Briefing With Senior State Department Official On Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, Colombia

MODERATOR: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this on-background briefing on the Secretary’s upcoming travel to Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, Colombia, and ending in Texas.

For your awareness but not for reporting, joining us on the call to brief is [Senior State Department Official]. He’ll be referred to as a senior State Department official. He’ll begin with a short introductory statement and then we’ll have time for your questions. As a reminder, the contents of this call are embargoed until its completion, and for the sake of efficiency, if you’d like to ask a question, I encourage you to go ahead and get in the queue by dialing 1 and then 0.

So with that, I will go ahead and turn it over to [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Thanks very much, [Moderator], and good afternoon, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be with you all today. I’ll preview the Secretary’s travel to the region September 17-20 and then take some questions.

This administration has prioritized our relations with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Secretary’s frequent travels to meet with his counterparts in the region are testament to that. During this visit, the Secretary will reinforce our hemispheric partnership to defend democracy, combat the COVID-19 pandemic, revitalize our economy in the pandemic’s wake – economies in the pandemic’s wake, and strengthen security against regional threats, especially the threat emanating from Maduro’s Venezuela.

The Secretary will begin his trip on September 17, tomorrow, meeting in Paramaribo with Surinamese President Santokhi and Foreign Minister Ramdin. The Secretary will congratulate them on Suriname’s recent elections and peaceful transition of power. Suriname has large offshore oil reserves. The Secretary will meet with local representatives of U.S. mining and oil companies that are part of this sector’s critical investment in Suriname’s prosperity and future growth. The Secretary will highlight through these meetings how U.S. companies throughout the hemisphere invest responsibly and transparently. This draws a stark contrast with China, whose predatory loans and vanity projects saddle countries in the Western Hemisphere (inaudible) with unsustainable debts and threats to national security and sovereignty. Suriname, like the rest of the region, faces security threats from transnational criminal organizations, and we will talk about ongoing cooperation in that area. According to the State Department’s Office of the Historian, this is the first visit of a secretary of state to Suriname since its independence. This highlights this new day in our relations with the Western Hemisphere.

Also on September 17, the Secretary will visit Georgetown to meet with Guyanese President Ali – President Ali, who was inaugurated in August after the results of the March 2020 elections were finally announced. Like his history-making visit to Suriname, this is the first visit of a secretary of state to Guyana since its independence. It underscores the important moment Guyana is traversing. The country’s newly elected leaders can build an all-inclusive – can build an inclusive democracy that consolidates rule of law, attracts transparent private-sector investment, and exploits natural resources for the benefit of all of its citizens.

On September 18 in Georgetown, the Secretary will meet with Foreign Minister Hugh Todd and with CARICOM Secretary-General LaRocque to discuss U.S.-Caribbean issues. He will thank CARICOM for its essential role in supporting Guyana’s democratic process as its electoral count dispute played out. The United States and Guyana will exchange diplomatic notes for joint maritime patrols to interdict narcotics. This step will help provide security for Guyanese and American people. The Secretary will also sign a Growth in the Americas memorandum of understanding. This will permit Guyana to improve its investment enabling environment so that the country can benefit from transparent infrastructure investment that respects Guyana’s sovereignty. The Secretary will also discuss with Guyana’s leaders the impact on their country of the crisis in Venezuela, which is the hemisphere’s largest refugee and humanitarian crisis.

Later on, on September 18, the Secretary will move to Boa Vista, Brazil. There he will meet with representatives of Brazilian implementers that receive significant U.S. funding to support Venezuelan refugees and migrants in their time of need. He will also discuss U.S.-Brazil cooperation to address the threat from COVID-19, including the $13.8 million our government has committed in pandemic aid and the recently completed USAID donation of 1,000 ventilators. While in Boa Vista, the Secretary will also meet with Brazilian Foreign Minister Araujo. They will discuss U.S.-Brazilian cooperation in tackling shared threats to regional security, including the humanitarian disaster that the illegitimate Maduro regime has imposed on the region, and that regime’s illegal trafficking of arms, gold, and drugs.

On September 19, the Secretary will be in Bogota. He will meet with Colombian President Duque to discuss our strong and ongoing partnership, based on free and fair trade, rural development, defense of democracy, and human rights in this hemisphere of freedom. They will also address our joint efforts to confront the threats posed by narcotrafficking and terror groups, some of which enjoy safe haven and support in neighboring Venezuela under Maduro’s regime.

Finally, on September 20, the Secretary will visit Plano, Texas where he will participate in a religious ceremony led by Pastor Jack Graham and deliver remarks to the congregation.

