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The United States' Strategy For Venezuela

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is now five weeks since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the rightful president of Venezuela, also five weeks since the U.S. declared its support of Guaido. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions targeting Venezuela's oil sales as part of the effort to oust President Nicolas Maduro. And yet Maduro remains firmly installed in the Palacio de Miraflores - that's Venezuela's equivalent of the White House - which prompts the question, is U.S. policy working?

Let's put that to Elliott Abrams. He is the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, and he joins us now from the State Department. Welcome.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Thank you. Glad to be doing this.

KELLY: So you have testified before Congress that you are confident Nicolas Maduro will go but that it could take a while. So my first question is, how long? How long you willing to give it?

ABRAMS: Well, we're willing to give it whatever amount of time it takes because this is not primarily an American question. This is a question of the Venezuelan people wanting a democracy, wanting to get rid of a corrupt dictatorship, so...

KELLY: But are you thinking about this in terms of days, weeks, months?

ABRAMS: No. I mean, you know, when Secretary Pompeo asked me to do this, he did not say, why don't you come on in the State Department for three weeks, and then we'll be done with this? We will support the Venezuelan people for as long as it takes.

KELLY: The question mark is how much staying power Maduro has. And I want to let you respond to a comment from someone who, unlike the rest of us, actually sat down and interviewed him at length this week. This is Jorge Ramos, the Univision journalist who interviewed him and was briefly detained at that presidential palace and then expelled from Venezuela on Tuesday. We caught him. NPR caught him as he was flying out and asked, is there any sign Maduro is backing down, that he's ready to leave office? And here's what Ramos told us.

JORGE RAMOS: Not at all. He feels very powerful at this point. And in my conversations with some members of the government, they tell you that they have been underestimated. They think that they'll stay in power. And the only problem for them - the real only problem for them would be a U.S. invasion.

KELLY: Elliott Abrams, that word, underestimated - are you underestimating Nicolas Maduro?

ABRAMS: Oh, I don't think we're underestimating him or the regime. They do have a certain small amount of foreign support from Russia and China, we saw in the United Nations Security Council.

KELLY: You were trying to get a resolution through at the U.N. this week and weren't able to get it through.

ABRAMS: Well, we did get nine votes, which meant that the Russians and Chinese had to veto, whereas the Russian resolution got four votes, which was actually pathetic. And that's a measure of the support in the international community for Guaido and for democracy in Venezuela. We are not underestimating the regime, but I would say to you that frequently regimes look solidly in power until the day comes when that whole edifice crumbles. And it will come in Venezuela.

KELLY: To another point that Jorge Ramos made, which is his sense from his interview in Venezuela - was that the real thing that concerns them is a U.S. invasion. President Trump has said that is on the table - some form of military intervention. How on the table is it? I mean, is the U.S. seriously planning for some sort of military action in Venezuela?

ABRAMS: The policy of the United States towards Venezuela I think is very clear. It is to use diplomatic, financial, economic, political pressure to try to see how much international support we can get. And 54 countries have recognized Juan Guaido already. I think really every president says - should say all options are on the table, and they always are. But that is not the path we are pursuing.

KELLY: So if I'm hearing you correctly, you're saying military intervention is of course an option; it's on the table, but it would be a tool of last resort.

ABRAMS: That's correct, and it is...

KELLY: So what would it take to trigger that?

ABRAMS: Let me just say the talk about military action does not come from Washington. It comes from the regime in Venezuela. It comes from Moscow. It comes from people who are trying to diminish support for democracy in Venezuela. Now, you asked, what would it take? You know, we don't get into a hypothetical like that.

KELLY: One more thing that raised my curiosity before we move on - John Bolton, the national security adviser, was spotted at a news conference last month, and he had the words 5,000 troops to Colombia written on his notepad. It was clearly visible. It was photographed.

ABRAMS: Yes. (Laughter) Is there a question there?

KELLY: Why is John Bolton writing about 5,000 troops to Colombia if this is not seriously on the table?

ABRAMS: You know, I - I'm not going to speak for my friend John Bolton. I'm not going to speak for his yellow pad. I have described the policy of the United States, which is to pursue all of these various forms of international pressure on the regime in support of the Venezuelan people and their struggle for democracy.

KELLY: On a personal note, I want to invite you to respond to concerns raised about you specifically in this envoy roll given your role in the Iran-Contra affair in the '80s and support of Central American governments that were committing human rights abuses. You've got baggage in this region.

ABRAMS: You know, when the Reagan administration came to power, virtually every country in Latin America was a military dictatorship. Costa Rica was not, and ironically enough, Venezuela was not. When we left office in January 1989, there had been a number of transitions. I think the record we compiled in supporting democracy and the change from military dictatorship to democracy around the world but particularly in Latin America is an exceptional one. And I think anybody in the Reagan administration who participated in that effort should be and is proud of it. I know I am.

KELLY: But does your background provide an excuse for people now to be suspicious about U.S. motives in Venezuela?

ABRAMS: I don't think that anyone who looks at American policy could seriously doubt that we are supporting democracy in Venezuela.

KELLY: Elliott Abrams, thank you.

ABRAMS: You're welcome.

KELLY: Elliott Abrams is the Trump administration's special envoy for Venezuela speaking to us from the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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