elliott Abrams: I think it’s a combination. You know they (Venezuela) do have oil, so from the Chinese point of view, (years ago) it looked like a way of diversifying oil imports away from the Persian Gulf. The Chinese actually invested something like twenty billion dollars in Venezuela, out of which they will get nothing back and they have stopped [investing]. In the last few years, new Chinese loans to Venezuela are zero, new Chinese investment to Venezuela are zero. In the Russian case, as your question suggested, a lot of it was thumbing their nose at the US. I think one of the things they wanted to avoid in Venezuela is what they call a “color revolution”. That is, they didn't want to see Juan Guaido kick out a president that they supported. But Guaido only comes around in 2019, and prior to that they had lent six or seven billion dollars to Venezuela through the oil company Rosneft. They took all that out in oil, so the debt to Russia now is actually very small. Now it's mostly the geopolitical aspect, both directly challenging the US, but also because Venezuela is very important for Cuba. Venezuela is the oil supplier to Cuba, so they're killing two birds with one stone here. By maintaining Venezuela, they not only have an anti-American friend, but they keep the Cuban regime afloat.

The Platform: When Juan Guaido declared himself President in 2019, did the US have any prior warning and coordination with Guaido on this matter?

Professor Elliott Abrams: I don't really know much about the answer to that, because I joined the administration at the end of January 2019. So I'm not sure how much coordination there was, but I have to assume there was some and the United States immediately recognized him as president. It wasn't quite the way Harry Truman recognized Israel in 15 minutes, but it took just a couple of days.

The Platform: What were the American reasons for backing Guaido and what was your impression of his personality?

Professor Elliott Abrams: Well for the US, it was easy. Venezuela was once one of Latin America's rare democracies and it was rich; and it was destroyed by Chavez and Maduro. They had destroyed Venezuela from an economic point of view; they brought misery, hunger, and a huge refugee flow, which was a huge problem for Colombia, Peru, Chile, and a number of the neighbors. From a democracy and human rights point of view it was also a disaster, because it had been a democracy and they had destroyed that democracy; and the human rights situation is really awful. For example, the UN has reported seven thousand political executions. That's amazing. So the United States obviously had a reason, the same reason that Canada had to support the democratic opposition. And then we know that Maduro stole the last election. He was not legitimately elected. Under the Venezuelan Constitution, if there's a vacancy in the presidency the speaker of the parliament is the acting president. So in our view and in the view of the democratic opposition, there was a vacancy because there was no free election. So at the end of Maduro's [previous] term, the term to which he had been recently elected didn't start because it was a phony election; and it happened that Juan Guaido was the speaker. I have to say we lucked out because there was someone who was young, honest, and had no problems with corruption. He was telegenic and came across well and I think he proved to be a very effective leader of the opposition. He traveled to the United States, he traveled all over Latin America, and he traveled all over Europe, and was really able to win a lot of support for the opposition forces. And it was just luck that it happened that we had a leader with his qualities. The speaker of the parliament position rotates among the major parties and it happened that he was the speaker right then. It could have been someone else but we were very lucky. I would also add something to that. Why the support for Chavez initially? Venezuela was a democracy, but it had been ruled by two political parties, where the power went back and forth and they alternated in power. All of the people who were in power, who were leading those parties, were by Venezuelan standards rich white people-- but not Juan Guaido. Juan Guaido looks like the average Venezuelan and if I remember right, I think his parents were teachers and they had no money. So again, we lucked out, in that we had someone who really did represent Venezuelans not the old elites.

The Platform: Do you believe there was a strong possibility of military action against Maduro and his henchman, had they attacked Guaido?

Professor Elliott Abrams: I doubt it. I'm not quite sure what President Trump's reaction would have been, or what President Biden's reaction would be, and what the Europeans (would do). Obviously the Europeans, Canadians, and Latin American countries are not going to favor a military invasion, but you would have a complete isolation. For example, you cannot fly from Venezuela to the United States, there are no commercial flights, but you could fly from there to Madrid or from there to Buenos Aires. I think that would have ended. I think there would have been a real quarantining of the regime, that maybe would have brought about the collapse of the regime.

The Platform: The US didn’t end up moving forward with military action against the Venezuelan government, but did levy heavy sanctions. One could argue that in a nation with hyperinflation and a weak economy, the sanctions hurt the people of Venezuela more than their leader and his supporters. Were they any mechanisms to ensure the sanctions targeted the military and government officials associated with Maduro? If yes, what were they? If not, how would you address the argument that US imposed sanctions may have given more fuel for Maduro’s anti-American rhetoric?

Professor Elliott Abrams: Well first, US sanctions never cover, including in Iran, medicine and food. In fact the US is very often the greatest food supplier to Cuba (which is under US sanctions). So for food and medicine, you can get as much as you want. Second, there are opinion polls taken over the last few years in Venezuela and people do tend to blame Maduro. Third, we began to impose heavy economic sanctions on Venezuela in 2019, but the collapse of Venezuela's economy goes back to Chavez. He comes in and wastes billions of dollars in oil revenue, by the time we impose sanctions. If I remember the number right, four million Venezuelans out of about thirty five million had already fled the country and are already refugees. This was before we had significant sanctions. So I think Venezuelans recognize that the sanctions did not collapse the economy, Maduro collapsed the economy. I would say that I think we didn’t do enough to target the regime elites, but the “we” here is not just the US. For example, we found cases of people that we were sanctioning in the US. Although they couldn’t travel to the US or own property there legally, their wives, their families, and their mistresses were in Madrid, where they lived in mansions, went out nightclubbing and spent tons of money. Now obviously, if we're talking about the family of a general who's earning a very low salary on paper, because the Venezuelan currency collapsed, where is the money coming from? It cannot be legal. It must be coming from corruption. What did the Spanish do about it? Nothing. So we should work to curb these resort areas in Europe being enjoyed by the regime’s corrupt elites, but I think we should also have put more energy into locating the assets and bank accounts of the top 100 people (for example) in the regime. I wouldn't have lifted the general sanctions, especially on oil sales, but I would have tried to hit the elites harder.

The Platform: Which policy success do you take the most pride in, with regards to Venezuela?

Professor Elliott Abrams: If you stand back, you have to acknowledge that the policy failed, since the policy goal was to restore democracy to Venezuela and that has not happened. I think the greatest success was probably giving hope to the opposition, by standing with them and letting them know they're not alone; and we then helped organize sixty countries that recognized Guaido, which would not have happened without the United States. So it really kept the Venezuelan opposition alive, in a period of tremendous repression. You know, too many people think “well it’s not a democracy; there are a lot of countries that are not a democracy”. It’s an extremely vicious and brutal regime; again the UN has found nearly seven thousand political executions. There are political prisoners killed in prison, the regime goes after families, and the corruption is beyond belief. People stole billions of dollars. It’s not as if people who are in the regime stole a million dollars; no, they stole hundreds of millions of dollars. We have cases where the United States was able to confiscate the bank accounts of a regime figure and you find fifty to a hundred million dollars in the bank. They’ve been engaging in enormous amounts of corruption and look what they have done to the country. We're getting to the point where about 20% of the population will have left the country by the end of this year, 2021. There are going to be more Venezuelan refugees than there are Syrian refugees, and Venezuelans will be the largest refugee group in the world-- unless we now see a big outflow from Afghanistan.

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