U.S. Department of State
3:36 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great. Thank you all. Thank you very much. Thank you, Chairman Gluski. Thank you for that wonderful introduction.
To President-Elect Bukele, to Vice President Ramirez, to all the leaders in public and in business life gathered here today: It is an honor to be here at the U.S. State Department, at the Crossroad of the Americas, the 49th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas. Thank you all for being here. (Applause.)
And as I begin, let me bring greetings from a friend of mine and a great friend of all of those who cherish freedom across this hemisphere of freedom. I bring greetings from the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump. (Applause.)
Before I begin, let me reflect on some welcome news. Last fall, we made clear to Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma that the arrest and jailing of two journalists was deeply troubling to millions of Americans. And we urged their release. Today, the world learned those two Reuters journalists were released after spending more than 500 days in prison, where they’d been jailed simply for doing their job: reporting atrocities committed against the Rohingya people.
In America and across this hemisphere, we believe in democratic ideals, including the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. And we welcome the release of these two journalists — (applause) — and we hope their release signals a positive and permanent respect for a free and independent press.
But what brings us here today is to discuss the theme of this conference, which is “disruption and transformation” in the Americas. And it is unquestionable that over the last two years there has been profound transformation across Latin America.
Since the earliest days of this administration, President Trump has worked with our partners in the region to build a safer, stronger, and more prosperous Western Hemisphere. And the results speak for themselves.
Under the BUILD Act, we’ve pledged up to $60 billion in development financing to help our partners build infrastructure they need to grow. We’ve expanded access to affordable, American-made energy through our Americas Crece initiative. We’ve promoted free, fair, and reciprocal trade, forging a new trade deal, like the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement.
We’ve also strengthened our security ties. And under the President’s leadership, the United States has conducted joint law enforcement actions across this hemisphere and reinvigorated the fight against illegal drugs by helping bring thousands of charges against dangerous gang members and money launderers.
And it’s also been my honor to travel to Latin America five different times in our first two and a half years. And I’ve witnessed this transformation firsthand, and we’ve worked to strengthen the ties that bind freedom-loving nations and peoples all across this hemisphere of freedom.
In Ecuador, I saw President Moreno support press freedom and renew the fight in his country against illegal drugs and corruption. In Argentina, President Macri and I eliminated longstanding trade barriers between our two countries for pork producers. In Brazil, we laid the groundwork for greater cooperation in space. And in Lima, Peru, I was honored to represent the United States at a historic conference where 35 nations pledged to fight against corruption in their governments and renew our commitment to freedom.
Since my very first visit to Latin America two years ago, the people of the Western Hemisphere have voted in election after election for prosperity, for security, for transparency and the rule of law in their governments. And the United States has stood with them every step of the way. And America will always stand with our neighbors when they stand for freedom. (Applause.)
As President Trump said in his first address to the United Nations, in his words, “Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” And as the largest trading partner and source of investment in the Western Hemisphere, that’s exactly what America has done.
As the President also promised, “a new day is coming in Latin America,” and so it is. “Across the Western Hemisphere, socialism is dying, and liberty, prosperity, and democracy are being reborn” right before our eyes.
So there’s been transformation over the last two years. But as we all know, there’s been extraordinary disruption as well. And today, the single greatest source of disruption, the single greatest disrupter of peace and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere has come from the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and from their desperate attempts to cling to power.
Venezuela’s neighbors know better than anyone how hard it is to bring liberty to a land that has long lived under dictatorship. And today, the United States of America reaffirms our commitment to the Venezuelan people and to our partners in the region. We will continue to stand with the people of Venezuela until libertad is restored. (Applause.)
And recent scenes out of Caracas have been heartbreaking and deeply troubling. It’s extraordinary to think of it. Last week, the world saw armored vehicles run over unarmed citizens; military forces firing tear gas at church goers; and hundreds of people, including children, be thrown into jail because they dared to protest the man who oppresses them.
The struggle in Venezuela is the struggle between dictatorship and democracy. Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolás Maduro must go.
For six long years, the people of Venezuela have suffered under the heavy hand of oppression. The Maduro regime’s socialist policies have shrunk their economy by nearly half. It is remarkable to think that in what was once one of the wealthiest countries in our hemisphere, that 9 out of 10 people live in poverty. The average Venezuelan has lost more than 20 pounds through deprivation and malnutrition. Thousands of Venezuelan children are starving at this very hour. And infants in hospitals across Venezuela are dying for lack of basic medical care.
It’s extraordinary to hear of it. As my wife and I traveled through the region on several occasions and met with refugees from Venezuela — to hear the story just broke your heart. I’ll never forget in Manaus, Brazil, a father surrounded by his three small boys who looked — looked me in the eye, as his boys looked on, and said that he had finally decided to flee Venezuela because he described how hard it was, the days that he had to come home and look at his boys and say, “We’re not eating today.” And as the translator repeated those words to me, the little boys nodded their heads, remembering those days.
