Background Conference Call on the President's Executive Order on Venezuela
12:12 P.M. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Hey, good afternoon, everybody. And thanks for dialing in. Today, we have three senior administration officials who are going to discuss the President’s executive order related to Venezuela, the Venezuela sanctions. I have with me today -- this call will be on background, attributable to senior administration officials.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, Patrick. Thanks, everybody, for taking the time to call in today. We wanted to take this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about the executive order on Venezuela that the President issued this morning.
As you know, the Venezuelan Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 passed by Congress was signed into law on December 18th. The executive order issued today implements and expands upon the act by authorizing the imposition of sanctions against individuals involved in or responsible for the erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence in human rights violations and abuses in response to anti-government protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of anti-government protestors, as well as significant public corruption by senior officials in Venezuela.
We want to be absolutely clear that this executive order does not target the people or the economy of Venezuela. We’re committed to advancing respect for human rights, safeguarding democratic institutions, and protecting the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela.
In addition to the executive order, the White House released today an annex designating seven individuals for the imposition of sanctions under this executive order. These individuals will have their property and interest in property in the United States blocked or frozen, and, as well, U.S. persons are prohibited from doing business with them. The executive order also suspends the entry into the United States of individuals meeting the criteria for economic sanctions.
We continue to be concerned by the Venezuelan government’s efforts to escalate intimidation of political opponents. Venezuela’s problems cannot be solved by criminalizing dissent, nor will they be resolve by attempts to distract from their own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside of Venezuela. The only way to solve Venezuela’s problems is through real dialogue.
Finally, I’ll add that it’s unfortunate that during a time when we’ve opened up engagement with every other nation in the Americas, Venezuela has opted to go in the opposite direction. Despite the difficulties in our official relationship, the United States remains committed to maintaining our strong and lasting ties with the people of Venezuela, and is open to improving our relationship with the Venezuelan government.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, everybody, for being on the line. My colleague outlined very well both the executive order and our policy. Let me just give you a couple of additional comments on sort of how we got to where we are today.
As we’ve stated repeatedly, we remain open to a positive and good relationship with the government of Venezuela focused on those areas where we believe we can cooperate and have mutual interest. We know that there are deep divisions between the way we see things and the way the Venezuelan government sees things, but we have always believed that we could have a constructive relationship in some areas. Sadly, that does not appear to be the Venezuelan government’s desire at this time.
But we also have always maintained at all times, beginning back, for example, with this Secretary -- Secretary Kerry -- in a meeting he had with then-Foreign Minister Jaua at his first trip to Latin America and Guatemala at the OAS General Assembly in 2013. He said very clearly that we would continue to speak out about human rights and democracy when we saw those principles abridged or violated, and we’ve done so.
In the past year and a half, and before, we spoke out when we saw human rights being violated in Venezuela, and we worked very closely with countries around the hemisphere to try and hold Venezuela to the commitments that they made in the Inter-American Democratic Charter and other inter-American and universal treaties and documents.
Unfortunately, the efforts by South American countries, such as (inaudible), have not borne fruit. And although there have been a number of missions by South American countries, the most recently by a group of three foreign ministers from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador to try and move the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan opposition closer and bring them into dialogue -- a dialogue that had begun last year -- unfortunately, even though some agreements were reached, we did not see any movement by the Venezuelan government to implement those agreements.
And so after quite a while resisting efforts by our Congress to implement sanctions against Venezuela, because we wanted to wait and see if the South American efforts could bear fruit, we believe that the legislation that Congress passed was appropriate and the President has obviously signed that legislation, and therefore it’s being implemented. Even before that legislation was passed, of course, the administration took its own action to restrict visa eligibility for now 56 Venezuelans on both human rights grounds and public corruption. And we have gone beyond what the legislation ultimately called for with actions that we took last July and in February of this year.
