Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Venezuela

Via Teleconference

10:06 A.M. EST

MODERATOR: Good morning. Thank you for joining on such short notice. This call is going to be held under an embargo. That embargo will be when we notify you that the Americans in question have been transferred to the U.S. government.

This call is on background, attributable to senior administration officials.

For your all’s awareness but not for reporting, joining us on today’s call is [senior administration official], [senior administration official], and [senior administration official].

Before we get started, I want to heavily caveat this — that events are still underway today, and things on the ground may change yet here. We’re going to keep you all apprised as that happens. But for the moment, everything that we’re speaking to is speculative, and that will be reflected in our speakers’ remarks today.

So, with that, I’ll hand it over to [senior administration official] to speak a little bit to the agreement that we’ve reached.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thanks. Thanks, everybody, for joining today on such short notice. I wanted to share the good news with everybody that we have reached an agreement to secure the release of six Americans who have been wrongfully detained in Venezuela, which means that all of the Americans wrongfully detained in Venezuela, as well as four other Americans, will soon be released. And we expect that they will be very soon on their way home to their families and friends and hope to be very soon in a position to share the news with their families.

This is the result of many, many months of negotiations, regular consultations with the President, an extensive amount of work involving our senior leadership involving Jake Sullivan and Jon Finer, and has culminated in what we think is a very positive outcome.

As part of this arrangement, Leonard Francis, who is also known as “Fat Leonard,” will be extradited from Venezuela [arrested and returned to the United States] and will be on a plane, hopefully very soon, on his way back to a federal detention facility.

For those of you who are not familiar with Leonard Francis’s case, he oversaw one of the most brazen bribery conspiracies in the U.S. Navy’s history from 2004 until his arrest until 2013. It was a long-running conspiracy to bribe U.S. Navy officials and employees and other federal employees who were public officials.

Francis pled guilty. As part of his guilty plea, he admitted that he required his Navy contacts to use their influence to benefit his company by steering contracts to it, by scheduling and directing Navy ships to various ports favored by the company, and by advocating for and advancing the company’s interests with the Navy with respect to the ships’ husbandry issues, and also admitted that he bribed “scores” of U.S. Navy officials with tens of millions of dollars in fraud and millions of dollars in bribes and gifts, including cash, prostitutes, and luxury travel, things like Cuban cigars, Kobe beef, and Spanish suckling pig.

While he was pending sentencing on house arrest, he cut off his ankle tracking bracelet and fled to Venezuela, where he was arrested and has been detained as he was about to board a plane to Florida. And his return to the United States will now assure that he is held fully accountable for his crimes as well as for his attempts to escape from justice.

As I said, this is the culmination of extraordinary efforts and perseverance across the U.S. government for many, many months to bring these 10 Americans home on top of the 9 wrongfully detained Americans — detainees — Americans that were returned last year. Six of these Americans have been detained — designated as wrongfully detained. They will be provided health care and a range of support upon return to the United States.

And as I said, this is part of our President, President Biden’s strong prioritization of the safe return of all Americans been held hostage — held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad.

This administration is proud to have brought home American hostages and wrongfully — wrongful detainees from Afghanistan, Burma, Haiti, Russia, Venezuela, West Africa, and other parts of the world.

And we have worked diligently through various complications and continue to make this a high priority for the Americans who do remain detained in the other places in the world, including the hostages in Gaza.

In order to make this exchange, the President had to make the extremely difficult decision to offer something that the Venezuelan counterparts have actively sought, and he made the decision to grant clemency to Alex Saab, who is pending trial for money laundering, and allow his return to Venezuela in what was essentially an exchange of 10 Americans and a fugitive from justice for one person returned to Venezuela.

The consequences of this difficult decision will be to reunite parents with their children and grandchildren; children with their parents, family, and friends; and to ensure that one of the most notorious fugitives from justice, Fat Leonard, is returned and held to account for his crimes.

I am going to turn this over to [senior administration official] now, who will talk a little bit more about how this also fits in with a broader set of efforts to encourage Venezuela to hold competitive elections and to push for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you. I want to — in addition to what my colleague said, I wanted to also highlight that as a part of the actions that are going to take place today —

Actually, first, let me start by just, I think, kind of just underscoring that, I think as our moderator did, that this process remains extremely complex, fragile, and could still hit unanticipated hurdles.

