Review of Secretary Tillerson’s Trip to Latin America and the Caribbean

Francisco Palmieri, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
The Washington Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
MODERATOR: Welcome, everybody. We’re going to get started. We have about 30 minutes for this briefing, so I don’t want to waste any time. I would like to welcome Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Francisco Palmieri back to the Foreign Press Center. He’s here to discuss a review of Secretary Tillerson’s recent trip to Latin America and the Caribbean, and also to discuss issues of strategic importance in the Western Hemisphere. And with that he’ll make opening remarks, and then we’ll open it for questions.

MR PALMIERI: It is a pleasure to be at the Foreign Press Center. As you know, late on February 7th Secretary Tillerson returned from his first multi-country trip to Latin America and the Caribbean. I had the pleasure of joining him and would like to share with you some of the highlights from his travel to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica.

The Secretary kicked off his trip with a speech at the University of Texas at Austin and underscored the policy message from his speech at each stop on his trip. The United States stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the region as a steady and enduring partner. The region shares a common goal: to ensure a safe, prosperous, energy-secure, and democratic hemisphere. It is not simply our geographic proximity that makes this diverse hemisphere a priority for the United States. We have a shared commitment throughout our hemisphere to further economic prosperity and democracy through accountable governance.

As 2018 begins, we have an historic opportunity to do just that. The Secretary said in his speech 2018 is the year of the Americas. In 2018 we will meet in Lima, Peru for the Summit of the Americas, Canada will host the Summit of the Group of Seven countries, and Argentina will host the G20 Summit of Leaders for the first time in a South American city. And throughout this year citizens head to the polls in a number of countries to democratically elect their leaders – in Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay. What a contrast to what is happening in Cuba and Venezuela.

You undoubtedly followed the Secretary’s trip closely, but I would like to highlight a few key themes and then we can go straight to questions. On regional security there was a consensus that working hand-in-hand with our partners is the most effective and expedient way to disrupt transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs. TCOs and their trafficking routes harm our hemisphere’s citizens. We have to work harder with our partners in the hemisphere to put an end to this menace. The Secretary frequently talks about – and he did on every stop of his trip – about disrupting the business model of these TCOs – their production, their marketing, their financing, and then most importantly, the demand here in the United States. He was – he was very clear consistently that the United States has to own the demand side of this issue.

Prosperity is also key to our strength as a hemisphere. The Secretary’s economic discussions emphasize the U.S. commitment to fair and reciprocal trade. The United States trades as much with this hemisphere as we do with China – pardon – twice as much with the Western Hemisphere as we do with China. We will continue to enhance our trade and energy relationships with Latin America and the Caribbean.

Also on the Secretary’s agenda was the importance of remaining steadfast in our shared respect for democracy and human rights. That is why the Secretary advocated for increased regional attention to the crisis in Venezuela during every discussion. It was clear the region shares our concerns in this regard. We must continue to work to fulfill the requirements of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. As Secretary Tillerson said in Argentina, we simply cannot allow and stand idly by to see a total destruction of democracy in Venezuela. With our regional partners we continue to pressure the corrupt Maduro regime to return to a democratic constitutional order.

So in conclusion, the Secretary delivered an unequivocal and positive policy message across the hemisphere reaffirming the U.S. commitment to a safe, prosperous, energy-secure, and democratic hemisphere, as well as our commitment to achieving those goals through partnership.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Please wait for the microphone and state your name and outlet. Let’s start with Claudia.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) on the trip of Secretary Tillerson?

In the other regard in Venezuela, they announced the date of the elections. I’d like to know what is the next step on the U.S. strategy? In which circumstances the U.S. would consider imposing oil sanctions?

And the last, I’d just like to talk about what the Secretary said regarding the possibility of a military coup in Venezuela to solve the solution. Today Senator Marco Rubio also said on Twitter that the world would applaud the armed force if they solved the solution. Is that a strategy for the U.S.?

MR PALMIERI: We have so many good friends in the Western Hemisphere it’s hard to fit all of them on one trip. And our relationship with Brazil is close and strong, and given the number of different U.S. leaders who will be traveling to the region this year, I’m sure that at some point we will have very high-level visits to Brazil on future trips.