So we have seen the South American foreign ministers go back to Venezuela just this past weekend. And we are always hopeful that dialogue and persuasion will convince the Venezuelan government, for the good of their own people, to engage in that dialogue and move forward in a way that will benefit the Venezuelan people and the Venezuelan economy. There are legislative elections coming up this year; those are very important. It’s important that those be held on a level playing field without the kinds of human rights abuses that we’ve seen recently to intimidate the opposition, so that Venezuelans can cast their ballots in an atmosphere free of fear, and where all political parties have an opportunity to get their message across.
So let me stop there and turn to our colleague.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. And I’ll join the previous speakers in thanking you all for joining us on the call today.
I’d like to talk briefly about the executive order signed by the President and issued today, and why this new authority is so important. As the previous speakers noted, this authority implements the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, which was signed into law in December. The targeted sanctions in the legislation are aimed at those responsible for the human rights abuses associated with the anti-government protests in Venezuela that began in February 2014, and the persecution of persons in Venezuela because of their exercise of the freedom of speech or assembly.
Similarly, today’s executive order is aimed at persons involved in or responsible for the erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and the abuses in response to any government protest, and arbitrary arrest and detention of anti-government protestors.
The executive order goes beyond the legislation by also targeting those that undermine democratic processes in Venezuela and senior Venezuelan officials who have engaged in public corruption. On that point, Venezuela is considered the most corrupt country in Latin America and one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.
This executive order allows us to target the corrupt figures who deprive Venezuela and the Venezuelan people of needed economic resources, and will also help protect the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela.
I want to repeat a point that was stated earlier, that this executive order does not sanction the Venezuelan government and also does not target the Venezuelan people. Seven individuals were listed in the annex of this authority today for being involved in committing significant acts of violence or serious human rights violation. This means that any assets these individuals hold within U.S. jurisdiction are now frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from doing business with them.
And we will continue to use this powerful tool to target those involved in significant acts of violence against protestors, serious human rights abuses, and those involved in the arrest or prosecution of individuals in Venezuela for their legitimate exercise of free speech or assembly.
At that point, I’ll turn it back over to the other speakers.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, let’s go ahead and take the first question.
Q Hi, thanks very much. Can you say how unusual it is for the United States to declare another country like this as a threat to U.S. national security? And further on that, on a separate issue, what do the sanctions mean for the oil industry or the ability to export oil?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I can start off and say in terms of how unusual this is, most of our sanctions programs began with the declaration by the President of a national emergency that results -- that’s a threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States. And so most of the sanctions programs that we have, from Iran to Syria, Burma, across the board, rely on these same types of national emergency declarations.
So in that sense, it’s a usual part of the process. And we have somewhere between 20 and 30 sanctions programs, depending on the way you measure them, that are based on these same types of national emergency declarations.
In terms of the impact that it may have on certain -- on the energy sector or the oil industry, there’s no direct effect from these sanctions. We have named seven individuals in the annex to the executive order. That means that their assets are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from dealing with them. There’s no additional impacts or no additional sanctions on any industry, individual or entity that’s not specifically named in the executive order, or that’s not further named by the Department of Treasury in the future.
Q Hi, thanks for doing the call. I’m wondering if you can walk us through how substantive some of the ties these individuals have to the U.S. and the U.S. economy are. Do these folks have real estate here? How do you see this hurting them individually in the weeks ahead?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don’t detail in advance what effects we expect to have on the U.S. system. I will tell you that the way this operates is once we at the Treasury Department add someone to what we call our SDN list, then their assets are frozen and U.S. institutions are required to report to us within 10 days of any blocking of assets that they may have found.