I wanted to note that in addition to the wrongfully detained Americans, the representatives of Nicolás Maduro have also agreed to release 20 Venezuelan prisoners as well as the release of Roberto Abdul from Súmate, and then three individuals that — Venezuelan individuals that had arrest warrants issued for them. Those will — they will be actually released this morning.

As the previous speaker mentioned, the outcomes of today are the result of several months of negotiations, active internal deliberations, and regular consultation with the President, who’s been apprised of every step of this process since the direct negotiations with representatives from Venezuela started in May.

I think all the decisions, as we said, really would only have been possible thanks to the President’s commitment to the safety and wellbeing of Americans.

I also wanted to note specifically that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan oversaw the negotiations; from the beginning of the administration has made clear that the United States would calibrate sanctions on Venezuela on the basis of concrete outcomes from the negotiations.

Since May, Jake and the Secretary of State, as well, have made — have held regular strategy meetings on Venezuela and personally engaged with partners in the region, with Europe, and the Middle East, in support of elections in Venezuela and the liberation of Americans.

Specifically also, in the run-up to the Essequibo referendum on November [December] 3rd and the days following, Jake Sullivan engaged with President Irfaan Ali of Guyana and had numerous calls with Brazilian National Security Advisor Celso Amorim and other regional counterparts in order to avoid or discourage military confrontation between Venezuela and Guyana, to underscore the need for diplomacy and dialogue to address those border tensions.

Similarly, Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer’s visit to Bogotá in April for a meeting hosted — of the international community on Venezuela, that was hosted by Colombia, laid the groundwork for the direct negotiations between the United States and representatives of Nicolás Maduro by laying out the U.S. policy toward Venezuela and successfully expanding the international consensus in favor of competitive and inclusive elections. Since 2021, Jon has chaired active deputy discussions on Venezuela and provided instructions in real-time to the U.S. negotiating team.

Now, how does this fit in the context of our overall U.S. policy toward Venezuela? I think it’s key here to underscore that even though there have been a bump in the road, pursuing an approach where we are engaging directly with representatives of Nicolás Maduro but also engaging actively in consulting with members of the Venezuelan opposition, the Unitary Platform, and including presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado, as well as our active engagement with Congress, has really been what has allowed us to make breakthroughs not just in the signing of the Barbados agreement in October, but the release of Americans, the continued release of Venezuelan prisoners.

And it is something that demonstrates the results of dialogue, and it opens the doors for us to continue to engage in dialogue so that when Venezuela holds elections next year, that they’re competitive and inclusive and that it will allow Venezuelans to really determine the future of their country.

I think this established, I think, a solid foundation for us to build upon and to continue the dialogue in the months ahead.

I will leave it there and turn it over to my other colleague. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much. The events of today really reflect the President and Secretary Blinken’s unwavering commitment to secure the release of wrongfully detained Americans around the world and to seek a path forward for a better, more democratic future for the people of Venezuela.

Secretary Blinken has focused our efforts on close coordination with the Unitary Platform of Venezuela, with democratic forces within Venezuela, as well as leveraging our relationships around the world to make sure that we’re in the best position to achieve those goals. We’ve leveraged facilitation by Qatar, as well as other partners, to reach this point that we’ve arrived at today.

I would just agree that this remains a fragile moment. We believe that all of the pieces are moving in the right direction at this moment, but literally pieces are in movement right now.

We hope that if we are able to successfully complete the actions hoped for today, then we will be well placed to see a more democratic path in Venezuela.

There remains much work to be done and much coordination with all forces within Venezuela to achieve competitive elections in 2024. Like, giving the Venezuelan people the possibility of a more prosperous, democratic, stable nation is important for the wellbeing of our region, and it’s something that we’re focused on.

But again, today, we are very, very happy and proud that months of long work are coming to fruition to allow Americans to be reunited with their families, as well as Venezuelan prisoners to be reunited with their friends and families in Venezuela.

And I’ll just leave it there. Thank you.