Now with regard to elections in Venezuela, it’s absolutely clear what the Secretary said on his trip. We are working together with the countries of the region to ensure that Venezuelan elections are free, fair, and internationally verifiable. There must be international election observation for successful, legitimate elections to take place, and we will not accept elections that do not allow for the full participation of all political actors in Venezuela. It’s clear that the path that the Maduro regime is moving down at this time will result in an illegitimate election.

I’ll stop there. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay, next we’ll go in the front with Ruben.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Ruben Barrera with Notimex, Mexico. I have two questions. One is on general on elections, and I would like to know what is the response of the United States to the fact that the recognition of the election in Honduras could send the wrong message through the hemisphere because the OAS, at least the mission of observation, they produced a report questioning the process, and they said that because of the irregularities they weren’t sure about who won that election.

And the second one is on Mexico. Secretary Tillerson spoke about the influence or the possibility that Russia may try to intervene or influence on political elections through the hemisphere. I was wondering at this point if there is any sort of technical collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico in order to – after the experience of the last election in the U.S., maybe United States could offer some wisdom or better practice to avoid any scenario like this.

MR PALMIERI: Thank you. Two excellent questions.

The elections in Honduras were anything but what the elections will be like in Venezuela, so I think our policy is consistent. The elections in Honduras were observed by multiple, independent, different international observation missions. The Venezuelan Government will not allow that to happen. The voting acts – las actas – were presented transparently on a website for anyone to see and observe. There is no transparency in the Venezuelan election process. In fact, after last year’s constituent assembly, their own election software vendor pointed out that millions of votes were fraudulently added to the system.

There’s no question the OAS identified some concerns about the election process inside Honduras. The European Union also identified some concerns as well. But at the end of the day, the judgment was that the vote result was not in question, and hence, the United States moved forward as did many other countries in the hemisphere to recognize the results, including Mexico.

Now, with regard to Russian meddling in foreign elections this year in this hemisphere, Secretary Tillerson has been very clear we are concerned that the Russians will attempt to undermine the strength of the democratic experience in this hemisphere, and the United States stands ready to work with any of our partners, democratic partners in this hemisphere to understand how best to respond to that threat.

QUESTION: (Off-mike) especially those who are actually (off-mike)?

MR PALMIERI: I am not aware of any formal request, but I – on this trip there’s no question that the countries that are having elections are well aware of the possible threat and preparing for it.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Gracias. Thank you, Secretary Palmieri. Maria Luisa Rossel from RPP Noticias from Peru. I would like to know how would a possible assessment or assist from the United States could happen in Colombia? Secretary Tillerson opened the window when he was in Colombia this week, the possibility to assist the Colombian Government with the refugee crisis from Venezuela. How would that apply in practice?

And about the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, what is the expectation of the United States toward that summit in regards of Venezuela? Thank you.

MR PALMIERI: The Secretary stated on the trip, I think in multiple stops, that we’re very, very mindful that Peru is the host of this year’s summit, and as the host, is responsible for managing the invitations and the participation in that summit. I think the strength of this year’s summit is the theme Peru has chosen, which is democratic governance against corruption. Should President Maduro decide to attend that summit, he would certainly have a lot to answer for in terms of democratic governance and corruption. And any Venezuelan participation would have to address those issues, and given the leadership Peru has shown in the Lima Group, I think they will successfully manage the invitation process.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PALMIERI: The refugee crisis, yeah. I think one of the things the Secretary was able to get a firsthand feel of and for on this trip is that, yes, there are large numbers of Venezuelans leaving Venezuela for Colombia. The latest count, I think, is over 500,000. But there are large numbers of Venezuelans in Brazil, in Curacao, in Aruba, but also in Lima, in Buenos Aires, in Santiago. And so this is a regional issue that must be addressed and that is why we continue to focus on our efforts as well as the efforts of many, many countries in this hemisphere to offer humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people. If only the Maduro regime would allow the assistance of food and medicines and medical services to reach the Venezuelan people, to open their borders, we could make a direct impact on those flows.

With regard to the specific situation of those countries that are bordering Venezuela, we think it’s very important that the international community, with the involvement of the UN and other international migration organizations, help provide those countries on the borders with the expertise, the technical assistance, and the humanitarian assistance to help manage and provide assistance to these migrants and refugees. But it’s really important that we keep them close to the Venezuelan border, because these Venezuelans all want to go home once democracy and constitutional order can be re-established.

