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Briefing With Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak
On the Administration’s Efforts to Promote Democracy
July 30, 2020

MR BROWN: Hey. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this on-the-record briefing with Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak. Ambassador Kozak will discuss the administration’s actions that have deepened democracy in the Western Hemisphere with a particular focus on efforts in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guyana, and Haiti in coordination with our partners in the Organization for American States and other regional groupings.

Ambassador Kozak will begin with an opening statement and then we’ll take your questions. As a reminder, the content of the briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.

Ambassador, please, go ahead.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, thanks, Cale. And thank all of you for joining the call. I hope you’re all staying safe and strong. Wanted to take a step back today and look at one of our key policy priorities, which is advancing democracy in the Western Hemisphere, the hemisphere of freedom.

Today, the vast majority of the countries in the Americas and the Caribbean are democracies. We’re getting ever closer to the ideal that OAS member-states committed to when they signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001. We’ve been working with our partners and through the OAS to stand up for democracy where it is under threat, and at the same time we’re trying to turn the tide in those countries where democracy is but a dream.

On July 15, the Secretary announced the imposition of visa restrictions on individuals responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Guyana. Today, we are acting to prevent additional senior individuals from that country from entering the United States. The Secretary’s been clear: The Granger administration and its allies continue to defy the will of the Guyanese people by refusing to accept the vote count. The count has been certified as valid by international observers OAS and CARICOM, Guyana’s and the Caribbean’s highest courts. The United States joins the rest of the region refusing to go along with this farce. We will continue to act until the Granger administration accepts the will of Guyanese voters.

We welcome the renewed partnership between the United States and Bolivia, which was made possible when the Bolivian people stood up against efforts to steal an election there. We look forward to the prompt, free and fair and transparent elections with international observation, including by the OAS, as soon as the COVID situation allows. The world is watching to ensure that the voice and will of the Bolivian people are honored this time. The U.S. will work with whomever they choose.

In Suriname, we stand at the threshold of a new era of bilateral relations. We congratulate Suriname’s newly elected President Santokhi and look forward to working together to strengthen our relationship. The United States was pleased to support the OAS election observation team, which was on the ground to observe the recent elections in Suriname.

We encourage Haiti to organize legislative elections as soon as technically feasible. The Provisional Electoral Council resigned July 27. Haiti should move promptly to form a new electoral council able to organize free, fair, and credible elections.

In Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, we recently witnessed historic presidential elections leading to a peaceful transfer of power, even during this time of COVID. We look forward to a close relationship with the new administration there.

Now in Venezuela, we continue to seek a peaceful transition to free and fair elections. You will recall we offered a way forward in the democratic transition framework the Secretary proposed on March 31. I hope many of you had the chance to hear Special Representative Abrams discuss U.S.-Venezuela policy in depth during his media call on Tuesday.

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega announced presidential elections for November 7, 2021, but dozens of political prisoners languish in his jail, and the regime refuses to engage in electoral reforms necessary for free and fair and credible elections to take place.

To change that situation, the United States is working with the OAS and our international partners to insist that Ortega undertake the necessary electoral reforms for free and fair elections in 2021. If Nicaragua is to have credible elections next year, it needs to make the requisite reforms and establish the appropriate conditions for campaigning this year. Our message to the regime is straightforward: Do this now or pressure on you will intensify.

To that end, we are taking action. On July 17, the United States announced additional sanctions, this time on the – Ortega’s son, Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo. We also acted against another individual and two entities for enabling and benefiting from the corrupt activities of the regime. More pressure will come.

In Cuba, the regime continues to repress the Cuban people while it actively undermines democracy in the region. The United States is increasing pressure on the Castro regime to stop the repression of its citizens and its intervention in other countries, particularly Venezuela. And this is a tough time for the regime. Its communist economic system has never been able to produce the resources it needs to feed its own people. Its economy is parasitic, depending for years on massive subsidies from the Soviet Union, and later on depending on a revenue stream from its essentially colonial relationship with Venezuela.

But now that the combined efforts of Maduro and the Cuban communist economic advisors have destroyed the wealth of Venezuela as well, it is affecting Cuba profoundly. Note that even as Venezuelans face extreme shortages at home, they continue to ship oil, diesel, gasoline, food, and medicine to Cuba.

So our policy with respect to Cuba is to restrict their other key sources of revenue to force the regime to face up to the deficiencies of its own model and allow some major freedom to its own people. To this end, we are exposing the truth about the Cuban medical missions program, a moneymaking scheme disguised as humanitarian assistance. We are discouraging travel that involves staying in hotels run by the Cuban military, and we are trying to break the monopoly of the Cuban military as established on processing remittances.