Or the grandmother, when we were in Colombia at a little church that had taken in thousands of Venezuelan refugees, told me that she finally fled Venezuela because her grandchildren were required to get up at four in the morning to go and claim a paper ticket so they could stand in line at four in the afternoon and turn the ticket in, in exchange for a single piece of bread. She said she’d had enough. She gathered up her four grandchildren and made the long journey to the west, to the Colombia border.
The impact on families, on real lives — some three million people that have fled the country — a million more by the end of the year, projected — are stories that the world needs to hear.
And under Maduro’s dictatorship, crime, violence, and lawlessness have also spread. We’re told that thieves in Venezuela don’t rob banks because with inflation at 1,000,000 percent a year, money is basically worthless. Instead, they rob restaurants for food. Vicious gangs and the notorious colectivos have turned the streets into warzones. And Venezuela now has the highest murder rate in the world. More than 70 people are murdered every single day.
But the Maduro regime is not only a threat to the Venezuelan people. As we gather here today and we think of disruptions across our hemisphere, we must recognize it is also a threat to the peace and security of our region as well. The rising desperation in Venezuela has fueled a mass exodus, the likes of which we literally have never seen in the Western Hemisphere.
As I said, more than 3 million Venezuelans have abandoned their beloved country. And it’s estimated that millions more will follow in the days ahead.
Venezuela is a failed state. And as history teaches, failed states know no boundaries. Drug traffickers, criminal gangs, terrorists groups seeking to destabilize the region and profit from the misery of the Venezuelan people every day. And while the Maduro regime has stood aside as millions of its own people have fled in desperation, it’s been more than eager to accept the aid and comfort of regimes in Iran, and Russia, and Cuba.
The Iranian regime has been working with Venezuela’s corrupt dictatorship to establish a safe haven for its terrorist proxies, and continues to do so as we gather here. Last month, a high-level delegation from Iran’s Foreign Ministry celebrated a very public launch of direct air service between Caracas and Tehran by Mahan Air, a blacklisted airline controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which President Trump recently designated as a terrorist organization.
And one of Maduro’s top aides — a former Vice President and currently the Interior Minister, Tareck El Aissami — is a drug runner and a money launderer who partners with terrorist networks to bring Iran-backed terrorists into the country. And today, Hezbollah is working to extend its dangerous network throughout Venezuela, and from there, throughout our hemisphere.
And while Iranian terrorists build safe havens, despite their denials, it’s clear that Russia also seeks a foothold in this hemisphere in Venezuela. Moscow is the Maduro regime’s biggest weapons supplier. In exchange for bartered Venezuelan oil, Russia provides military jet fighters and acts as a lender of last resort. Last month, Russia sent two military transport planes to Caracas in a show of support for the embattled regime.
But no one has done more to support the corrupt Maduro regime than the Communist leaders of Cuba. For nearly two decades, the Havana regime has sent thousands of Cuban teachers, engineers to Venezuela to prop up a failing regime. Cuban agents control the levers of power in many government agencies, especially the military and intelligence services. And as we saw last week, key decisions about Venezuela’s future are as much made in Havana as they are in Caracas. Venezuela isn’t merely a Cuban client, the people of Venezuela are essentially Cuba’s hostage.
And Cuba has robbed Venezuela of more than her freedom; she stripped her of wealth. Some estimates claim Cuba has extracted more than $35 billion in Venezuelan oil since 2005. In short, the struggling people of Venezuela aren’t just the victims of one dictatorship; the people of Venezuela are the victims of two dictatorships.
So this is the company that Nicolás Maduro keeps. And the Americas will never fully realize our potential as a hemisphere of freedom until Venezuela is able to cast off Cuba’s control and once again take its rightful place as a free and independent nation. (Applause.)
But for all of the suffering across the country in cities large and small, it is inspiring to see the Venezuelan people rising up. As President Trump said not long ago, “the fight for freedom [in Venezuela] has [just] begun.”
Four short months ago, after Nicolás Maduro was sworn into a second term stolen in a sham election, the National Assembly — the only duly elected body in Venezuela — exercised its power under the constitution and recognized a new leader: Interim President Juan Guaidó.
At President Trump’s direction, the United States was proud to be the first nation on Earth to recognize Interim President Juan Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela. And now more than 50 nations around the world have joined us.
And all across this Western Hemisphere, nations have been standing up to declare their support for President Guaidó. Two months ago, the Inter-American Development Bank voted to seat President Guaidó’s representative. Last month, the G7 foreign ministers issued a statement saying the May 2018 presidential election lacked legitimacy, and called on the Maduro regime, in their words, to, quote, “restore the authority of the National Assembly.” And the OAS — the oldest regional organization in the world — voted to stand with the Venezuelan people and recognize Guaidó’s government as the only true representative of Venezuela.
As we gather here today, President Guaidó is meeting with members of the National Assembly, some of whom have come under harassment by the National Guard and intelligence services. So, let me take this opportunity to be very clear: The safety and security of President Juan Guaidó and his family are a priority for the United States of America. (Applause.)