And so that’s the approach that we are working on. It will be an international approach, and the United States will always do its share.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to Luis and then we’ll come back over here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Palmieri. I would like to follow up on the question that Claudia raised about Senator Rubio’s tweets this morning, saying that the world would welcome a military uprising. Secretary Tillerson brought up the possibility that the Venezuelan military can do a peaceful transition when he spoke in Austin. And President Trump said last year that he won’t rule out the military option. So this is not new, what Senator Rubio said today.

So my question to you is: Is the U.S. working for a military uprising to take place in Venezuela, and did Secretary Tillerson address this specific scenario during the trip with the governments in the region? Thank you.

MR PALMIERI: First and foremost, Secretary Tillerson has been very clear that what we want in Venezuela is a peaceful transition and the restoration of constitutional democratic order. The best way to solve the multiple crises inside Venezuela is for the Venezuelan people to be able to exercise their democratic rights and select the leaders, the real leaders, who can solve the multiple problems that the Maduro regime is inflicting on the country.

With regard to Senator Rubio’s tweets, I have to confess I haven’t seen them. Today I was in a series of meetings. But first and foremost, we would like to see a orderly, peaceful transition to democratic order in Venezuela.

MODERATOR: All right, we’ll go over here.

QUESTION: Hi, Secretary Palmieri. Jaime Moreno from La FM, Colombia. According to the discussion with President Santos about the new strategy against coca crops in Colombia, when does the USA Government is expecting to see a significant reduction in coca cultivation in Colombia? Is there any deadline?

MR PALMIERI: We are going to continue to work closely as a partner with the Colombian Government in its efforts to address the increase in coca cultivation and cocaine production. Colombian police and military forces are dramatically increasing their interdiction efforts. They’re seizing more cocaine. But more importantly, we all know that the most effective way to stop the production of cocaine is to prevent it from being cultivated and grown. And so we know that the government has a multi-tiered strategy or a multi-pronged strategy of both forced eradication, of voluntary eradication where they get small cultivators to agree not to cultivate, and then promoting alternative development. All three of these efforts, including the good police work of Colombian security forces to prevent cocaine from being trafficked out of the country, are all the important elements, and the United States will continue to work closely with President Santos and the Colombian Government.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hi, I’m Cristina Garcia with the Spanish newswire EFE. I’d like to know which countries in the region have expressed to Secretary Tillerson support to sanction the Venezuelan oil, and if you could explain which measures are in consideration regarding this topic. Thank you so much.

MR PALMIERI: The last part, please?

QUESTION: Yeah, if you could explain which measures are in consideration, because he mentioned that they are working – Canada, Mexico, and the United States – to mitigate side effects on other countries and also the Venezuelan people. Thanks.

MR PALMIERI: So the Secretary did say that we are working with Mexico and Canada on a trilateral basis, and that’s a smart approach because Canada, the United States and Mexico – North America is an energy powerhouse in this 21st century. We can together understand what the challenges would be if oil sanctions were imposed on the Venezuelan Government. And what the Secretary said is we need to really study and understand the impact any sanctions would have and then we have to also identify ways that we could mitigate that impact, as you mentioned.

I don’t think at this time I have anything to announce with regard to what kind of sanctions would be put in place with regard to oil, but the Secretary was clear: the United States will continue to consider the use of every political, diplomatic, and economic tool we have to help restore democracy in Venezuela to the benefit of the Venezuelan people. And a key element of any step would be what is the humanitarian impact inside the country, and how could we help mitigate that impact on the Venezuelan people? We are prepared, as I said, to do our share and to assist any humanitarian effort on behalf of the Venezuelan people.

MODERATOR: All right, we’ll go to Paula.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Paula Lugones from Clarin newspaper, Argentina. Is the U.S. have any concern about the – about security during the G20 summit in Argentina in November in Buenos Aires? And is the government trying to provide any kind of help concerning that issue to Argentina?