MODERATOR: And with that, we’ll open it up to questions. We’re going to go to Jorge with the VOA first.

Q Hi, good morning. Thank you so much for this. I have a question just for clarification. How many Americans and how many Venezuelans are going to be released in total? And if I may have the question that I didn’t have.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As a result of this deal,
there will be 10 Americans coming home today, assuming, you know, as one said, that this is — this is still in process — but assuming that things go as we’re hoping, there’ll be 10 Americans coming home today, along with Fat Leonard. And the Venezuelans will be releasing 20 political prisoners, and they will also be releasing Mr. Abdul as well, who’s been detained for the past —

Q Perfect. So, my question is: How do you explain that Alex will be released if he has not even been convicted yet? Does the administration fear that you’re sending a signal that the White House is giving orders to the DOJ?

And second, did Maduro agree to let Maria Corina Machado run in the elections? That was part of the negotiations?

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll take the first question. So, to be clear, the White House does not interfere with the Department of Justice investigations. This was an exercise of the President’s authority to grant clemency. And as I said earlier, the President made what was a difficult choice, but the right choice, to grant clemency for Mr. Saab in exchange for the release of 10 Americans, 6 of whom have been wrongfully detained, and also to get the return of Fat Leonard, who is a fugitive from justice, so that he can be held accountable for his heinous activities.

MODERATOR: Next, we’re going to go Louise Radnofsky with the Wall Street Journal.

Q Recognizing the embargo on this call, could you clarify for us who these six wrongfully detained Americans are and the names of the other four who are also being released today, please?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, Louise. I’m going to take that one. We’re not going to clarify just yet the names of the six. We want to make sure that our family notifications are underway before we do clarify with a group this large. I just don’t want there to be a scenario in which the first word that they hear about this is from a reporter.

So, respectfully, we’ll follow up a little later this morning with that information.

Q Understood.

MODERATOR: Next, we’ll go to Trevor Honeycutt with Reuters.

Q Hey, good morning. Thanks for doing the call, and thanks for taking the question. Could you talk, first of all, a little bit about why the President decided to reverse his original thinking around Alex Saab, that case?

And then, could you also talk a little bit more in detail about the role that Qatar played here? Did they broker this deal? How would you frame that? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I don’t — so I’m not sure that it’s — so, as I said, the President — there’s been no reversal of decisions here. The President made a decision based on what’s been presented to him after months of discussions at the highest levels with meaningful engagements, ongoing engagement by Jake Sullivan and Jon Finer in consultation with the President, and made the decision to do what is concededly a difficult decision but is resulting in the release, as I said, of 10 Americans — 6 wrongfully detained — and the return of a wanted fugitive from justice for one of the most brazen corruption scandals — cases involving the U.S. military in our history. And the President made the decision that this was the right thing to do.

Q And on Qatar?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Qatar has been an important partner for the United States across a whole host of streams, as you’ve undoubtedly seen.

But I would say, with regard to the process in Venezuela, for months they facilitated conversations between Maduro authorities and U.S. officials, aimed at clearing a path toward a competitive election in 2024 and the return of wrongfully detained Americans. They have continued to offer their good offices when called upon, and we’re quite grateful for those efforts.

MODERATOR: Next, we’re going to go to Jennifer Jacobs with Bloomberg.

Q Thanks. So, can you clarify — you said that the U.S. is releasing Alex Saab. Are there other Venezuelans being released as well?

And also, I had another question about sanctions relief. Can you talk a little bit about what the next steps are on sanctions relief? Are you considering specifically individual sanctions relief or any changes in the rewards program?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I’ll take this. So, on the Venezuelan side, the commitment had been for Venezuela to release 20 prisoners. They’re also releasing Roberto Abdul, who is a — was a member of Súmate, and also was somebody who was involved in the running of the opposition primary on October 22nd.

There also — there were three arrest warrants that were issued for three Venezuelans. Those are going to be suspended. So, in total, we’re talking about 24 Venezuelans that are going to be a part of this.

