Interview with Venezuelan Vice Foreign Minister: Sanctions, Covert US Activity, and Threats of Military Action Foreign Minister, Jorge Arreaza (Left) Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Ron (Right)

Jeremy Scahill: We begin today by getting the Venezuelan government’s response to a deluge of allegations leveled against the Maduro government by the Trump administration, by top Democrats including Pelosi, by the corporate media and by Venezuelan opposition figures who have asserted that they represent the legitimate voice of the Venezuelan people. Joining me now is Venezuela’s Vice Foreign Minister, Carlos Ron. He was named to his post by President Nicolás Maduro following the May 2018 elections. Vice Minister Ron, welcome to Intercepted.

Carlos Ron: Thank you. Pleasure being here.

JS: Let’s start with the way that the humanitarian crisis is being portrayed right now in Venezuela with U.S. politicians ranging from Nancy Pelosi right up to Donald Trump and U.S. media saying that Nicolás Maduro is blocking U.S. aid from entering Venezuela and therefore contributing to starvation and a deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country. What’s your response?

CR: By definition, humanitarian crisis usually occurs after either a natural disaster or war where you know, people are cut off from food supplies and other important things that they need for basic survival. And this is not the case. I mean, in Venezuela, we do have an economic crisis, you know, but a country having economic problems doesn’t mean it’s in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. You see in other parts of the region, there are countries that have even more troubling problems with their economies and you don’t see a whole movement towards getting them aid and coming into the countries. There’s definitely a political intent into having some sort of PR stunt attack President Maduro by saying that he’s blocking something that we don’t even know what it is. I mean, nobody has talked to us directly and say “We’re bringing this type of aid.” I mean, you know, there’s usually protocols to do this. What type of aid are you bringing?

JS: Who blockaded the road?

CR: That’s an interesting case because there’s pictures running around and everybody seeing this huge bridge and then you see some sort of containers kind of blocking them. Well, that bridge has never been open. That bridge was actually built recently between Colombia and Venezuela. There’s another bridge that exists around the same place, which is open and it’s the bridge that’s being currently used and every day there’s flows coming in and out of Venezuela and Colombia. But they took the picture and again, trying to show that this is something that the government’s doing in order to block foreign aid from coming in.

JS: So just to be clear here because it’s being shown all over American media all the time — your position, what you’re saying the fact is is that that blockade on that bridge pre-existed. It was not a response to an aid convoy —

CR: That’s right.

JS: — And the bridge itself is not even in operation right now.

CR: It hasn’t been put to use yet and it was something that was already closed because it has an opened.

JS: But what was the position of your government, of the Maduro government, the government of Venezuela on what the U.S. says is $20 million in aid that they want to reach the Venezuelan people?

CR: When they started the conversation talking about $20 million in aid we lose sight of, that we are under our current blockade that at least every year, it has — you know, since maybe 2017 when the sanctions started being put into place — has, you know, taken about $23 billion per year of Venezuelan money. You know, it’s either frozen in some banks. It’s either, you know assets have been frozen from PDVSA. We can’t repatriate assets from Citgo which is a Venezuelan-owned company here in the United States. You know, it doesn’t make sense that you’re blocking 23 billion per year, but then you’re offering to help me with 20 million. I mean, how is that even possible?

JS: Right. Even some conservative estimates say that Venezuela is losing roughly $30 million a day in potential revenue because of the sanctions and we’re talking about a one shot, $20 million convoy that we don’t even know what’s in it.

CR: I mean we have to remember there’s historical precedence in here in our region of how you know, this movement plays out. In 1965, for example, there was a progressive government in the Dominican Republic. The United States didn’t like that government at the time. There was talk at the OAS —

JS: The Organization of American States.

CR: Organization of American States that you know, the Dominican Republic needed humanitarian intervention. And yes, you know, they brought some boxes with some food and 8,000 marines behind them and they took over and then, you know overthrew President Juan Bosch and occupied the Dominican Republic for years.

Newscaster: A three-man Junta has been named to rule the Dominican Republic as a rebel movement collapses. It was an attempt to reinstate exile President Juan Bosch and U.S. Marines were ordered into the country to protect American lives.

CR: So we know how this plays out. First thing they do, they talk about aid which is always insufficient and trying to create some chaos. And then after that, then you argue that you need an intervention, a military presence because you have to protect the aid and you have to protect the people that the aid is going to. And then at the end of the day, you end up invading and taking over the country. I mean, this is something we’ve seen play out.

