April 24, 2020: Briefing on Developments in the Western Hemisphere

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs led a special briefing on developments in the Americas that touched on a number of topics, including the coronavirus crisis in Ecuador, a political crisis in Guyana, increased pressure on Maduro in Venezuela, and the concerning authoritarian actions of President Bekele in El Salvador.

MR BROWN:  Hey, good morning, everybody.  Happy Friday.  Welcome this on the record briefing with Acting Secretary Michael Kozak, who heads our Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  We wanted to take an opportunity to update you on developments in Venezuela, Cuba, and Guyana.  Ambassador Kozak is also prepared to offer his thoughts on a full range of political and economic developments across the hemisphere.  Ambassador Kozak will begin with some opening remarks, and then we’ll have time for a few questions.  As a reminder, this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.  Ambassador Kozak, please go ahead.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Well, thanks, Cale, and good morning.  Thank you all for joining us today.  This is a hemisphere of freedom.  As a family of likeminded countries, we’ll get through this together.  It’s times like this that show the importance of our unity.

I want to begin by talking about the challenge that we’re fighting together.  It begins with our commitment to health and humanitarian aid, which spans many decades, many successes in health care, and many billions of dollars.  The United States continues to demonstrate global leadership in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping people all over the world.  In the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. Government has devoted a total of more than $64 million to more than 30 countries to help them fight the coronavirus in a number of ways.

But our support isn’t simply monetary.  American generosity isn’t limited to our assistance that comes directly from the United States Government. Our businesses, our NGOs, charity, all faith groups, are all deeply engaged.  This is an all-of-America approach to saving lives all across the world, and it helps protect us right here at home as well.  We estimate that the American people have given nearly $3 billion in donations and assistance just to fight this particular virus.  The U.S. Government has no higher priority than the protection of American citizens.  I want to express our thanks to governments across the regions for being such great partners in our efforts to get Americans home.  Our good friends like Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile allowed hundreds of Americans to disembark from cruise ships in their ports and fly home.  The Government of Panama and the Panama Canal Authority have shown enormous flexibility and compassion as they devised a way to allow cruise ships to make their way to the U.S. while at the same time protecting Canal workers.  In the Dominican Republic, the government worked with us to keep commercial flights running and available to U.S. citizens seeking to return home.  In Peru, our embassy and Peruvian officials have cooperated to support repatriation of more than 8,000 Americans, by far the most in the hemisphere and globally.  The staff at our embassies and consulates have been in the front lines in these efforts.  To date, we’ve repatriated over 64,000 Americans worldwide, including nearly 35,000 in this hemisphere.

And while our team is rising to meet the historic challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of diplomacy still goes on.

In Venezuela, our policy of maximum pressure on the former Maduro regime remains.  Earlier this week, the Treasury Department announced a new, narrowly limited, seven-month license for U.S. oil companies in Venezuela to wind down operations and engage only in those transactions necessary for the limited maintenance of essential operations, safety of employees, and preservation of assets in Venezuela.  This license does not allow for business as usual. Maduro will get no money and no benefit from these operations. The space to operate in the Venezuela oil sector is narrowing and others should take notice.

We also remain steadfast in our support for the Cuban people and for holding the Cuban regime accountable for its human rights abuses.

The Cuban regime has taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to continue its exploitation of Cuban medical workers, so we will continue to stand up for the rights of Cuban medical personnel and to oppose their exploitation and abuse, particularly in this moment where we must protect doctors more than ever.  The Cuban regime takes up to 90 percent of what they charge doctors – other countries for each doctor, pocketing considerable revenues and exploiting the doctors who receive but a pittance.  We applaud leaders in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries that refuse to turn a blind eye to these abuses by the Cuban regime.

Finally, it has been more than seven weeks since Guyana’s elections.  There has been still no credible outcome.  The Guyana Elections Commission has a preliminary work plan for a recount but has not issued a timeline.  We remain gravely concerned that so much time has passed without a credible result.  Further delays violate the Guyanese people’s rights to a transparent, credible, and timely electoral process.