And I would underscore that — to give you some insights — you know, in addition to the commitment to the release of wrongfully detained Americans, the President’s National Security Advisor insisted that the release of the 20 Venezuelan prisoners and that the release of Abdul and the suspension of the arrest warrants take place to ensure that Venezuela was back in alignment with the Barbados agreement.

So I think, all in, you’re talking about over 30 people that are actually — they’re going to be home with their families, or back in the United States, or are going to be out of prison.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And just to be clear, I just want to make sure that there’s total clarity that the only person that the United States is releasing is Alex Saab. The release of the Venezuelans is — are Venezuelan releases of Venezuelans in Venezuelan custody.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s correct.

And in terms of sanctions relief, I want to underscore that at no point have we talked about sanctions relief or oil and gas relief in exchange for wrongfully detained Americans. It has not — never been a part of the discussion.

When we’ve looked at sanctions relief, it has been in the context of the negotiations that are ongoing with members of the Unitary Platform and representatives of Nicolás Maduro. We will return to those conversations after this.

Right now, what we’re thinking about is, you know, Maria Corina Machado was able to present her appeal to the supreme tribunal for consideration. You know, our expectation is that that decision will be done promptly. And, you know, we’re going to be looking at — in coordination with the Unitary Platform.

As the talks continue, we will continue to consider sanctions relief. As I mentioned, we’ve been very clear that the U.S. will calibrate our sanctions on the basis of concrete outcomes between Venezuelan parties. And our policy consistently has been to support a negotiated outcome that leads to competitive and inclusive elections. And that is the course that — that is the U.S. policy, and that’s the course that we will continue.

Thanks.

MODERATOR: Next, we’ll go to Margaret Brennan with CBS.

Q Hi there. Thanks. So just to clarify, sanctions remain suspended, the ones that were waived earlier this fall?

And then, is Nicolás Maduro still facing charges in the United States? I know the Trump administration had rolled out charges back in 2020. What’s the status of that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Nicolás Maduro is still facing pending charges in the United States. That remains in place.

And the sanctions relief has not shifted. As one said earlier, there was relief provided in response to the agreement that was announced between the Maduro regime and the opposition parties, and those — that relief remains in place. And we (inaudible) consistent with continued progress towards competitive elections.

MODERATOR: And our last question is going to go to Eric Tucker with the AP.

Q Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. I have what I hope are just two quick questions. One is, if I recall correctly after a prior prisoner (inaudible), there were a series of subsequent detentions and arrests of Americans (inaudible) in Venezuela. So I’m wondering, this time around, what steps the U.S. can take to ensure that this does not incentivize future hostage taking.

And lastly, the 20 Venezuelans who are being released, just wanted to clarify whether that’s a new commitment or the one that was made two months ago as part of the Barbados agreement. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So we have — as part of the discussions, the administration has made abundantly clear the expectation that additional Americans are not detained, and has secured commitments along those lines. Obviously, we need to see how things play out in practice. We continue to warn Americans not to travel to Venezuela. And we obviously will take appropriate actions if Venezuelans fail to abide by their commitment not to detain further Americans and — are committed to protect against the (inaudible) — (audio drops).

MODERATOR: Folks, [senior administration official] is
traveling on Air Force One right now, so I think we may be losing her.

[Senior administration official], do you want to address the second part of that question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Can you repeat that?

Q Oh, sure. I was just not sure whether the 20 prisoners are a new commitment or part of the Barbados agreement.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so this is part of the agreement that was made between the Unitary Platform and representatives of Nicolás Maduro and going into the October signing of the Barbados agreement. So this brings us back in line with Barbados.

But also, I think there’s — as a part of ongoing conversations, they obviously are looking for the release of all of the Venezuelan prisoners currently in custody, underscoring the importance that competitive, inclusive elections really are not possible if there is fear of arbitrary detention.

But again, these are going to be parts of the ongoing conversations between the Venezuelan authorities, and our approach is going to be to be supportive of concrete outcomes in those talks.

MODERATOR: All right, that concludes our call, just in the nick of time for a potential gaggle here to start on the plane. We’ll let you all go.

Thank you all, and we’ll be back in touch about the embargo lift time.

10:34 A.M. EST

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2023/12/20/background-press-call-by-senior-administration-officials-on-venezuela-2/

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