So often what we find is that we don’t know the extent of assets until after we get the full range of reports from the financial industry within that 10-day period. So that’s the answer I can give on that in terms of the effect that we expect to have we’ll see in coming weeks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just say that from the perspective of policy, the point of these sanctions on these individuals is really to shine a light on the abuse of human rights or democratic practice or public corruption by certain individuals, and to, in doing so, help persuade the government of Venezuela to change its ways; to observe those guarantees for freedom of assembly, freedom of speech; the right to protection for a fair trial -- all of those things, and democratic practice, so that in doing this we hope to shine a light on practice, not just the individual property or assets that may be in the U.S., as my colleague has outlined.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And one of the things I should have also added, too, is we try not to focus on just assets that may be frozen in the United States; we also try to talk about, as my colleague said, when you shine a light on the activities of certain individuals around the world, not only are U.S. persons prohibited from any future activities, what we find is that the banks around the world will have more reluctance -- industry around the world will have more reluctance to deal with these types of bad actors, and that’s exactly what we want to occur.
Q I would like to ask whether with these seven individuals listed today, the amount of people who have travel restrictions increased to 63, or is still 56, like it was until today? And my second question is, will Treasury keep doing and freezing assets to the rest of the 56 Venezuelan officials whose visas have been suspended? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m going to take the answer to the first question because, as you know and as we’ve said, under the provisions of law that we suspended or will deny visas to those that we’ve already taken that action against, we do not make public that information. So I can’t confirm in this forum whether or not these folks have visas that have been suspended or will be denied. But I think that it would not be surprising to anybody if those lists were to overlap.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I’ll take the second part of the question. In terms of what the Treasury Department will do in the future, is we don’t comment on what our activities may be in the future or the future actions that we may take. I will tell you that we intend to continue working closely with the State Department in terms of any future actions that we should take and any future individuals and entities that should be added to our SDN list.
Q President Maduro just over a week ago said in a national address that he “wouldn’t accept U.S. sanctions.” How do you respond to that? Is it up to him to accept anything? And then, secondly, why did you decide to sanction just these seven individuals today? Why not go broader and/or include the Venezuelan government at this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let me take the first part of that. To the best of my knowledge -- and my colleague can clarify this as he takes the second part as well -- we take action -- the President has issued an executive order; the President takes action within his purview. We take action as a U.S. government on things that we control. So I think there is nothing in here that is for another government or entity to accept or reject. Therefore, it isn’t something that has to be accepted or rejected by other people. It is action to be taken by the U.S. government in terms of our law, and then subsequently, of course, the practice of our financial institutions to implement.
But I think it is not action taken against the Venezuelan government as a whole. It is not action taken against the Venezuelan people or the Venezuelan economy. I hope that the Venezuelan government and President Maduro will not respond to it in a way that will obfuscate or misinform his population or others about the actions that we’re taking today, as he’s done, unfortunately, on previous occasions where he has interpreted or misinformed people about the intent or the reach of actions that we have taken, seeing them as broader and more malevolent against the entire Venezuelan people than they actually are.
So I think these are -- they may or may not -- The President of Venezuela may or may not make a comment about these actions that we’re taking under U.S. law. But, in fact, they’re not designed to affect the vast majority of the Venezuelan people, only the seven that are involved and with whom we still want to have a good relationship and for whom, in a sense, we are trying to continue to engage with the Venezuelan government and to stand up for, we believe, universally protected human rights.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I can add on to, and then echo the comments that were just made in terms of how we act under U.S. law, our activities focus on requirements for U.S. persons and transactions going through the United States. So our actions are clearly targeted at the United States. It is true that many jurisdictions will follow those that we put on our SDN list; they do so voluntarily, but many others will follow what we do under U.S. law.
In terms of why not go broader, we don’t comment in terms of why we came out with a certain set of designations, why we didn’t add more or why we had the certain number that we did. I will say that our intent here was to focus on the activities of the seven individuals that were involved. And again, we’ve talked about, throughout this call, about our concern over these human rights violations and abuses and the violence that occurred against those protestors. And I think our intent was to focus on that activity.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I just also -- let me just say that there’s been a lot of commentary about interference in internal affairs of other countries by the Venezuelan government. The actions we take today are clearly sovereign actions by a country about its own financial system. These actions we take are sovereign decisions about who comes into the United States. They’re not actions taken to involve ourselves in another country.
But the principles that we’re defending and the actions that we’re taking based on violations of internationally protected human rights are principles that we believe really do stand above any country’s individual laws or practices.