I’m happy to take your questions now and to go into further detail about his visit to Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, and Colombia. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. Now we’ll take your questions. If you would, please to try to keep it focused on the trip. And for our first question, let’s go to – let’s go to Shaun Tandon, AFP.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the reasons for the visit now to Suriname and Guyana. If I’m not mistaken it’s the first visit to either country by a U.S. secretary of state. With the new leaderships in the two countries, is there any particular opportunities that you see that weren’t there before? And specifically, in the oil reserves, what if any is going to be the message in terms of how to move forward and to avoid corruption and other pitfalls of oil wells? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, good question. The latter part is actually quite key, is that that’s – these countries, Guyana in particular, has the opportunity to go from one of the poorest countries in the region to having the greatest increase in income in the region in a very, very short period of time. And I think leaders in both countries are aware of the pitfalls of what they call the “natural resources curse.” We have through time developed lots of programs and good advice and best practice models and so on that will be shared with these countries under various programs that different U.S. departments will be running. So that’s clearly a shared interest in being sure that the oil development pans out to fortify the democratic, open, transparent nature of these countries and not to exacerbate problems of corruption and so on.

Yes, I think the fact of new leadership in both countries makes this more doable, not necessarily because of the personalities but because of a process here that we had before – in Guyana, a government that was – had overstayed its constitutional term and was – its status was sort of up in the air. Now you have a government that clearly is the choice of the Guyanese people. Also in Suriname you’ve had a government that – there, it was perhaps more associated with personality, but where the leadership had some serious defects that limited the ability to maintain good relations with a lot of the other countries in the region. That’s now been changed out and we’re very hopeful that we’ll see regular, peaceful rotations of power in both countries without the kind of problems we’ve had in the past.

And I’d say also, another reason for this – I mean, we’re supposed to celebrate the return of democracy in both those countries. But you also note these countries are all very close to Venezuela and have been affected in one way or another or in a number of ways by the insecurity and instability there. So that’s another – another purpose of the trip is simply to talk to the neighbors and see what’s affecting them and what can be done to try to ameliorate that.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, let’s go to the line of Jacqueline Charles.

QUESTION: I have two questions, one on Guyana and the other one on Haiti since we’re talking about democracy. On Guyana, what posture is the administration looking for from this new government in regard to Venezuela, considering that they are currently in a border dispute and the previous government basically tried to play it both ways?

And on Haiti, the prime minister today said that they will soon announce a new electoral commission, but the Catholic Church, Protestants, universities, human rights, private sector associations, all credible groups that have been part of the commission since ’86, have categorically said they will not send anyone to sit on a new CEP. What do you consider to be a credible CEP, how can it be formed, and how do you see elections taking place in this current environment where we’ve got police officers blowing up government cars and daily protests?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, good. On Guyana, yes, there is a border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela. It’s been going on for a long time. I think our position on that is very clear, and remains unchanged, which is that any – there was an arbitral award way back when. The matter has been submitted to ICJ review. Any disputes over the border should be resolved peacefully, as the two sides seem to be doing. So we don’t see any change on that front.

In terms of the problems that are created for Guyana by having refugee flows and also, I mean, it’s not just that Venezuela produces refugees; they are producing security problems for all these countries by harboring terrorists, harboring narcotraffickers. When we’re trying to interdict drugs – and we’ve put a lot more assets into that and working closely with all the Caribbean partners – where are those coming from? A good deal of the activity seems to be centered in Venezuela now.

So basically we’re looking to Guyana to remain – it’s in Guyana’s own interest, whether it was the previous government or this one, to try to work together to try to resolve the crisis in Venezuela.

On Haiti: Look, the issue we have there is very similar to what we had in Guyana for the last year or so, which is you can’t, in Guyana, say you have a democratic government if the government overstays its constitutional mandate and is ruling by decree, in effect. And that’s what’s happened in Haiti, perhaps through no fault of President Moise, but the legislature there never passed a electoral law during the entire time it was in. So he has the opportunity to do that by his rule by decree, and we believe he should. You can’t maintain a democracy for very long with one of the main branches of government being absent.

So we think all Haitians have a responsibility to deal with this. President Moise has the capacity to appoint a new provisional electoral council. There is a provision for that in the constitution. He is supposed to get recommendations from the different civil society groups. And frankly, I have to say I’m a little bit tired of every group, every opposition party in Haiti saying, “Well, I won’t appoint my person,” or “We won’t have an election,” or “We won’t run in this until you meet all of my political demands.” That’s not democracy. And so we are quite insistent on this, and it’s going to start to have consequences for those who stand in the way of it.

