Via Teleconference

(March 9, 2022)

6:03 P.M. EST

              MODERATOR:  Thank you, Grace.  And, everyone, thank you for joining us this evening for today’s background call previewing President Duque’s visit to the White House.

     Today’s briefing is on background and attributable to “senior administration officials.”  The briefing is embargoed until tomorrow morning, Thursday, March 10th, at 5:00 a.m.

     For your awareness only and not for reporting, our senior administration officials are [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].  For the purposes of this call, they are “senior administration officials.”

     With that, I’ll turn it over to our first senior administration official for opening remarks.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, [senior administration official].  Good afternoon, everybody.  As [redacted], I am particularly delighted to have — to talk about the meeting tomorrow between President Biden and Colombian President Iván Duque.

The meeting takes place at a time when we are navigating a uniquely complicated international environment following Russia’s unprovoked and unjustifiable aggression against Ukraine.  We would recognize Duque’s strong remarks on this, rejecting the military intervention.  And the two leaders are also meeting to commemorate what has been 200 years of diplomatic relations between our two nations.

I would note Colombia was the first former Spanish colony recognized by the United States, and the U.S.-Colombia relationship has been one of the closest of the Americas ever since.

It is, I would note, a country the President knows very well, dating back to his support for Colombia in the U.S. — for (inaudible) Colombia in the U.S. Senate; for his work as Vice President on expanding economic opportunity, supporting the people of Colombia achieve a lasting peace; and now, as President, working in partnership with Colombia to combat the pandemic, to advance an ambitious agenda on climate, and to work in partnership to address unprecedented levels of migration in a way that is orderly, secure, and humane. 

The President, if you have followed him on Colombia, has said many times that Colombia is a keystone of the region, and that has remained true in recent years as we look to confront regional and global challenges.  He’s been a — Duque has been an important voice on climate change, setting an ambitious commitment to declare 30 percent of Colombia’s territorial protected area by 2022, which will be an important legacy for the administration — for the Duque administration.

Colombia has also — I think one of the reasons that the President invited him to Washington was because he has a lot to teach the world on migration management, which my colleague will cover in greater detail.  But I would say that when more than 2 million of the 6 million Venezuelans fleeing their country’s collapse found refuge in Colombia, Duque did not submit to politics or nativism, but he rose to the challenge by providing Temporary Protected Status to nearly 1 million Venezuelans living in Colombia — something that President Biden followed him on shortly thereafter taking office in January 20, 2021.

So, what is it that they’re going to talk about?  The two leaders are going to talk about, obviously, where they want the relationship to go from here.  They’ll talk, of course, about the issues of security cooperation and efforts to not just implement the 2016 Peace Accord, but to continuing efforts to combat those dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and other transnational criminal actors, but also to protect Colombian elections from outside interference so that Colombians — and no one else — are the ones that determine the future of the country.

I would point to a recent visit by Undersecretary Toria Nuland to advance some of these issues.  There was a visit last month as well between Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger and her Colombian counterpart to find ways to support Colombia’s efforts to bolster cybersecurity in advance of the election.

But also, Colombia is a NATO global partner, has been one that really has projected on a global stage.  So, you could say that our security partnership is one that has bilateral regional and global implications in a positive way. 

The two leaders are also really going to review cooperation on an approach that was finalized last year, which has been a holistic approach to counter narcotics that looks at addressing some of the root causes of counter-narcotics — meaning, obviously, demand in the United States, in line with Biden-Harris, kind of, drug strategy and drug demand reduction strategies, efforts to promote rural security and development, but also issues of environmental protection to support the Colombian government’s efforts to make good on its commitment to protect 30 percent of its territory.

And, finally, in the — we’re now roughly 90 days from the Summit of the Americas, which will be the first time the United States hosts a summit since Bill Clinton launched the inaugural summit in Miami in 1994.  So, 28 years later, a lot of work really still needs to be done to address the original vision of the summit to really secure the region’s democracies, ensure broad-based economic prosperity. 

And the presidents will discuss preparations for the summit.  They will explore ways to work together along the areas that we’ve identified, which are promoting health and health security, promoting a green and equitable recovery to the pandemic, galvanizing a regional response to migration, and making democracy deliver in the Americas. 

