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Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: Remarks for Hearings on State Corruption and the Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela

Secretary General Almagro, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: Here in the Hall of the Americas, our objective is peace. And peace is our objective in Venezuela. But this past Saturday Nicolas Maduro ordered armed criminals to attack his own people at Venezuela’s borders as they sought to receive desperately needed humanitarian aid. And he ordered the country’s once proud security forces to aid and abet this criminality.

Maduro assaulted innocent civilians whose only crime was to seek medicine and food for their families and their neighbors. People who sought to assist, including members of the Pemón indigenous tribe, were brutally attacked. “We were not looking for war,” said one member of the Pemones, “but they were.” “The National Guard shot to kill,” said another. More than eighty Venezuelans were wounded when Maduro’s thugs opened fire on them. At least four people paid with their lives.

On Saturday Maduro’s forces burned food and medicine destined to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. While Interim President Juan Guaidó rallies donors and builds distribution networks for lifesaving assistance, Maduro blocks its entry. Maduro has destroyed the economy for his own benefit, while his people go hungry. He has starved Venezuela’s hospitals of equipment and medicine, causing preventable diseases to recur. Maduro and his cronies have turned PDVSA, once a symbol of Venezuela’s prosperity, into the regime’s personal ATM stealing billions as Venezuelans starve.

Before chavismo, governments allowed PDVSA to run at high standards of professionalism. Over the past two decades, however, the regime sent Venezuela’s petrochemical engineers packing. Now those expert Venezuelan engineers lend their skills to foreign firms while PDVSA is run into the ground by cronies of Maduro.

Two decades of theft and mismanagement have crushed the oil sector. Oil production fell from over 3 million barrels per day to just over 1 million barrels per day at the start of this year – a collapse with few precedents outside of conflict zones. Experts estimate Maduro’s cronies have stolen hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue. They have robbed the country blind.

Corruption and incompetence has yielded hyperinflation at an annual rate exceeding two million percent. The military directly controls the food supply of 70 percent of the population through local provision and production committees. But instead of feeding people, they have sold much of it on the black market. If you are not a loyalist to the regime, you have little chance of accessing food subsidies. In this context, nine in ten Venezuelans have difficulty purchasing food; three in four Venezuelans have lost weight.

Corruption has strangled Venezuela’s healthcare system. The maternal mortality rate has increased fivefold. Two out of five hospitals lack potable water. Vaccines are almost nonexistent. Recent outbreaks of tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles, and Chagas have been reported. Venezuela was once a leader in managing HIV/AIDS. But now more than 70,000 Venezuelans living with HIV/AIDS lack access to medicine.

Kleptocrats like Maduro blame everyone but themselves for their people’s misery. They have made U.S. sanctions a scapegoat. Yet, Maduro’s theft and mismanagement had produced widespread scarcity and misery long before U.S. sanctions on the individuals responsible for this disaster took effect.

Politically-connected businessmen and military brass have extracted billions of dollars in wealth from the Venezuelan economy. The humanitarian crisis has forced more than three million Venezuelans—ten percent of the population—to flee the country. U.S. Prosecutors have brought criminal charges against those who used the U.S. financial system to launder the riches they robbed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in assets have been frozen in the U.S. alone.

The United States will continue to investigate, prosecute, and sanction officials who rob their own people. Other countries are undertaking similar efforts. I have seen examples of gross corruption during my years in government, but never anything of this scale.

U.S. sanctions are not on but for the people of Venezuela. Sanctions are placed on the regime with the intent to stop their looting the last remnants of Venezuela’s wealth. The ill-gotten accounts of those sanctioned for corruption are frozen so that those funds can be returned for the benefit of those harmed by corruption – the people of Venezuela.

For those sanctioned for their continued participation in the Maduro regime, the sanctions need not be permanent. The United States will remove sanctions on persons who take concrete and meaningful action to disavow the illegitimate Maduro regime, support the Guaido government and National Assembly, and help Venezuela’s legitimate interim government establish conditions for free and fair presidential elections.

This includes Chavistas who support democratic norms. Chavismo’s stated premises included bringing Venezuelans from marginalized communities into the political mainstream.

Instead, Maduro and his cronies have made a mockery of Chavismo. The consequences of their thievery have been deadliest for the poor.

Venezuelans deserve better. They deserve to stop being the victims of robbery by a regime that cynically claims to act on behalf of the poor while its leaders fly private jets, feast on foie gras and stash billions in foreign bank accounts – all at the expense of the citizens of Venezuela.

Maduro and his regime are waging war on their own people through criminal corruption. They are violating Venezuela’s sovereignty by allowing Cubans to take control of decisions and to operate security services in Venezuela. Cuba has, with Nicolas Maduro’s consent, become a government within a government. They are repressing the military and destroying the economy. They keep their inner circle well-fed, rich, and safe. What’s needed is a government that is truly accountable and puts the well-being of the people first. This begins with an inclusive interim government that brings early presidential elections that are free and fair.

Venezuelans are in charge of their own destiny. The bravery of leaders like Juan Guaidó has kindled rising aspirations for freedom. A broad coalition of democracies has assembled to support them.

The leadership of numerous members of the OAS has built an international coalition to defend democracy in Venezuela. They have recognized the constitutional interim government of President Guaidó. They have echoed his efforts to organize free and fair elections. What remains is for Maduro and his kleptocrat cronies to get out of the way and allow decent leaders from across the political spectrum in Venezuela to make that happen.

We urge all nations in the OAS to sanction Maduro’s corrupt kleptocrats. Block their assets. Cancel their visas. Bring criminal charges for corruption.

In the words of Vice President Pence, “Just days ago, as the world watched, the tyrant in Caracas danced as his henchmen burned truckloads of food and medicine, and murdered civilians . . . It was a tragic day for the suffering people of Venezuela. But it was also just one more day in Venezuela’s long and inevitable journey from tyranny to freedom.”

Together we can revive the promise of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Help Venezuelans reclaim their freedom and restore their prosperity. Thank you all so much.