What we’re saying to the Haitian players is: Do your respective jobs. The president’s got a job to do, the legislators had a job to do and didn’t do it, but civil society has jobs to do too. And you can’t say doing my job is contingent on me extorting from you everything I want. That’s simply not a democratic way to go forward.

So we – for us, the Haitian constitution spells out what a provisional election council should look like. The president has some responsibility to appoint it with the – with input from those other groups. And obviously, the kinds of people you’d like to see appointed are people who have a reputation for integrity, honesty, competence, and who can do a good job of organizing elections. They’re not supposed to produce the outcome of the election, they’re supposed to produce a good electoral process. That’s all we ask in any of these countries, and that’s what we ask in Haiti. And I think we just saw that by asking – collectively asking for that and reinforcing those in their own countries who are asking for that, we saw very good outcomes in both Suriname and Guyana because they each ended up having credible processes and they have ended up resolving a whole series of issues that have built up because of a failure to do that.

So Haiti – Haiti really needs to step up to the plate and we’re very looking much forward to them doing it. But they need to do their job.

MODERATOR: Great. Next let’s go to Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: Why is it necessary or appropriate for him to stop at a religious service during an official trip? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, this would be on his way back to the United States. We did not include that as part of the foreign trip. But since we have to go back through Texas, the Secretary is taking the opportunity to tend to business there as well on the weekend.

MODERATOR: Okay. Next let’s go to Anatoly Kurmanaev with The New York Times.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) will be looking for in these countries to help them confront what you called a regional threat from the Maduro regime? Any aid or economic incentives you can offer them to allow them to do that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I missed the last couple of words there.

QUESTION: Yeah, if you can offer these countries any or economic incentives to help them confront threats from Venezuela? That’s it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, I think I mentioned in Guyana, for example, we’re going to do an MOU on joint maritime patrols, which are getting at interdiction of drugs and drug traffickers that are causing security problems for them. The Venezuela connection that I was mentioning is that those – those problems of drug shipments in the Caribbean have been much exacerbated because of the rampant criminality within Venezuela.

The other security problem in the sense of just overwhelming your systems is the – is the flow of people from Venezuela, and I think we saw and you may have heard from another senior official who – otherwise known as Elliott Abrams that I think also is not named – that the UN fact-finding mission came out with their conclusions today that were quite striking. I mean, it’s not – this is not just allegations by the U.S. or the Venezuelan opposition. They’ve documented with thousands of witnesses systematic killing and torture of not only people in the political opposition, but also people in the Venezuelan security forces by the regime, and they named Maduro and his minister of defense and interior as specifically responsible for that.

So when you have a regime that is doing that kind of damage to its own citizenry and then they accuse them of crimes against humanity, of course people are going to try to get out of harm’s way, and that has real consequences. We, as we will be demonstrating through the trip to Brazil, the U.S. has provided substantial aid. I don’t have the total dollar figure here now but we can get it, but it’s in the hundreds of millions I think at this point for governments throughout the region to try to deal with this.

But we also want to talk about what can we all do collectively to reinvigorate the effort to bring that crisis to a satisfactory close where you don’t just have that gaping sore generating more and more either physical security problems, like narcotraffickers and terrorists, or the soft security problem of just having hundreds of thousands or, in the case of Colombia, a million-plus people coming in and becoming dependent on your social services and so on.

We – another purpose there is simply is to thank the governments concerned. They’ve been – and the people of those countries. They have been extremely generous and welcoming to the Venezuelan refugees, and it’s a real testament to their humanity. But that’s not something you should just count on endlessly. We need to all work together to find a way to bring this to a close.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, let’s go to Patricia Garip.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for this opportunity. Very quickly I have two questions: The Secretary of State’s visit coincides with Guyana’s evaluation of ExxonMobil’s development plan for an oil project offshore. Are you concerned at all about leaving the impression that the U.S. is applying pressure on Guyana to approve the project? They are literally days away from making a determination on that.

And on Venezuela, can you comment on those cargos of condensate and reportedly gasoline coming in from Iran? Is the U.S. in a position to stop that or take any further action (inaudible) cargos? I know it’s been done on the previous ones, but specifically on these cargos. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, thank you. First on Exxon, no. I mean, this is certainly not an effort to put any pressure on Guyana. I think it’s more a celebration of their great success in this. Obviously we think American companies are really competitive – as I mentioned, the way our companies behave and they’re subject to Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and so on. You look at that and then look at what China does. So those kinds of comparisons are made, but they don’t – it’s not so much that we have to make them. It’s they’re demonstrated out there in behavior.

What we are trying to do is help Guyana and Suriname develop the kinds of welcoming environments for honest foreign investment that both want and need to further their prosperity and development. And so I think this is a case where everybody is in agreement as to what they want and it’s a question of what do we do to get us from here to there. The Exxon evaluation will be done on its own merits by the Guyanese experts.