As we look toward hosting the ninth Summit of the Americas in 2021, the United States will continue to work with regional partners like the OAS and civil society stakeholders to maintain the collective defense of democracy as a top priority for our hemisphere and to ensure that the people of the Americas have a voice in the summit process.

And with that, I’m happy to take your questions.

MR BROWN: Okay. If you want to ask a question, dial 1 and 0 to get into the queue.

All right. For our first question, let’s go to Beatriz Pascual with EFE.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, Ambassador. Today, the President floated the idea of delaying the November election. What message do you think that sends to U.S. neighbors in Latin America like Guyana or Bolivia? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay. Well, I’m not going to comment on our President’s comments about domestic matters. I would refer you to the White House on that.

MR BROWN: Okay. For our next question, let’s go to Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, Ambassador and Cale for having us. I was just wondering if you could just elaborate a little bit on what you see as the longer-term vision for Cuba, as some of the – as the U.S. takes initial steps there. And as (inaudible) seen that some of the Venezuelan subsidies dry up, what do you think would be the next step in terms of U.S. relations with Cuba or the trajectory of the regime? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yeah. A good question. I’ll give you a little bit my own prediction, based on my own history, which was I had this job 30 years ago when the Soviet subsidy was drying up and the Cubans were resisting. The Soviets were trying to get them to adopt perestroika and glasnost so that they wouldn’t be so dependent on Soviet subsidies, and Castro wouldn’t do it. And so finally, the Soviets just cut off the subsidy. Cuba went into a tailspin.

But the bright side of that was after a couple years of that, the armed forces under Raul Castro went to Fidel and said look, we – people are starving; we can’t suppress them anymore because our own soldiers are in this trouble; we’ve got to make some reforms to open things up a bit so that there’s food on the table. And that’s when they opened – they allowed people to possess hard currency, they opened agromercados, they opened dollar stores. And basically, it changed the nature of the society, where instead of the – all the material goods being in the hands of the government and being doled out to people based on political merit, instead people were able to gain money on their own, and then the government, to get it away from them, had to provide something that they wanted, whether it was an overpriced refrigerator or something. So it changed the nature and you started to see pockets of independence growing within Cuba.

And that was starting to cook, and then in 1998, as they bragged at the time, they succeeded in their – with their project with Chavez in taking over Venezuela. And immediately they reversed those reforms. They started bragging about how they were getting rid of cuentapropistas and they were limiting any kind of business that – and trying to regain state control over the economy.

So that’s sort of the background that we’re operating from. And the thesis here is if you can squeeze off their – these sort of illicit and artificial sources of revenue, that they’ll again be confronted with that problem that their own model doesn’t work. There are no more sugar daddies or sugar mamas out there who are going to give them money just to play around with, and that they’re going to need to make some changes. Now, the changes they make will be their own. They won’t be what we would recommend or anything else, but at least you start to force some kind of a conversation between the Cuban Government and its own people and some alteration in their system.

So this is not a – that overnight, something is – big is going to change, but it hopefully has in it the makings for pressing that regime to have to take some steps that will result in more freedom and independence for its own people.

MR BROWN: Great. For our next question, let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler with CNN.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Could we get your assessment on the situation in Brazil? Obviously there are huge rates of coronavirus, and it’s hit President Bolsonaro as well as his inner circle very hard. Are you concerned at all about the impact on governance there? And then do you have any updates on the travel restrictions with Canada? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: On Brazil, it’s a – they have been hit hard. We have sent our regards to President Bolsonaro. He seems to be a pretty tough cookie and is still governing away even as he’s dealing with the disease. It’s – this disease is really interesting how it affects different countries as – some more than others. I haven’t been able to develop a real good correlation between the kinds of measures people take and the spread of the disease. I – that’s something where you’d need to talk to the epidemiologist. The one observation I would have is Brazil is a bit like us in that most of the decisions about restrictions on social distancing and so on are being made at the state and local level rather than at the national level. So it’s a pretty big, strong, resilient country, and our expectation is that they will get through it and weather the storm, but you can’t discount either the – just having – just as we have had in many of our states, having that level of the disease affecting your people is concerning. But so far I’m – I don’t think we’re worried about the governance of Brazil.

Oh, and you —

MR BROWN: Go ahead.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: You asked about the restrictions with Canada. I don’t know where we are on the latest iteration of that. I’m trying to remember. They – it kicks over like on one-month increments, but – these decisions have been made jointly amongst the U.S., Canada, and Mexico where we’ve – and I think it’s around the 21st of each month is when they get redone. So these will be decisions made by – this is based on the health authorities of the three countries talking to each other, the White House task force and the counterparts in Canada and Mexico. But I think what we – what has been very well done is that it’s been a cooperative enterprise. We’ve made – we’ve used the same standard of what is essential travel and what is the kind of travel that you can slow down for the time being. Essentially we’re saying don’t do tourism and optional things like that, but do keep commerce flowing, and I think on both our borders we’ve been quite successful in doing that with the full collaboration of our two neighbors.