A final point here is: Since the meeting is going to take place two days before Colombia’s legislative elections, the president will talk about the need for there to be free and fair elections.  He will, I think, recognize the strength of Colombian institutions and make clear that the United States will seek to work with whomever is elected as Colombia’s next president. 

I will leave it there, and thank you.

MODERATOR:  We’ll now turn it over to our second senior administration official.  Please, go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thank you.  And good evening, everyone.  Thanks so much for joining us. 

Building off of what my colleague said, just to stay on migration cooperation: President Duque’s visit to the White House tomorrow is incredibly timely and important.  As we’ve all been watching the situation in Ukraine, it’s a reminder of the plight of refugees and the responsibility of all countries and individuals to do their part in the humanitarian response. 

In this hemisphere, Colombia has been quietly doing this since the beginning of the Venezuela refugee and migration crisis.  They’ve been true — a true example in the region: welcoming and hosting over 2 million Venezuelan neighbors; granting them Temporary Protected Status; being a leader, bringing other countries around to also participate in the humanitarian response and to follow their lead and being welcoming and providing support with integration. 

They’ve been a consistent example, and they’ve also been a reminder that the international community needs to do more to support countries like Colombia on the frontlines of these refugee and migration crises. 

Today, we’re seeing unprecedented migration across the entire Western Hemisphere.  The U.N. estimates around 7 million between the Venezuela crisis and other outflows from Central America and the Caribbean.  We know that we can’t continue with the status quo.  This crisis is bigger than any one country and any one border. 

And so, as we’re, you know, working towards the Summit of the Americas, we’re looking to build off of the example of countries like Colombia; bring more support to countries, again, on the frontlines; bring leaders around the table to collectively look at how we can chart a new course to better manage migration in the Western Hemisphere.  So that’ll be a central focus of the discussion tomorrow between our President and President Duque. 

They’ll focus a lot on how we can work with partners across the region on humane migration management efforts to stabilize populations that are providing more support to middle-income countries that are hosting large numbers of migrants and refugees.  We can collectively expand access to legal pathways.  This includes resettlement, labor pathways, and family reunification program, access to asylum. 

So, again, we view Colombia as a partner and a leader on these issues.  And we really look forward to the discussion tomorrow. 

Thank you.

Q    Thanks so much, guys, for doing this call.  I was hoping, [senior administration official], you could address the Colombian Energy Minister’s recent comments.  He gave an interview to the Financial Times where he questioned whether the United States would — he said it was difficult to justify if the United States was seeking to get Venezuelan oil.  He went on to say it’s hard to understand how the United States would — if the United States just banned oil from Russia, that it’s hard to explain why you’d then buy it from Venezuela.  That was my first question. 

I was also hoping you could answer or talk about, kind of, Russian influence in the region.  How will that come up tomorrow?  Obviously, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, you know, there are — have ties to Russia.  But also, you know, Argentina and Brazil, the presidents were in Moscow, you know, just weeks before the invasion.  So I wanted to — you know, is it important for the United States to kind of stand next to the Colombian President and talk about countering Russian influence?

And lastly, you mentioned the Summit of the Americas.  I was just wondering if you could say whether Guaidó will be invited or if you expect that Juan Guaidó will be invited to the Summit of the Americas.  Thanks a lot.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thanks, Franco.  So I — hard for me to qualify the Energy Minister’s questions, since he would be an energy expert.  What I’ll just say that, you know, again, we’re in a unique international environment where the United States needs to advance its national security and its economic interests around the world.  And, frankly, that diplomatic outreach, regardless of whether or not we like a leader or the leaders have been democratically elected, is really fundamental toward advancing our national security interests. 

The question about oil is really — I think it’s speculation, given that there was a Wall Street Journal, I think, article.  [Redacted.]  So I — hard for me to really kind of comment on that decision that really hasn’t been — hasn’t been made. 

I think the second question I think you asked was on Russia’s influence.  So, there’s been a Russian, I think, outreach.  And if you’ve been watching, you’ve seen that there’s been a lot of travel by Russian officials to Latin America and the Caribbean in the months prior to and following the invasion of Ukraine.  Some of that is bluster.  Some of that is tangible and concerning. 