On the shipments to Venezuela, I mean, each one depends on – as we saw in the past, it depends on who, how, where, what, and why the shipment is being made. If we had some particular thing we were going to do about it, I wouldn’t be at liberty to talk to you about it. The one thing I would observe that just – because this happens within my area of responsibility – is every time I see the Venezuelans desperate for gasoline or desperate for diesel, desperate for food, desperate for medicine and trying to find ways to bring it in, we also see at the same time tankers carrying gasoline to Cuba, diesel to Cuba, meat to Cuba, medicine to Cuba from Venezuela. So it is really something that even as they face these shortages and they’re resorting to all these really sketchy measures in order to get resources in, the top priority is not the Venezuelan people. It seems to be the Cuban regime. And that’s a piece that I would just urge that everybody keep in mind in the puzzle.

MODERATOR: Great. For our next question let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. On the issue of Chinese investments and behavior, which you’ve mentioned a couple of times here, until recently, Colombia was probably the United States’s strongest ally in terms of standing up to the Chinese, and that’s not the case anymore. The Chinese are building the Bogota subway and they’re building – what do you call it – 5G telecom. What – how do you explain that turnabout by Colombia? How alarming is – is it alarming to you in terms of scale and scope, and what can or will you do to try to dissuade them from – the Colombians from cooperating so extensively with the Chinese? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, we have been I think pretty clear that we – we’re not running around saying don’t deal with China. We’re saying – I mean, we deal with China and other countries deal with China. They’re a big economy. There’s really no choice but to deal with them. But what we are saying is when you deal with them, make them deal on transparent, 21st century, above-board terms, not on the sort of 19th century imperialist, mercantilist, opaque terms that Chinese Communist Party and Chinese businesses owned by the – owned or controlled by the Communist Party seem to favor.

So you can end up in circumstances where – if China competes on a level playing field with other enterprises and manages to win on the merits, well, so be it. We also urge countries, though, look at your security interests. Be sure that when you’re buying something you’re not inadvertently selling all your or giving away all your precious data to the Chinese Communist Party.

But that’s something we have talked with Colombia about. I would note that in the case of the Bogota subway, because of the way that played out, the only bidder on the Bogota subway turned out to be a Chinese firm, so it wasn’t so much that they went with China but that the way the thing was done it did not attract other investors. And so I think they do have work to do in that area and we are talking to them about it.

But it’s – I wanted to be clear that our message is not don’t deal with China; it’s deal with China – make China deal with you on your terms, on transparent, open, above-board, labor-rights-respecting, environmental-standards-respecting terms. So that’s what you want to have come out the other end of this. So that’s what we’re talking to Colombia about. I’m sure we will continue to talk about it. But it’s not contentious; it’s – again, it’s how do you put in place the right incentives to attract good investors who are going to be responsible corporate citizens and help further your national interest.

MODERATOR: Okay, next question – this may have to be our last – is Enrico Woolford.

QUESTION: My question is the – I have two questions really. Is there any meeting planned for the oil companies in the private sector and the opposition in Guyana? And is there any resurrection in the proposal to use Guyana’s medium wave radio services to transmit into Venezuela from Guyana as the U.S. has proposed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, on the first, not that – I am not aware of – I mean, the now opposition previous government in Guyana certainly has plenty of contacts of their own with the oil companies. We’re not trying to broker contacts between the oil companies in either them or the government. We’re going to meet with the oil companies, see how they’re doing, see what their plans are. We’re meeting with the government separately. And I assume the politicians from both sides will have their own contacts with investors in their country, in Guyana and anywhere else for that matter.

On the medium wave radio, no, I don’t know of any or we don’t have any particular focus on that on this trip. Obviously, we’re always looking for transmitter sites that are efficient and so on to carry U.S. and other sponsored services, but that’s not on the agenda for the trip so far. I can’t tell you nothing will come up in the course of a conversation, but that’s not one of the purposes of the trip from our standpoint.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for taking the time today.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, thank you and thank each of you. Appreciate the effort to do this. It’s always a little disconcerting because I don’t get to see you, but love to do it. And I – actually, I just got a – I had mentioned earlier I would get the number on the aid for Venezuelan refugees. As of today, it’s just slightly under $1 billion. So that shows you some of the – what we’ve tried to do with other governments to help them deal with that problem.

With that said, again thank you and have a good rest of the day. And hopefully we will produce some good news out of this trip that you’ll be able to cover. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. And thanks to those who joined the call. As this is the end of the call, the embargo is lifted. Thanks and have a great afternoon. Bye.

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