Q I was just wondering if Haringhton Padron’s inclusion was subsequent to the arrest of Mayor Antonio Ledezma, or was she always going to be on the list because of things that she did in 2014?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just say that -- the only thing that I want to say about that is I think one of the things that you can understand is that efforts to identify and make policy decisions on a list like this -- as you can see from the length of time between when the President signed the law and when we’re putting out this executive order -- are very carefully done. They take a good deal of effort. They’re not capricious.
And so the notion that something would be added at the last minute would be fairly unusual. And I don’t -- I’m not going to draw you a yes or a no answer to that, but this is a very carefully constructed list, and it needed a good deal of background. So I think I’ll just leave it at that. I don’t know if my colleague has anything further.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I agree with what my colleague said. And I think if you look at the factsheet, the activities that we’ve called out for this individual in question can help answer that question.
Q Yes, good afternoon. When you say that you’re trying to protect the U.S. financial system, some of the activities, the corruption activities that these individuals are involved in, would they have to do directly with, for example, drug trafficking? Or kind of -- if you can, describe what kind of corruption activities are you referring to. And number two, many Venezuelans in the U.S. have asked the government to consider what is a TPS, Temporary Protective Status, for many of them who have fled the country. Is that under consideration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So again, starting from Treasury, on the first part of that question is -- I think we’d be concerned about corruption across the board. There is a wide variety of corruption and corruption activities that we’ve seen in Venezuela. Again, I cited the Transparency International’s statistics with respect to corruption. And I think we are concerned, with respect to corruption, is that this whole executive order is about the idea of protecting democracy, democratic principles and processes, and it’s also about protecting the Venezuelan people.
And this is where we see corruption is really one of the things that can be the most -- that affects them, in addition to the human rights violations. It’s something that the President has spoken about. It’s something that we’re concerned about. And this executive order gives us the tools to go after corruption in all of its forms.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So on the second part of that question on temporary protective status, that’s not part of this executive order or what was contemplated here. The United States has for years expressed concern about the decline of respect for human rights in Venezuela and the decline of democratic institutions, the degradation of democratic institutions over time.
Certainly we’re aware that this has been of grave concern not only for the United States but for other countries in the region. And we certainly have seen many Venezuelans unfortunately feeling like they have to leave their country for those reasons. However, TPS is not something that was considered as part of this action. This is very much in compliance and implementation of the law passed by Congress in December of 2014.
I think we have time for one more question. Thanks.
Q I’ve got a couple of questions here. Can you please help us understand what exactly is being frozen or seized here? Are these bank accounts? Is this real estate, or what? And the other question is, these are some very midlevel people here. We don’t see any of the political leaders of government -- Maduro or Diosdado Cabello. We don’t see the Commander of the National Guard, Nestor Reverol. So please explain why you chose to go after these people instead of people who are higher up in the government. And was it simply because you couldn’t find any assets for those people who you could seize?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I can start out from Treasury with the question in terms of what’s being frozen here. It would be any property and interest in property that these persons may have in the United States. And what that means is it could be bank accounts, it could be real property, it could be personal property; it is anything that would be within the jurisdiction of the United States. So any of that would be frozen. I think you used the terms “frozen” and “seized,” and we make the distinction where we do freeze the assets of the people and individuals and entities that are named on our list. They remain in the bank accounts, they remain frozen, but the U.S. government doesn’t seize or take title to those assets.
In terms of why we chose the individuals that we chose, I can’t give you more detail than what we’ve already stated -- we were concerned about serious human rights abuses, the violations and abuses that we saw in Venezuela, the crackdown on the protestors, the arbitrary arrests and detentions. Those were the activities that Congress chose to highlight in the legislation, and those were also the activities that we chose to highlight in this first round of actions under this executive order.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, thank you all. I believe that’s all the time we have, and we’ll put out a transcript. Again, to remind everybody, this call was on background as senior administration officials. Thank you all.
12:40 P.M. EDT