And what I’ll say is twofold.  Number one is that I think Russia seeks a Cold War-like response from the United States, when we’re dividing the region into those who are friends and our allies.  And I think that would — that would certainly be a mistake.  We’ve diplomatically, since the beginning of the administration, reached out to countries across the political spectrum to try to advance a set of common national security interests, and we’ve done that successfully across the board. 

Where, you know, there are areas of concern, you know, we’ve used all our tools — diplomatic and economic and otherwise — to either help support and defend our allies.  And I would say, Colombia has expressed significant concerns at the level of disinformation — clearly or apparently — directly from Russia into Colombia.  Also, kind of an increase in cyberattacks, I think, intended to disrupt the election.  And we provided technical assistance and support to try to ensure that Colombian institutions are able to defend their infrastructure and to push back on disinformation. 

But, again, the — I say this a lot that the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean aren’t chess pieces on a board where the United States and Russia are competing for power.  They’re countries that get to choose where their national security interests lie. 

And I — but I think the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been a defining moment where the majority of the region has rejected military intervention.  But I think it’s really going to be up to the countries of the region to decide what’s ultimately in their national security interests. 

Oh, and on Guaidó.  Look, at the — the summit preparations are just underway.  What we have made clear is we are inviting the democratically elected leaders of the Americas, and — but we’re still ironing out the details of who particularly will get an invitation and what that will look like.  And I’ll say, frankly, that’s also something that we’ll have the Department of State weigh in. 

But once we are ready to issue formal invitation, certainly that will be something that will be made public.

Q    Hi, [senior administration official].  Just two things.  I mean, it seems clear that even the talks with the Venezuelans have somehow soured the meeting between Presidents Duque and Biden for tomorrow.  Duque has already criticized this (inaudible), calling it an emboldenment of Maduro’s dictatorship and that it will prolong Venezuelans’ suffering.  Is this just bad timing?

And second, is the administration considering declaring Colombia a Non-NATO Major Ally as some in Congress have suggested?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, hi, Sergio.  Thank you for that question.  I would say Duque’s remarks at CERAWeek were very measured.  Certainly, he is entitled to his view, but I think I would disagree that it has soured the meeting, because we’ve had conversations with Ambassador Pinzón and I’ve been in touch with President Duque directly.  And I predict the two leaders will have an excellent conversation. 

     I’d certainly recognize that Colombia is very concerned about the situation in Venezuela and the threat it presents to Colombia, given the safe haven Venezuela provides to legal armed groups.  And the operations that they organize into Colombia from Venezuela is a grave concern that we share.

     The efforts to secure the release of detained Americans and to encourage a return to the negotiation table is the right approach.  I think when you ask the families of Jorge Fernández and Gustavo Cárdenas whether or not we should have traveled to Venezuela, I think you know what answer you will get.  And that is just something that is the responsibility of the U.S. government.

     Further, the international community and even representatives of the opposition have urged us to convey directly to the regime the importance of returning to the negotiating table for dialogue.  And that’s what we did.  We kind of laid out what would be possible in terms of alleviation of international pressure should talks produce ambitious, concrete, and irreversible outcomes. 

     And that you saw initial reports from both Maduro and Guaidó of willingness to return to dialogue.  Indeed, we see that as the only option forward for Venezuelans to get together and talk about the future of the country and how to get to a restoration of the democratic order. 

     So a Major Non-NATO Ally — I have no news to report.  I’d just say, you know, watch, I think, the outcome of the meeting. 

But again, the two leaders know each other; they get along very well.  They met first in 2018. 

     But you know, that’s why presidents get together, is to work over and talk through issues of agreement and disagreement.  But I would say that the will is good and, I think, the eagerness to continue working together is high.

Q    Hi.  Good evening.  Thank you so much, [senior administration official], for doing this.  I wanted to ask, first: Can you say whether President Biden will try to explain in the meeting to President Duque his decision to launch these talks with Maduro?  Is he hoping to convince him that this is the right thing to do?

     And secondly, on the release of the two American citizens, can you say definitively that there wasn’t any quid pro quo involved that — anything that Venezuela might have gotten in exchange?  And have you made any progress toward a deal with Venezuela to restart oil sales to the United States?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So just on the issue of quid pro quo, there was none.  We made very clear that — when we went down there that — frankly, [redacted] traveling down there was the first visit by a White House official to Venezuela since the inauguration of Hugo Chávez in the late ‘90s. 