The relations we have with the governments and the people of the Western Hemisphere are very important to this administration.  We will continue to stand with our friends as we confront the challenge of COVID-19, extend freedom throughout the region, and work to reignite economic prosperity for our citizens.  There are a lot of important issues we can talk about, and I’m happy to take your questions now.

MR BROWN:  Okay, if you have —

OPERATOR:  And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please do press 1, then 0.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For our first question, can we open the line of Matt Lee?

OPERATOR:  And please, go ahead, Matt Lee.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Yeah, okay.  Thanks, and good morning.  I have a question about Cuba.  The Cubans have been expressing an interest recently – well, for a long time now, but more stridently since the virus outbreak – about restarting a working group on pandemic illness.  What’s the status of that?  And does the U.S. have a interest in doing that, considering the tens of thousands of people who are dying?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Thank you, and I believe that working group was established with – I believe it was HHS.  So – and I’m not sure of the status right now.  I must say I’m skeptical of the good faith of Cuba on any of these things, but let us find out if there’s any activity on that front and we’ll get back with you.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  We’ll take that for a future later response.  Let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION:  A couple questions, one on El Salvador and then one on the maquiladoras in Mexico.

On El Salvador, I have not seen any criticism from you folks as Bukele increasingly is using the military to round up people and kind of arbitrarily put them in detention, which his own supreme court has told him to stop and he refuses.  So I’m – I just wonder if you guys are at all concerned that Bukele is kind of using COVID to become an autocratic president, returning to the black – negative past of El Salvador.

And then on the maquiladoras, I wondered if what you guys – what the United States is doing to get those back to work, because I know the Pentagon and others have been agitating for them to get back to work, but there are a lot of sick people and the conditions aren’t great, so I wondered what the United States is doing.  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Thank you.  Well, on El Salvador, first, let me say that we have been in touch with all three branches of the government there.  They all have an important role to play in fighting the COVID virus.  And as with most democratic governments with strong institutions, you sometimes find tensions and differences of opinion amongst different branches of government.  But our embassy has been in close touch with all of them.  We’re urging them to work together to find the best way forward.

President Bukele is a democratically elected president.  He’s got extremely high popularity ratings so far for his handling of the crisis.  And some of these court issues and so on have gone to under what conditions does he have authority versus the national assembly having authority over it.

So we’re not seeing anything that would lead to trying to suppress a dissident political opinion or political speech or something like that.  It’s differences of opinion over how best to handle quarantine and social distancing issues in the country.  So we’re giving lots of constructive advice to all the different parts of the government, but we’ve chosen not to make public comments about it for that reason.

On Mexico, I think what you’ve seen is on – there was a common agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada for that matter about keeping open cross-border activities, commerce, and so on.  But each country then has got – has its own standards for what kinds of industries and commercial activity it considers essential or vital.  Mexico has in practice had a much more – excuse me – restrictive set of criteria than we have.  Our embassy and here in Washington has been working very closely with Mexico, advocating for American firms that are part of the – some of this is just very difficult to understand for people in government to drill down and see what activity actually affects the supply chain for a different activity.  And I think we’re making progress on that.

We’re never going to have exactly the same standards, but there’s a lot of goodwill and a lot of cooperation and collaboration and information exchange going on to see if we can get the balance right between stopping the spread of the virus, and at the same time ensuring that things that are essential for security, for medical well-being, and so on are not impeded by gaps in the supply chain.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For the next question, can we go to the line of Conor Finnegan?

QUESTION:  Two quick questions, if I could.  First, the administration has continued to deport immigrants to Guatemala and Haiti who have later tested positive for coronavirus.  In the case of Guatemala, officials there say it could be in the dozens.  You talked about helping U.S. partners in the region.  Why wouldn’t you halt these deportation flights until there’s proper testing in place to ensure you aren’t creating new clusters of the virus down there?