JS: And Elliott Abrams himself, was a part of this in the 1980s. Abrams, of course, now the Trump administration’s point man, but he and Oliver North — and this is now a publicly-accepted fact — used the cover of humanitarian aid to smuggle weapons and other supplies to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s. No one is denying that now.

CR: That’s why you have to pay attention about you know, organizations that actually take care of humanitarian aid around the world like the United Nations, like the Red Cross and they’re questioning this. The Red Cross says, you know humanitarian aid is something that needs to be impartial, neutral, universal, independent not politicized. And they said you know, this is not humanitarian aid and they made that distinction because they know there’s something else going on here. And that something else is every time the U.S. government speaks about this humanitarian aid, they make sure they send a message to the Venezuelan military and say, you know, the Venezuelan military should turn against Maduro and you know, get this aid to the people. So it’s actually a call for the military to turn against a constitutionally-elected president.

JS: There’s been reports and it seems that most of them are based on anonymous U.S. officials. But there are reports that U.S. representatives have been meeting with members of the Venezuelan military clandestinely. What information do you have about that?

CR: I wouldn’t be surprised too because you know ever since President Chávez came in in late 1990s. There has always been attempts to overthrow the government and there’s always been attempts from military to try to coordinate with outside interests and do this. There was an attempt, assassination attempt, back in August against President Maduro. Some of the people that were at least involved are either living in the United States, you know, we send the paperwork to see if they could get extradited and we can have a trial on some of these people. We’re still waiting for a response on that.

JS: Are you referring to the attempt to kill Maduro with a drone?

CR: Yes.

JS: You’re saying that Venezuela has identified suspects that it wants extradited from the United States?

CR: There were people caught around these events and that told us these people were involved. And so we’ve requested investigations on these people and to see if they could be extradited and put to trial in Venezuela. We’re still waiting to hear from them.

JS: So the U.S. has not responded at all to those requests?

CR: Nobody has been sent over for investigations. Nobody has been put into jail for any of these or at least questioned, as far as my knowledge.

JS: What about the appointment of Elliott Abrams as the point man right now? I mean, what’s the perspective of the Venezuelan government on Elliott Abrams being the lead party assigned to deal with Venezuela now?

CR: We’ve always maintained that we are willing to dialogue with anyone in the U.S. government. I mean President Maduro has repeatedly asked President Trump, you know, for a conversation. And we’re always open to dialogue as long as it’s respectful of our sovereignty and our self-determination. Anything, you know, pointing to another direction obviously is of concern. And you know, you have officials such as John Bolton as secretary of state, vice president, you know, saying very interventionist — using a lot of interventions rhetoric, calling for the military to rise against President Maduro, calling our elections, our political system illegitimate and it’s something very difficult to deal with. And that’s why President Maduro was faced with the option of breaking relations because it’s something that’s unacceptable.

JS: What can you tell us about the announcement by Venezuelan authorities that they had confiscated this cache of illegal weapons that were allegedly, according to the government, smuggled into Venezuela from Miami — There were assault rifles, explosive charges, radio antennas, latest generation smart phones that came in on a Boeing 767 cargo flight from the 21 Air company to Valencia airport?

CR: Well again, this is the sort of thing that tells you that there’s some intent of producing violence in Venezuela, of violent overthrow of the government. I mean investigations have to you know, run their course, but why would these weapons be you know coming into the country in a time such as this? We need to protect our people. We need to maintain our peace and you know, we’ll do whatever we need to do to be able to you know, to prevent these things from happening.

JS: What’s your position on Juan Guaidó? Right now, you have the United States, Canada, Germany, many Western countries are recognizing Guaidó and also, some of your neighbors in Latin America are saying “No, Juan Guadió right now is the legitimate president of Venezuela and he had the constitutional authority to be sworn in as the president.”

CR: Mr. Guaidó is a member of the National Assembly by the way, he was elected with the same electoral council that President Maduro was elected. And look, this is a part of the opposition that has seen their popularity deteriorate in the last couple months. And I think that they realized there was no way they could move forward but to attempt something very crazy as this — you know, proclaiming himself president, distorting, you know, Article 233 of the constitution. Article 233 of the constitution, basically it gives you like the order of succession when the president is somehow prohibited from assuming office because of death, because he resigns, because the Supreme Court impeaches him basically, because he’s medically or physically prohibited from carrying his duty, because he abandons the office of the presidency, or because his mandate is revoked by a recall referendum.