MODERATOR: Okay, next question, we’ll go to Alejendra Arredondo with VOA.

QUESTION: Hey, thank you. Hello, good afternoon. Thank you for doing this. So my question is – I have two questions. One, it relates to the extradition process of Mr. Alex Saab. He’s in Cape Verde. I wanted to know if the Department of State is in contact with authorities in Cape Verde.

And the other one, I want to know in relation to Venezuela, what are Mr. Kozak’s thoughts on the traveling by a Norwegian delegation to the country? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay, thank you. On Cape Verde, the – yes, the State Department and our embassies are – in any extradition request are involved because you – you’re presenting an extradition to the other government. But on the substance of the extradition request, what’s in it, how to comply with local law, that’s really a function of our Department of Justice and they would be talking to their counterparts in Cape Verde. So that is a legal process that is being governed by the Justice Department, and the State Department’s function is simply as a diplomatic liaison. But it’s distinct from any of our foreign policy positions.

On the Norwegian visit, I mean, the Norwegians have tried and tried and tried to find some opening with Venezuela to get the regime to do what they need to do. We admire their fortitude in continuing to try. But the bottom line is that the Maduro regime needs to face up to the fact that the solution to this crisis is not that everybody’s going to take the pressure off of them and let them stay illegitimately in power and oppressing people. That would solve nothing, and so it’s not going to happen. What we keep trying to get across to them – and I think this is pretty much the – it’s sometimes said in different ways but it’s pretty much the message of the countries in this hemisphere, in the Lima Group, the EU, the International Contact Group – is all pretty much the same, which is you need to resolve the crisis of legitimacy in your country by having a free and fair set of elections to elect new leadership that will have the legitimacy and the authority to resolve the whole panoply of problems that Venezuela is facing. We think the only way that can come about is for Maduro to step down in favor of a broadly acceptable – and that means acceptable to the Chavistas as well as to the people in – that are dominant in the National Assembly, the parties that are dominant there – has to be broadly acceptable to – and its mission is to organize free and fair elections.

But the problem all along has been that the Maduro side simply doesn’t want to discuss anything that involves them giving up power or even risking giving up power by having a real election. So if that – as long as that remains their attitude, it’s really difficult – whether you’re Norway or anybody else that’s trying to move things forward on this front, it’s really hard to get anywhere because they won’t face up to reality that that is the problem.

MR BROWN: Okay. For our next question, let’s go to the line of Raquel from TV Globo.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, Cale. Thank you, Ambassador Kozak, for doing this. I have a follow-up question on Brazil, because this week the Brazilian medical professionals have filed a complaint to the International Criminal Court accusing President Bolsonaro of committing crimes against humanity and genocide over coronavirus response. So I would like to hear what you think about that, if you are concerned about it.

And another question on democracy, because this week, the son of Brazilian president, who is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Brazil – he publicly supported the re-election of President Trump, as President Bolsonaro had already done. Do you see this as a foreign interference in the U.S. elections? Do you think it’s appropriated?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, first, on the actions of the medical association, of course, Brazil is a democracy and has freedom of expression, so they’re free to say what they want. In terms of our position, we have been very careful of not trying to pass judgment on the way that other governments, whether it’s Brazil or any other country, are approaching the COVID crisis. Nobody really knows what the magic bullet is for this. Everybody’s trying their best and trying sincerely to find the right formula and the right balance, and so we’re quite inclined to cut a lot of slack for countries around the globe.

The one thing we have not been willing to be tolerant about, though, are governments that are deliberately falsifying information and passing false information to world bodies and to other countries, because that actually hinders any effort to try to find a good way of mitigating the spread of the virus. So that’s sort of our philosophy on that.

And look, people can – you can have your own judgments as to whether somebody should be endorsing a candidate at – in another election or not. That – sometimes people do, sometimes they don’t. It’s their prerogative, and so I would just let it go at that.

MR BROWN: Next question will go to Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION: Hey, Ambassador Kozak. Thank you for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on Beatriz’s question, not asking you specifically to comment on the domestic issue itself that the President raised, but doesn’t it undermine your message overseas when the President is doing something very similar to the actions that you’re calling out, calling into question the U.S. election and its integrity, possibly floating moving the election date?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, look, I – it’s almost impossible to discuss that without discussing the domestic side of it, but let’s be clear about what we are calling and not calling in other countries. We have not criticized in countries where they have delayed the elections because of the coronavirus peaking at the moment of – I’m thinking of Bolivia and Haiti. What we’re saying is you need to be ready, you need to have all your machinery in place to have an election as rapidly as the medical situation allows. So countries have to make their own judgment, and again, I – let me hasten to add I am not commenting in any way on the U.S. elections here. I’m just talking about those two countries. And so that’s – our message has not been you – that they’re doing something wrong by delaying, but we’re saying don’t use the delay for anything other than dealing with the genuine medical situation.