And then secondly, on Ecuador, there are reports that the death toll is exponentially higher than what the government has so far reported.  What’s the U.S. assessment of what the death toll is there?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Okay.  On the first question, the reason we were so keen to work with partner nations to get their citizens back home, was precisely so as not to leave them in immigration detention facilities where they’re – been pressed together and cannot easily do the kind of social distancing that they should be; in other words, that they would be much safer to be back home in their homes with their families, and not in a closed environment like that.  So this has been an effort that not only benefits us, but it also benefits the health of the people in those countries.  We’ve had really good cooperation throughout.

Obviously, the policy of the Department of Homeland Security is not to remove anyone who is ill.  But you let them recover, and then you take them home.  The problem, of course, is with this virus that people who can be – appear perfectly fine turn out – even sometimes people who have been tested can turn out later to be positive.  So I would refer you to DHS for exactly what their procedures are, but they have followed certain protocols.  Those have been shared with the partner countries.  DHS has – constantly working on that as more testing equipment and so on becomes available.  They’re improving their protocols.

So our commitment is to make as sure as we can that people who are going back are healthy.  But the reason they’re going back is so that they’ll stay healthy, and not be kept for a long period of time in a confined environment.

On Ecuador, I know the situation in Guayaquil, in Guayas Province is really pretty horrendous.  I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal on that, but I’m not sure we have any figures different from those of the government, and I’m not sure the government is trying to minimize the degree of the illness there.  They are quite concerned about it themselves in all the conversations we’ve had with them.  So there’s reporting gaps in all of this, but it’s – it is a serious problem, in Guayaquil particularly.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Everyone, if you could try to limit your questions to just one.  There’s a lot of people in the queue and we want to get to as many people as we can.  So for the next question, can we go to the line of Michele Kelemen?

QUESTION:  A question about Mexico:  The – I wonder if you’re worried at all about kind of the lack of a stimulus plan for the economy there.  Are you concerned that Mexico’s economy could take a hit, and that could lead to further migration?  And then real quickly on Venezuela, do you have any indication that these not-so-secret secret talks are making any progress?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Well, on the first, with respect to Mexico, I mean, yes, the Mexican economy is taking a hit, our economy is taking a hit, and everybody else’s is as well.  I think the Mexican Government is working that.  Everybody’s going to make their own decisions on what they think is the best way to recover from this.  We are trying to work with the international financial institutions to help countries construct the best packages they can.  Each country has a different set of problems.  So no, at this stage I wouldn’t say we’re trying to urge Mexico to do anything particular, but we are working with them, collaborating with them as they try to figure out the best way to reopen their economy, and we’ll be by their side as they try to deal with these issues going forward.  We’re all going to have plenty to deal with as a consequence of this on the economic front.

And on the – on Venezuela, I’m not so sure what you’re talking about, not so secret secret talks.  The U.S. is not conducting any secret talks with Venezuela, so I’m just not clear about the reference.

MR BROWN:  Okay, let’s move on and open the line of Daphne from Reuters, please.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) plane shipment from Iran.  What is the administration’s view of this kind of cooperation between two heavily sanctioned governments, and what, if any, further details have U.S. officials picked up on the scope of this activity?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Yeah, this is a reference to Mahan Air flights in and out.  It is interesting how governments that isolate themselves from the rest of the world, they end up coming together and then it’s a little bit of a shell game where each one is trying to save the other one from some consequence and they can’t really do it because they don’t have the capacity.  So, I mean, the air flight is – or that airline has been sanctioned precisely because it is aiding and abetting the Qods Force, which is – and so it’s a designated terrorist entity.  What they are trying to help the Venezuelans with God only knows, but we’ll be monitoring it, and it just shows the danger, though, of somebody like Maduro where his best friends are terrorist organizations like the IGRC[1] or the ELN, the FARC dissidents and so on.  They seem to have a great affinity for terrorist organizations.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Let’s next go to Ali Rogin from PBS.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) spoke to the leaders of both El Salvador and Honduras and that he would be providing ventilators to them, praising their cooperation on the southern border.  They are, of course, two Northern Triangle countries who have continued to accept deportation flights.  It appears that he has not offered the same support, provision of ventilators to Guatemala, who as you know has temporarily suspended deportation flights a few times during – since the beginning of the pandemic.  First, are you aware of what program these ventilators will be provided under?  Is it a State Department-sanctioned program?  And second, are these ventilators being provided on the condition of countries continuing to accept deportation flights given that the President tweeted his – he’s going to provide them to El Salvador and Honduras and there does not seem to be a tweet for Guatemala?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Yeah.  Well, I think the President has been talking about these issues to leaders who have asked to talk to him, and it’s not just Northern Triangle countries; there are other countries in the region have also called and made requests.