None of these things have taken place. And by the way, it’s unconstitutional just because the fact that, by constitution, the only body that interprets legally the constitution is the Constitutional Court of the Supreme Court. You know, we have five branches of government under our constitution and there’s one branch that is disputing the rest of them and that’s the National Assembly where Mr. Guaidó is. But also, I think it’s a huge mistake by other countries of recognizing this. I mean, there’s no precedent in history of such a move.

JS: Has Guaidó been able to effectively take control of any of Venezuela’s assets by having monies that are owed to the Venezuelan government deposited in other accounts? Do you have information about this?

CR: My understanding so far that hasn’t — I mean, it’s been talked and there’s been talk from the U.S. on that and that would obviously be theft to the Venezuelan people. That’s what it really would be because there’s no condition by the law, by the constitution where Guaidó would have any control over these assets so that would be illegal. It’s like being president of a country that doesn’t exist, you know and all these other right-wing conservative governments — pressured by the way, by the United States — are falling into line of this recognition where you know, again recognizing a non-existent government and being blind to a reality of you know, that affects 30 million Venezuelans.

JS: The United Nations estimates somewhere around 3 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015. Your position — you meaning the Venezuelan government’s position — is that there is not a humanitarian crisis in the country that this is something that has been manufactured by policy. Why are these people fleeing the country?

CR: Like I said before and you know, we’ve had an economic crisis in the last couple years and that we’re not denying. I mean, that’s something that’s a reality.

JS: Entirely the fault of U.S. sanctions and intervention?

CR: And other things. I mean, the problem started with low prices of oil, for example in you know, around 2014. And you know, there are sanctions that are on paper that are very clear said, like for example, we can’t renegotiate debt which many other countries do and we can’t do that because of the sanctions. But there are other sanctions that actually take place without being on paper. I mean, for example, OFAC has issued warnings to the financial system in the U.S. that any money coming from the Venezuelan government may be money coming from corruption, money laundering, all these —

JS: This is the Office of Foreign Assets Control, just for people that don’t understand, which is a division of the Treasury Department that enforces sanctions including prosecuting American citizens, U.S. citizens, if they violate sanctions or blockades.

CR: Correct. And basically once you tell the banks to you know, to be careful Venezuela money, the result has been that you know, they don’t want to deal with money or they over comply is the term. So, those sanctions are really, you know, not only the ones that are written down that are clear-cut but though, you know, the over compliance — all of these issues are making everyday life for Venezuela much more difficult. So, going back to the issue of migration. Yes, some people have left because some of these conditions but again, you know, the numbers is something that we have to dispute. Because you know, you have people for example that leave you know by road and then they all go into Colombian and get counted once. Then they’ll go into Ecuador, and get counted again and then in Peru, and then you know, the same person gets counted three, four times —

JS: Do you dispute that number then?

CR: Yeah.

JS: Wait, wait, wait, so you dispute the 3 million number?

CR: I think it’s something that we have to look at because we’ve asked many of these countries and this is why there’s a sort of hypocrisy in many of these conservative governments with regards to these issues because we’ve asked many of them to give us their data to try to see how we can find the solutions as well as, how we can help our citizens there because they have necessities too. I mean there’s consular attention that they need to get. I mean, there’s all these issues that we have to take care of and we’ve flown, you know over I think over 10,000 people back home already. So, we wanted to have the numbers and see you know, the information of what is it that’s out there and these countries won’t share them with us.

JS: The issue of U.S. military threat, is Venezuela prepared militarily for any kind of U.S. military incursion or financing or arming of groups that could try to stage an uprising against the Maduro government?

CR: Obviously, there’s a history here and especially it’s a history related to the people that are in charge of making these decisions. I mean, these are people that were tied to the Iraq war. I mean, when you see John Bolton coming out and speaking and saying it would be really important for American companies to go back to Venezuela and increase production and retake production, that mentality obviously is something that we’re concerned. Look, we don’t want war. I think, again, we believe in diplomacy. We’ll talk to whoever we need to talk to to avoid a war. I think our people are counting on — I mean I’m a diplomat and that’s our duty. I think we have a lot of pressure right now because I think it’s up to us to make diplomacy win, and that’s what we’re here after. But at the end of the day, you know, Venezuela has an armed force and besides the armed force Venezuela has, Venezuela has its people and they’re very proud people. They are very proud of their history. We’re not going to give in to any threat and we hope it never comes to that because we don’t want to see our people go through that suffering. But if we have to defend ourselves, we’re ready to do so.

