Remarks on Venezuela

Photo courtesy of AP Images.

Elliott Abrams 
U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela 
The Atlantic Council
Washington, DC
April 25, 2019

Thank you. I am delighted to be here at the Atlantic Council today to discuss the crisis in Venezuela.

But I would actually like to do more than describe that crisis. Venezuelans deserve to hear our views not only about today’s Venezuela but also about tomorrow’s.

Today, Venezuelans obviously face enormous challenges – such as lack of food and medicine, electricity and clean water, widespread poverty, lost work opportunities, and government oppression. Very few countries have ever seen such a political, social, and economic calamity befall them after decades of democracy and prosperity.

The suffering in Venezuela is almost unbelievable. When I first began to work on Latin American affairs almost forty years ago, Venezuela was one of only two democracies in Latin America, along with Costa Rica, and it was the richest nation in the region. It was an anchor of stability in what was often a turbulent region. It was not only the birthplace of Bolivar but a beacon of his ideals. Venezuela supported the struggling democratic movements across the hemisphere. Its government and its political opposition were the model for many democratic actors.

Just as it helped others achieve freedom, it was generous with its wealth and took in migrants and refugees from across the hemisphere and from Europe. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought their talent to Venezuela where they were able to thrive and contribute to the country’s future.

The current state of affairs is not normal for Venezuela, it is not acceptable for Venezuelans, and I am absolutely convinced it is not Venezuela’s destiny.

The nation’s history reminds us of the tremendous potential Venezuela has and the country it will be when it escapes the current disaster.

Painting the Future of Venezuela

What does that new Venezuela look like?

  • Imagine a Venezuela where you can pay for dinner using the bolivars you have in your pocket.
  • Imagine a Venezuela where there are no blackouts and clean water pours out of the tap.
  • Imagine a Venezuela where eggs are no longer a luxury but part of the diet of all families.
  • Imagine a Venezuela with 5G internet, and no government censorship.
  • Imagine a Venezuela – the country with the largest proven oil reserves – where you do not have to wait in line for hours to fill your gas tank.
  • Imagine a Venezuela where you can walk with your family at night without fear, and where well trained community police care for your safety.
  • Imagine graduating from university, buying a car, and knowing that you will be able to work and save and someday buy a house.
  • Imagine a Venezuela without preventable and debilitating diseases, and with some of the best doctors and hospitals in the world.
  • Imagine being able to travel throughout the hemisphere and the world, not as a refugee, but as a tourist.
  • Imagine Venezuela’s leaders respected again across the hemisphere and the world, their voices raised in the OAS and United Nations in defense of democracy and human rights, not in defense of the most abusive regimes in the world.

That Venezuela is not a mirage and will not take a miracle. That Venezuela will once again attract the doctors, engineers, and teachers who have fled abroad, to help rebuild the country. And it will attract foreigners freely bringing their talents and skills to help rebuild – not foreigners bringing new methods of surveillance, censorship, and oppression.

That future Venezuelan society will have room for the full participation of every citizen – laborers and business owners, government workers and private sector employees, Chavistas and non-Chavistas, military officers and police, teachers and nurses, rich and poor, urban and rural. In that society the major decisions will be made freely and democratically by elections.

So what is standing between the people of Venezuela and this future? What is stopping the beginning of rebuilding and reconciliation? Some questions are hard; that one is easy. The short answer is Nicolas Maduro.

Recovering from the level of theft and misrule that Venezuelans have suffered under will not be an easy or quick project, but yes, it is possible – possible for us to visualize here today and possible to achieve.

This future will come with the full support of the international community, and as you know more than 50 countries have announced their support for interim president Guaidó and his vision of a Venezuela where liberty reigns. The United States is committed to working with Venezuela through the transition and to seeing prosperity return. So are Venezuela’s neighbors. There is humanitarian assistance at the borders ready to flow. We were pleased to see humanitarian aid enter Venezuela last week facilitated by the International Federation of the Red Cross. We hope this aid is just the beginning of more critical support to the Venezuelan people.