I mean, it’s been – this is something we’ve been dealing with over the last several weeks where governments were saying look, we know you have to take care of your own needs first but keep us very much in mind as you’re able to start exporting stuff again.  I think this is largely a function of the task force, the White House task force.  It’s been looking at – as we ramped up production – you’ve heard the President talk about General Motors and others now building ventilators – that we’re seeing our own needs met, we can become an exporter again.  I think in many of these cases, the countries concerned just want to buy them.  They aren’t asking us for financing.  In other cases, we are, as I mentioned, giving a significant amount of financing to battle COVID in the region and perhaps they would be able to turn it to those kinds of purchases, but I think it’s more of an allocation thing.

I don’t know that President Giammattei has called and asked the President for any help on this front as yet.  That could change in the next days or so.  We have been working closely with Guatemala.  It’s not that we haven’t had a cooperative relationship with them, it’s just they’ve run into some snags and we’re working through that with them.  But anyway, I think, as you’ve seen, there isn’t some hard linkage here between cooperation on removals and ventilators.  We’re trying to get medicine and medical supplies to anybody who needs them, including countries that we have not particularly good relations with.  We mentioned Venezuela and Cuba earlier and the U.S. has actually allocated I think $9 million for COVID aid inside Venezuela.  Our problem there is getting the regime to give us access so that assistance can actually get distributed on a needs-based basis rather than on a politicized basis, which is what the regime tends to do, or that the regime takes the – we saw recently where they got some test kits and they exported them to another country to get a vote from them in a multilateral forum.  So it’s not a good bet to just give stuff to the Maduro regime.

But we do want to see it get to the Venezuelan people.  We want to see assistance getting to the Cuban people.  We have – this administration has yet to turn down a single request for purchase of medical supplies from Cuba in all the time that they’ve been in office, so millions of dollars have flowed there worth of medicine and medical supplies and hundreds of millions of dollars have been authorized if the Cubans had chosen to use it.  So basically I think what you see is we’re not politicizing necessary equipment or medicines for dealing with the COVID crisis.

MR BROWN:  Thanks for that.  For our next question, let’s go to the line of Kim Dozier.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) the recent economic moves against the Maduro —

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  You just came on.  I didn’t get the first part of your question, so please repeat.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Sorry.  Thank you.  Can you give us some of your view of the positive strategic effects achieved by some of the recent economic moves against the Maduro regime?  And also can you give us an update on the Citgo 6?  Have you had contact with them?  Are – the prison they’re being held in has had cases of COVID and that was as of two weeks ago.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Yeah, on the moves vis-a-vis Maduro, I mean, I think what you’ve seen over the last weeks has been a significant tightening up of our economic pressures on the regime.  It is a campaign of maximum economic pressure.  And it’s designed to deprive the regime of the revenue that it uses to engage in repression and corruption.  None of our sanctions go to food, medicine, or anything like that, but we have tightened up substantially on them.

At the same time, we – the Secretary proposed the framework for a democratic transition, which has gotten a lot of support around the world.  We had countries ranging from the entire EU to the Lima Group and others, so people on both sides of – or who had different views as to what was the best way to resolve this have come out in strong support of that framework and that proposal.  So I think that’s had a powerful effect too in terms of we not only hear it being discussed internationally but within Venezuela.  Within the regime people are talking about it, and what they’re saying is look, if we engage in a democratic transition, we – even the people who are part of the Chavista movement – would come out of this in very good shape.  Their political rights would be respected, they’d have a free and fair opportunity to run for office, their party would continue on, nobody is – would be punished for anything except the most serious crimes.  So it’s a pretty good deal unless you’re Maduro and just want to stay in power forever.