     And that — I think that gesture, that engagement, for us was something that, you know, we saw as an important signal and that we asked them to — you know, to reciprocate that signal by releasing — or by liberating detained Americans. 

     You know, but I’ll say it’s the — it was a product of months of work by Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Roger Carstens.  And I could say, I think unquestionably here, that the conversations that Roger, that Ambassador Jimmy Story, and that I had — at no point was there an offer of oil in exchange for the detention of Americans. 

At no point we would do that.  It would certainly risk, kind of, the Americans that are currently detained and send a signal around the world that the United States is going to barter oil for people, which is — which, frankly, is wrong.

     The question of — on the question of oil, I think maybe to your question about talks — so there are no — I would say there are no talks between us and the regime. 

     We traveled down there to secure the release of detained Americans and to urge a return to the negotiating table, which is something that, again, the international community and even representatives from the opposition had urged us to do. 

     There is no dialogue between us and the regime.  Dialogue really has to be between the Venezuelan people on the future of the country.  And we’ve made clear that we are ready to lift international pressure on the basis of progress at those talks.

     In regards to oil, look, the decisions about oil that have been widely reported are ones that I think are being considered on a much broader level and that it is not something that we’ve committed to or bartered with or, frankly, that, you know, we’re — again, we discussed many things with them, but the focus throughout was the detained Americans and a return to the (inaudible).  And that was the objective of the visit.

Q    Thank you so much.  [Senior administration official], I wanted to ask you regarding what you have just explained, about pressure to the regime — if this in any way means that the main and preferred channel of communication of the White House and the National Security Council is not the opposition, it’s not Juan Guaidó.  And why the trip was made without talking to Guaidó and the Venezuelan embassy here — if those are the people that you have recognized as legitimate representatives of the Venezuelan people.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so, look, to be clear, diplomatic engagement is something that we’re going to do broadly.  In fact, Ambassador Jimmy Story engages with a broad cross-section of Venezuelan civil society in addition to the interim government. 

We did inform the Unity Platform of our visit, but kept the information, I think, very restricted to not have the news break right away, given the sensitivities around the discussions of — around securing the release of detained Americans. 

I mean, that’s what I could say.  But the channel is one where — I guess I wouldn’t answer in terms of like, “What is our channel for communication?” but rather, “Who do we support?” What I’ll say is that the United States supports the Venezuelan people’s right to determine their own future.  We see a negotiated outcome as really the only way forward toward a peaceful restoration of democratic order in the country.  And we stand quite squarely behind those Venezuelans who seek democracy. 

You know, as opposed to, I think, previous ways to characterize U.S. objectives, there is no plan and there was never any plan, even under the previous administration, to invade Venezuela.  We’re not looking for a military removal.  What we’re looking for is a level playing field where Venezuelans get to decide where who their leaders are and get to decide the direction of the country.

Q    Hi, thanks for having this.  So if these were talks just about releasing American prisoners, what’s behind the timing?  Why now? 

And also related, to what extent were the Colombians — was the Colombian government consulted and/or informed that this visit to Venezuela was going on?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so, I mean, the timing was that there was a — I think the invasion of — the Russian invasion of Ukraine significantly, I think, changed the international environment significantly, and we just saw a window to travel. 

And this was something that was really in the works for months, following an original visit by Roger Carstens, who had been — remained in contact with interlocutors down there on behalf of — on behalf of the family.  He saw a window to go down, and we — you know, he thought it would be of value to have White House representation, given the asks that were coming from the regime, but also, I think, asks that we were getting from the international community in the opposition to convey to the regime the importance of returning to the negotiating table.

Where we could — did we consult with the Colombians beforehand?  We — you know, we informed them immediately thereafter. 

But, again, this is — this is the United States going into a country to secure the release of American citizens.  And we will — we will do that in furtherance of national security interests, but also in furtherance of the families.  We’re not going to ask other countries for permission to reunite Americans with their families.

MODERATOR:  All right, thank you again.  And a reminder: Today’s briefing is on background and attributable to “senior administration officials.”  The briefing is embargoed, again, until tomorrow morning, Thursday, March 10th, at 5:00 a.m.

And with that, this call is concluded.  Thank you very much for join    

6:32 P.M. EST

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