In the future, billions of dollars will be invested in Venezuela to rebuild the agricultural and industrial sectors. International Financial Institutions are making plans to lend billions more –in fact, every estimate I have seen speaks of tens of billions– which will be used to increase production and consumption, get the economy moving again, and provide the basis for recovery.

No, not overnight. Let’s be clear: humanitarian supplies such as medicine will start entering immediately, and skilled workers will seek to restore electricity, clean water, and oil production. It will take years of steady work and considerable investment to bring the country back to where it stood decades ago, yet there is strong reason for optimism: Venezuela sits on the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, and it has another giant and invaluable reservoir: millions of skilled and dedicated Venezuelans, both at home and residing overseas, who can and will dedicate themselves to that effort. They love their country and they are ready to start rebuilding it.

But that recovery can only start when there is a fully inclusive government that represents all Venezuelans. They will not agree on everything: there will be a loud and healthy debate over all issues through the country’s democratic institutions, as there are in all democracies. But decisions will be made by the many, not just the few, and the will of the people will not be circumvented by force. To rebuild Venezuela, violent colectivos, carnets de la patria, and the imprisonment of political opponents must end, so the path can be open to a new, democratic future.

Let me address what I see as the three elements of change in Venezuela: political participation, the role of the military, and economic progress.

Inclusive Participation

First let’s speak about politics. I used the term fully inclusive government. What does that mean? Here I have a message to the PSUV and to followers of the late President Chávez:

You are watching the Maduro regime destroy his legacy. That is not my concern; I met Hugo Chávez once, about fifteen years ago, and since I am a Republican you can conclude correctly that I would never have voted for him. But it should be your concern. Nicolas Maduro was selected as president of the PSUV by a very small group of self-interested individuals who, like him, continue to have access to all the food and medicine they want. Many regime officials have sent their children and wives and mistresses abroad, where they live like multi-millionaires because they are. While Venezuelans struggle to buy harina pan and chicken to make a reina pepiada, the people in power are living a life of luxury.

We believe the Maduro regime must come to an end for Venezuela to recover democracy and prosperity. But like all of the country’s citizens, the PSUV is entitled to a role in rebuilding your country. Interim President Guaidó recently said that “free elections are the mechanism that allow the people to express and attain their longing for change,” and we agree. You are entitled to run in free elections and try to convince your fellow citizens of the value of your policies. As we saw in the last free elections in Venezuela, the National Assembly elections of 2015, there remains a strong base of support for your party; you won 55 seats. Take those seats, join the national debate not only tomorrow but right now, today. Engage with the other parties in the parliament with a spirit of mutual respect.

In a recent National Assembly session, three PSUV state legislators from Zulia conveyed how they were expelled from their party after criticizing the former Minister of Energy for the power outages. Interim President Guaido welcomed them to the National Assembly, and the country and the world listened. PSUV members, this is the time to demand a democratic process within your own party. One or two individuals should not have the power to censor members who demand basic services on behalf of their constituents.

Once Venezuela is free of the Maduro regime, its Cuban enforcers, and its thugs, and censorship is ended and political prisoners are freed, the time will have arrived to prepare for free elections. But the time to join a free debate about the future is now, and it must include young chavistas before this regime tries to silence them as well. If you want chavismo to be part of your country’s future and not just its past, it cannot be imposed by force. When the PSUV accepts that it must act solely as a democratic political party, and seek the votes of citizens in free elections solely through argument and debate, Venezuela will be well on the way to democracy.

How will the United States react to your participation in what I called politics that are fully inclusive? I can speak from my own experience. I spent years in the 1980s working to prevent a violent takeover of El Salvador by the FMLN assisted by Cuba and Russia. But when the FMLN won free elections in 2009, and again in 2014 and that time under the leadership of a former FMLN rebel leader, the United States respected and accepted the outcome–and indeed continued our foreign aid program there. We did not pick El Salvador’s president in those elections and we will not pick who is elected president in Venezuela.

We want to see all Venezuelans deciding the fate of their country, in free elections, instead of all the key decisions made by someone who stole an election in 2018 and rules by brutality and exclusion. Venezuela needs a peaceful transition negotiated among all its people, between friends and neighbors, in every community. You are all in this together and your politics must reflect that fact.