JS: Every time the opposition or these various opposition groups hold a demonstration, we’re shown the images, but there also have been massive pro-government demonstrations, massive Chavista demonstrations, Bolivarian demonstrations that are not shown on the news. I bring this up because I want to ask you clearly there are significant numbers of Venezuelans that want you guys gone. It is not the case that there’s just like a handful of people in a corner. What is your strategy — you meaning the government — in reconciling? This isn’t about Leopoldo López or Juan Guaidó. Ordinary People are divided on this and I don’t mean to make it sort of like a both sides thing because I do think that the propaganda campaign is being waged against the Maduro crowd and against the Chavistas. But how do you reconcile — because it is a divided country — how can you possibly find a way forward given the way the gauntlet is thrown down now that it’s you’re either with Guaidó or you’re with Maduro?

CR: It’s a lively democracy. I mean, you have disagreements and that we have. So I think part of the way of reaching out is making things available for everyone without discriminating and the other thing is calling for dialogue. President Maduro has been a president that has called for dialogue with the opposition at least 400 times in you know, public television. And you know, and he’s sincere about this. The problem is that sometimes we don’t know which opposition to talk to because there’s many oppositions because they, you know, they don’t — it is difficult for them also, because they have different views, you know, to sit down and find a common voice. They’re encouraging proposals from other countries like Mexico, Uruguay and recently —

JS: The Vatican also.

CR: The Vatican. A couple days ago, there was the mechanismsin Montevideo was established to see if we can see both sides. And then talk about you know, how we could move forward, how we can end a divide, how we can you know, sort of solve the problems that we’re having in the country’s economic situation and other things.

JS: One of the points that people from the Venezuelan opposition or let’s just say opponents of Maduro’s government will make, they’ll say “Yeah, we realize most of the world and most Venezuelans never heard of Juan Guaidó before all of this happened, but everyone knows who Leopoldo López is and you, the government have had him either locked up or on house arrest and he would have been the person we wanted to rally behind but you have persecuted him. So we’re not going to participate in this because the man that Venezuelans most closely link to being the main face of opposition against Maduro is basically under either an imprisonment or house arrest.”

CR: Well, I think —

JS: Why is Leopoldo — where is Leopoldo López right now?

CR: He’s under house arrest and —

JS: Why?

CR: Well because he led, he had a trial and on trial, he was condemned about, because of leading protests in 2014 that led to the death of at least 43 Venezuelans and it was incitement of violence. And if you would have had anybody here do the same thing, you know, there’s laws, the RICO laws and there’s other legislation here in the United States that does the same thing. I think it’s people that have always opted for violence instead of you know, playing the Democratic game because they know they don’t reach the average Venezuelan. That’s the thing. I mean people understand that the continent changed in the last 20 years. You know, people want more participation. People want to take — they want to take be taken seriously. People, you know that were excluded historically for the first time you know, were enfranchised and felt represented by people that govern them.

And so, now, you won’t — it’s very hard to find anyone who will willingly vote for the agenda, the neoliberal agenda that called for privatization, no public support for you know, welfare support for the communities. These are people that want to privatize higher education. These are people that want to privatize the health sector. These are people that don’t even want to have public schools, you know grammar schools, they can’t sell that anymore. So, once your project is not something you can sell on an election, then you have to find other ways and they go and they turn to violence and that’s what historically has been happening since 2014 from Venezuela. These people have been trying to obtain power by producing violence, by producing a coup, by having somebody assassinate the President, by having the United States intervene and take over and then make a mess.

Mr. Guaidó was elected to the National Assembly with 97,000 votes, I believe and in a party that is only represented by 14 members of the National Assembly. How is that more legitimate? How is that possibly more legitimate than a president who was re-elected in May of last year with over 6 million votes in an election of 9 million, where nine million people voted, I mean, 67 percent of the vote. I mean, we can’t let — it’s not even something that can be compared. That’s the thing, these are people whose political projects are not viable anymore and they’re trying to impose themselves by violence or by having somebody outside come in and put them in the government.

JS: We’re going to leave it there. Carlos Ron, thank you very much for joining us.

CR: Thank you. Pleasure.

JS: Carlos Ron is the vice foreign minister of Venezuela.