MR PALMIERI: We had a really excellent luncheon meeting with Foreign Minister Faurie and, I believe, six other Argentine ministers, including Minister of Security Bullrich. And it’s very clear that Argentina is prepared to address required security for the summit. It is working with all of the countries that would attend a summit. And if there is any way that through information sharing that the United States could assist Argentina in guaranteeing the security of the summit, we will do everything in our power to assist them.

QUESTION: Thank you. Rafael Mathus-Ruiz from La Nacion newspaper, from Argentina. Mr. Palmieri, can you guarantee that there won’t be any other trade measures that are going to hurt the direct trade with counties in the region? We know that there’s growing concern in several economies down south about possible new restrictions from imports to the United States. And as you clearly stated, one of the goals that Secretary Tillerson outlined in his tour was that they want to increase, and the U.S. wants to be a reliable partner. So how do you handle this potential contradiction?

MR PALMIERI: I don’t see a contradiction. The Secretary was very clear in – on his trip. The United States will stand for fair and reciprocal trade arrangements with our partners, and what we will do will be based on promoting fair and reciprocal trade. Unfortunately, I’d have to defer to other elements of the U.S. Government with regard to any future measures that might or may – may or may not be under consideration. But the Argentine ministers were very clear with us that they are concerned about this, and the Secretary heard them out.

MODERATOR: We have time for one or two more questions.


MODERATOR: All right, Ruben. (Laughter.) (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Thank you. I would like to go again to the —

MR PALMIERI: Okay, this breaks the rule, right? The second question is always the one that gets you, right? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, but – because I just want to, like – to have, like, a clear picture of what is the concern – I mean, let me put it this way. It seems that the concern about the Russian meddling in electoral process through the hemisphere is mostly coming from this government and not from the governments who are going to have – they’re going to have electoral process this year. I mean, at least that’s the perception that I have. I mean, because we don’t hear the same level of discussion in those countries like here.

But my question is, I mean, you say that so far you have not any request for technical assistance or any assistance at all from these countries – I mean those who are going to have elections this year. The question is then, I mean, how difficult is to concern a relationship between the U.S. and other countries in this area, in this aspect, when what we saw during the president election was mostly confined to the things like Facebook or Twitter or – I mean, it doesn’t seem that most of the interference, if – I mean, if there was any interference from Russia – was – I mean outside of the example of the Democratic Party and I think the John Podesta office. But we didn’t see, at least so far, like, a great intervention in official networks. Like, doesn’t – there’s not seems to be like a – they – the Russians disturbing the electoral office in Texas, for example.

So I mean, if this is something that it can be addressed between countries, or is something that will require to incorporate a third party in which – which in this case will be companies like Facebook or Twitter?

MR PALMIERI: I think there were numerous reports of Russian meddling in European elections last year, and we’re certainly concerned about potential Russian meddling in Western Hemisphere elections. As a partner – as a democratic partner, we’re prepared to share information and knowledge and expertise with our democratic partners. But with respect to specific elements in any of the countries holding elections, I really think those questions are best addressed to the national electoral authorities in Mexico – excuse me – or in any of the other countries that we’ve talked about. I’m just not going to speculate about what type of meddling may or may not be occurring. Certainly, we believe all democracies should be vigilant given the record.

MODERATOR: All right, we have time for one more question. We’ll go to Claudia.

QUESTION: Hi. I’d like to go back to Venezuela. Do the U.S. is considering imposing new sanctions as a response to their decision to have elections in April, or the U.S. thinks the current sanctions are working and they don’t need to increase the pressure?

MR PALMIERI: If the Maduro regime holds an illegitimate election in April, there is – the United States will continue to use all of our political, diplomatic, and economic tools to help restore true democratic order in Venezuela. It’s hard to imagine an election, a snap election held in less than 60 days, meeting the international standards for a free, fair, and transparent election, particularly given the unwillingness of the Venezuelan regime to allow meaningful participation by the opposition parties or to address the conditions on the ground that resulted in multiple illegitimate elections last year.

QUESTION: But the (off-mike)?

MR PALMIERI: I think we will use all the tools available to us at any moment, at any time, and in any place, to help the Venezuelan people restore their democratic system of governance.

MODERATOR: And with that we’ll conclude our briefing. Thank you to the briefer and thank you to everyone for coming today.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Palmieri.

MR PALMIERI: Muchas gracias.

QUESTION: Gracias.