But I think at the same time what the sanctions do is show people there is no hope of anything getting better as long as he remains in power.  As long as he’s there, the sanctions are going to be on.  The question that we’ve always been asked was what would it take to lift the sanctions, and the democratic framework is the answer to that question.  If you follow a process like this and you come to an outcome like this, the sanctions get lifted in phases and everybody comes out of it in pretty good shape, except that Maduro and his immediate cronies don’t remain in power, where they have completely botched it for the country.

On the Citgo 6, yes, we have been concerned about their health for some time and being kept in – not just from COVID.  Even before the COVID crisis, these are not people who are necessarily in the prime of health.  They are being held for no reason at all as the government keeps postponing any kind of trial dates and so on so that they don’t have to put any evidence forward.  So our attitude is they just should let them go.  This is hostage-taking, pure and simple, and they’re not going to get anything in the way of concessions from us, but they can get a lot more difficulties for themselves if they persist in this.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  I want to be respectful of your time, Ambassador Kozak.  Do you have time for one or two more?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Sure, you go ahead and pick them.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For the next question, let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon, please.

QUESTION:  Bolivia.  The elections were set to be next week; of course they’re postponed because of coronavirus concerns.  What’s your assessment now about where things stand in Bolivia?  Is there any concern about legitimacy of the interim president, Ms. Anez, in light of this delay?

And if I could just briefly, there are reports that Haftar, the Libyan strongman – that his jet was spotted in Caracas overnight.  Is that something that you have any information on?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Last one first, no, but it’s wild what – who shows up there.

With respect to Bolivia, my understanding – I mean, the original timetable and so on for the elections was set by the National Assembly, which includes a majority of MAS representatives, and my understanding is that they have been meeting and trying to come to an agreement on what would be an appropriate date given the necessity of delaying the election because of the virus.  So I – the way I’m seeing it, this is still both sides in Bolivia cooperating.  They’re not trying to delegitimize the government.  They are trying to find a way to move to free elections and that will determine who will be the government in the country going forward, but so far they seem to be working this together even though they obviously have their differences on policy and so on.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For our last question, let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks so much.  Following up on Ali’s question, can you provide an estimate of how many ventilators are going to each of these respective countries – Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador?  And then secondly, because Guatemala has suspended these repatriation flights for deportees, there was a presidential memo a few weeks ago that suggested there might be visa sanctions in retaliation for this.  Is this something that the U.S. is preparing to levy against Guatemala or any other countries in the Western Hemisphere?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Okay, thank you.  On the first, I think I would refer you to the White House task force.  Again, as I say, I don’t think the President is negotiating numbers of ventilators with people.  He’s hearing out his colleagues in the other countries, saying, “What are your needs?” and so on.  And then they will – that’ll be assessed by the experts on the task force, and the effort is going to try to be sure that everybody gets what they need and not more than they need but also not less than they need.  So it’s a very sort of scientific process as best I can tell of trying to allocate available resources against demonstrated needs.

With respect to visa sanctions, yes, there is a provision in U.S. immigration law that says that a country that refuses or unreasonably delays taking back its own citizens, if the DHS Secretary advises the Secretary of State that that’s happening, we are required to cut off the visa issuance in those countries.  But that’s – that’s what the statute says.  I think it’s absolutely hypothetical at this point to be talking about whether it would be applicable to any given situation.  As I said earlier, we’re working with all the countries in the region.  We’ve hit snags here and there.  Obviously they’ve got – we’re trying to help them, too, build their capacity on the other end.  If they take people back and are holding them in quarantine facilities, what can we do to help them make those more robust and make their own process more robust at the other end?  So this is very much a work in progress and a lot of cooperation going on.  I wouldn’t be speculating about punishments at this point.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Ambassador Kozak, thank you for being so gracious with your time.  Thanks everybody for joining the call.  Unfortunately couldn’t get to everybody today.  This is the end of the call.  The contents – and the embargo on the contents is lifted.  You guys have a great day and a super weekend.  All right, thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK:  Yes, thank you all.  Have a great day.

[1] IRGC

Source: United States Department of State

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