The United States has been tough — stood strong for freedom in Venezuela. And as the President has said, we can be “a lot tougher.” Under the Maduro regime, in particular, the Supreme Court of Venezuela has undermined its constitutional mandate. The Supreme Court was established to protect individual rights and the rule of law and, sadly, of late, it has become a political tool for a regime that usurps democracy, indicts political prisoners, and promotes authoritarianism. It is time for the Supreme Court in Venezuela to return to its founding purpose. If the Supreme Court of Venezuela does not return to its constitutional mandate to uphold the rule of law, the United States of America will hold all 25 of its magistrates accountable for their actions.
So, I came today to be very clear: The United States of America will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition of democracy in Venezuela. But to those who continue to oppress the good people of Venezuela, know this: All options are on the table.
Nations across the world have spoken with a clear voice and the time has come for freedom-loving nations also to begin to prepare — prepare for a brighter future for the people of Venezuela after Maduro is gone.
Under President Trump’s leadership, I’m proud to say the United States has been standing with the people of Venezuela, and we have been committed to helping families and communities that have been devastated by the dictatorship and oppression of the Maduro regime.
We’ve positioned more than 500 metric tons of food and humanitarian supplies on the Venezuelan border, ready for immediate distribution. The American people have provided nearly $260 million in aid to support displaced Venezuelans and the host nations that support them so generously.
And today, I am announcing that, at the President’s direction, the United States Navy will deploy the USNS Comfort to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America this June. (Applause.) The Comfort will embark on a 5-month humanitarian mission to address the Venezuelan crisis. The United States military and medical personnel, working alongside their counterparts across the region, will be there to provide medical assistance to communities in need and help relieve countries overwhelmed by the influx of the suffering people of Venezuela.
And while the United States has sanctioned more than 150 government officials and state-owned businesses loyal to the dictator, America has also made it clear that these sanctions need not be permanent.
Just as the National Assembly has promised to provide amnesty to anyone who has not committed a war crime, so too the United States of America will consider sanctions relief for all those who step forward, stand up for the constitution, and support the rule of law — like General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, the former chief of the Venezuelan intelligence service, who just last week broke ranks with the Maduro regime and rallied to the support of the Venezuelan constitution and the National Assembly. In recognition of his recent actions in support of democracy and the rule of law, I am announcing today that the United States of America is removing all sanctions on General Manuel Cristopher Figuera effective immediately.
As President Guaidó builds a brighter future for Venezuela, we hope the action that our nation is taking today will encourage others to follow the example of General Cristopher Figuera and members of the military who’ve also stepped forward and taken a stand for the Bolivarian constitution and libertad.
We believe that Venezuela will one day again be free, that democracy will be restored. And once democracy is restored, the United States and the world community will not let a free Venezuela fail. (Applause.)
We will help the fledgling Venezuelan democracy regain its footing. We’ll build a brighter future after Maduro is gone — creating jobs, fighting poverty, and expanding opportunity.
We’re already hard at work. Freedom-loving countries of the Lima Group and the G7 are helping to build support for Venezuela at institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank. Together, we will get aid to Venezuelan families and rekindle access to trade finance so Venezuelans can get goods back on the shelves, extend lines of credit for new businesses, and help the Venezuelan government meet its basic needs. Once Venezuela’s democracy is restored, Venezuela’s future will be bright.
And let me be clear: there can be no bystanders in the cause of freedom in Venezuela — across this hemisphere or across the world. And the United States, today, again calls on all nations of the Western Hemisphere to stand with the Venezuelan people as they rise up to restore freedom, democracy, and libertad to their nation.
Freedom springs from the hearts of people all over the world. But as history records, it has always sprung, in particular, from the hearts of people here in the New World. And I believe, with all my heart, that freedom will continue to ring not only across this land, but across this hemisphere — across this hemisphere of freedom. And Venezuela will one day be free. For, in the words of Simón Bolivar, “A people that loves freedom will, in the end, be free.”
So to all the people of Venezuela, on behalf of my fellow Americans, we say again: Estamos con ustedes — we’re with you. We will continue to stand with you and pray with you until your freedom is restored.
And to the freedom-loving people in Venezuela and all the good people gathered here and nations that are standing with them, just know: As you stand, as you march, as you go, you do not go alone. We are all with you. Freedom-loving people across this hemisphere are with you. And I also believe that the author of freedom is with you as well, “for where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” That means when we labor for freedom, we make His work on this Earth our own. And freedom always wins.
So, with faith in that great promise, gratitude to all who have joined us across their hemisphere of freedom in this great cause, and faith in the courage and strength of the Venezuelan people and the generosity and ideals of the American people and all our allies, I believe with all my heart the day is coming soon when Venezuela will once more be free. We will see “a new birth of freedom” in this nation in our hemisphere. And Venezuela will be a nation reborn to libertad, so help us God. (Applause.)
Thank you very much. God bless you all. And God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
4:02 P.M. EDT