Role of the Military in Transition

Second, in that future Venezuela what is the role of the military? The armed forces would hold a place of responsibility in society, and without being involved in politics would represent and protect the security interests of the country.

Venezuelans deserve to be protected by a professional military institution – and not have their leaders rely on armed gangs or on foreign powers who send thousands of soldiers or intelligence agents to surveil, abuse, and imprison patriotic Venezuelan military officers and enlisted men and women. Venezuela will need a truly professional and well-trained armed force to rebuild the country and guarantee its security. Interim President Guaidó has reiterated multiple times that a transition to a secure and democratic country will require the support of military officers. And that is what we believe: Venezuela’s military and security forces need to be stronger, better paid, trained and armed, and ready to face the challenge of criminals who traffic in drugs and persons, and that of protecting the nation’s thousands of miles of land and sea borders, and protecting Venezuela from dangers foreign and domestic.

Let us be candid: The country will need to confront the deeds of some who have so badly abused their office or position that there needs to be an accounting. The National Assembly is working on these issues now and with great care.

These are not new issues; many democratic transitions have had to grapple with the issue of amnesties or protections for former officials. We saw this in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, South Africa after apartheid, El Salvador after the civil war, and Chile and Argentina after military rule. Venezuelans will have to work this out. We in the United States recognize this, and as we have done in all those cases I mentioned, it is the intention of the United States to respect the agreement made among Venezuelans as part of the transition to democracy to the extent consistent with applicable law.

Inclusive Economy

Third is the question of a free and inclusive economy. Like all questions about the future of Venezuela, the structure of the economy will have to be debated by all Venezuelans, represented by their elected representatives in the National Assembly. Decisions about the economy cannot be made by one man or a small group whose goal is to steal resources, reward sycophants, and above all use money to stay in power.

There will be hard decisions to be make, and there will still be many sacrifices in the coming years. The transition will not be easy and in some ways the situation even may get worse before it improves. The Venezuelan economy has contracted by nearly 70 percent because of the mismanagement and theft of the current regime. The currency has been reduced to worthlessness, an example of hyperinflation that will be studied in universities a century from now. The country will need everything — new infrastructure, a new health system, schools, the rebuilding of the agricultural sector. The list is long and it will take time; economic recovery cannot be achieved overnight, not even in a country with huge oil reserves. But interim president Guaidó and the National Assembly are committed, as they have made clear in Plan Pais, to build an economy that works for all Venezuelans.

That means an economy that uses the country’s natural wealth to benefit all the people, not just a few who hold political power. That means an economy that truly provides for the most vulnerable members of society. That means a stable currency that allows families to plan for the future. It means an economy that is open to the world and embraces the opportunities the world offers. It means an agricultural sector that can again provide for the basic needs of Venezuelans by allowing farmers to plant and harvest without government control, but with the government providing much of the infrastructure that facilitates that production. Venezuela can be prosperous again, and can climb out of the despair into which it has fallen, when the rules are fair, the laws are just and enforced and treat all citizens equally, when corruption is punished and a free press can expose it, when private property is protected, and when labor is fairly rewarded. This isn’t magic; these are the bases of economic growth.

How do we Get There?

These three components of the democratic transition – an inclusive, democratic government, professional security forces, and a free and inclusive economy, are all possible and are all key ingredients to rebuilding Venezuela. Interim President Guaidó and the National Assembly have begun the critical work that will lead Venezuela back from ruin to liberty and prosperity. We support his leadership fully. And everyone who is committed to a democratic future must join forces to make this new Venezuela a reality as quickly as possible.

I believe that what Bolivar said is true: “A people that loves freedom will in the end be free.” The United States will not waver in its support for freedom in Venezuela, and we are certain we will see again a Venezuela that is democratic, prosperous, and reconnected to the world. We are certain the corruption and incompetence, the repression, brutality, and despair that have marked the Maduro years will be replaced by a Venezuela that is recovering its place in its region, this Hemisphere, and the world. The United States wishes to be Venezuela’s partner in this great effort and we are confident that Venezuelans will in the end be free.