MR BROWN: Sorry. Next question. Let’s go to Emmanuel Villalobos with TVV.

QUESTION: Hey. Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador. Thanks to having us. Today in Venezuela, an Iranian supermarket opened its door, owned by an executive with ties to companies owned by the IRGC, an entity sanctioned by the United States. This executive says – and this is a quote – “There may be different interpretation of our presence in Venezuela, but that its main objective is commercial,” end of quote. Do you really think that’s the case? Is this approach sufficient to stabilize Maduro’s regime? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank you. Well, I would say a couple of things. One, any presence of the IRGC or the Islamic Republic in this hemisphere is not something we look very favorably on. This is the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, and some of the agencies that they use to purvey that have their commercial side to them, but we don’t want anything to do with them. We think Maduro is playing games.

Now, what it does show is that this is like an alliance of pariah states. I would be sorely surprised if Venezuela is able to obtain much benefit from Iran. Iran is also suffering because of their bad behavior in the world. And from what we’ve seen, I mean, Iran is willing to play around. It’s willing to sell stuff to Venezuela when Venezuela really doesn’t have the money to be buying very much. They’re not – Iran is not going to save Venezuela from the situation it’s put itself in, but it does put itself in a more dangerous situation by playing these games, and they both ought to think seriously about that.

MR BROWN: Okay, next let’s go to – and we might have time for this, maybe one more. We’ll see. Let’s go to Gabriela Perozo.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for this opportunity. Recently we saw a tweet about DirecTV made by President Guaido, and this week we asked USAID about this, but they said this is better to ask the State Department. Has there been any recent meeting with DirecTV or AT&T about extending the signal to another country? It is possible for the U.S. Government to incentivize the provision of independent outlets to Venezuela because this is critical to restore our democracy. Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank you. The situation with AT&T and DirecTV is – what they do is largely a business decision on their part. Where – the reason that they – well, the situation they found themselves in was that the regime in Venezuela was insisting that they carry on their channel programming from a couple of regime entities that are under U.S. sanctions, so it was putting ATT in the position, DirecTV in the position that if they carried those things they were violating U.S. law, and if they didn’t carry them they were violating Maduro diktat. So they just got out.

Now, if they and others can work out an arrangement – I know President Guaido has been interested in this – where they’re able to broadcast without running afoul of our sanctions or our ban on dealing with sanctioned entities, that’ll be up to them. But it’s not that the State Department is going to incentivize that or subsidize it in some way. It’s a business decision for AT&T and others to make.

MR BROWN: Okay, we’ll take one last question, and let’s go to the line of Paola de Orte from O Globo.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this, Ambassador. Last year the House included an amendment in the defense budget which obliges the U.S. Government to write a report on human rights in Brazil, and they also wanted to prevent a trade deal from being signed if Brazil did not address the fires in the Amazon. This week Representative Engel denounced statements by Brazilian politicians. So I would like to ask you: How will the U.S. and Brazil work together on their joint projects, including democracy-related issues, if the House seems to be reluctant to engage with the Brazilian Government?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, we have worked very closely together with the Brazilian Government on a whole range of issues, including the fires in the Amazon, where we were willing to provide the government there assistance in its efforts to control those. There is a whole range of trade and security and economic measures that we go – have together, and not the least of which is that the two countries share democratic values and share an interest in seeing the hemisphere populated by democratic countries.

So you end up with reporting requirements, you end up with other things often in legislation, but that’s something we have to navigate. But I think the fundamentals are strong, that these are two countries that share a lot in common. It’s one of the – or two of the biggest economies in the hemisphere. And we – you can’t really imagine a situation in which the U.S. and Brazil aren’t working together. It just would be dysfunctional.

So we’ll keep working at it. We’ll work with people on the Hill on discrete issues to find the right way to move forward. Our intent is to move forward, and I think we continue to do that even in the time of COVID.

Listen, I want to thank all of you, since that was the last question. I wish we’d get to see you in person one of these days instead of disembodied voices on the phone, but it’s a pleasure to talk to all of you, and thank you for coming and having this discussion today.

MR BROWN: Thank you, Ambassador Kozak. Appreciate you taking the time to brief everyone today and for everyone who joined the call. As this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great day.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank you all. Bye-bye.