Admiral Craig Faller
Commander, US Southern Command
United States of America
Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
US Department of State
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
US Department of State
Director, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
Director, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
Time stamps below follow the YouTube webcast of the event.
[13:15] Jason Marczak: Hi good morning, I’m Jason Marczak the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. Thank you all for joining us today for this incredibly important discussion at a critical moment for Venezuela. I’d like to first start off by thanking Admiral Craig Faller, the Commander of US Southern Command for taking the time to join us today thank you Admiral Faller, great to see you as always. Denise Natali, Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization operation at the US Department of State; Carrie Filipetti, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department, and also Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants and now, I will also say an Atlantic Council author.
[13:55] Jason Marczak: 2020 has been quite a challenging and tumultuous year across the globe. Especially we’ve seen some of the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic across the world in particular and in our region in Latin America and in Venezuela. In Venezuela as well we have an internationally recognized interim government that marked its first year, we have a growing humanitarian crisis that entered a new phase, and the pandemic that has further strained a crippling health care system that has already unable to provide even the most basic medicines to Venezuelan people which is stalling also at the same time an economy this is hyper inflationary collapse and also social unrest across the country.
[14:40] Jason Marczak: We also have, as we look to the end of this year, parliamentary elections in Venezuela in December set out to be a sham parliamentary elections amid increasing repression of political opposition by the Maduro regime in Venezuela that continues to remain entrenched. A top priority for international allies of Venezuela’s democratic forces should be disrupting and deterring the global web of illicit activities and the nefarious external and non-state partners that help to sustain Maduro and his backers. This is a critical step that requires coordinated international action to further open the pathway for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. I’d like to reiterate the Atlantic Council’s commitment to helping to bring international attention and also action to achieve democratic stability in Venezuela. Today we’re going to focus on Nicolas Maduro’s expansive global illegal network and potential synergies and strategies to combat these activities and secure democratic restoration in Venezuela.
[15:44] Jason Marczak: This public conversation is also launching an Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center policy brief by contributing author Douglas Farah that investigates the origins of the Maduro regime’s criminal activities and his connections to regional and international players. As well, this discussion is also marking and I’m very excited to announce this the formal launch of the Center’s new body of work in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security around Venezuela that’s focused on informing international allies of the interim government of Venezuela on new strategies to dismantle the regime’s illicit activities and the support that Nicolas Maduro receives from malign non-state and states actors. Thank you all for joining us today I’m now going to turn to Adrienne Arsht the Executive Vice Chair of the Atlantic Council the founder and visionary of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center as well as the founder of the Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center to introduce the Admiral. Adrienne.
[16:41] Adrienne Arsht: Thank you Jason and I might mention that although I am sitting in my office in Washington DC my background is my home in Miami Florida and that’s where interim president Guaidó’s wife Fabiana stayed for the day while she received um many people in Miami to talk about the situation in Venezuela and she received the key to the city of Miami from the mayor. As you can imagine this
was pre-Covid. Over the years, the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center has brought awareness to Latin America’s most pressing challenges, embracing my long-standing vision and view that the Center would focus on the world’s perception of the region as a core partner and ally. And yet, Venezuela once a thriving democracy today is in one of its darkest times. With the complications of Covid-19 and parliamentary elections soon to be held, this is a decisive moment for the prospects of a democratic restoration of Venezuela.
[18:02] Adrienne Arsht: I want to kick off today’s conversation by saying how very pleased I am to welcome to this virtual meeting a friend of the Center and a friend of mine, Admiral Craig Faller. He’s the Commander of the United States Southern Command based in Miami and with his naval leadership and his extensive background throughout the military he has been our best leader for the critical operations that are now necessary in Latin America. And now I turn it over to you.
[18:45] Jason Marczak: Thank you very much Adrienne. Admiral Faller, first as Adrienne said, Admiral thank you so much for your service and for and for being with us here today. Admiral and a couple questions for you. First off, in April SOUTHCOM launched an enhanced counter narcotics operation the Caribbean with drugs flowing from regime partnerships with criminal groups in Venezuela being a focus of those interdiction efforts. Of course, those illicit narcotics flows are a major security challenge to the United States, but I want to start by asking you why in particular are the illicit flows coming out of Venezuela such a great threat to United States interests?
[19:28] Admiral Faller: First good morning everyone and thanks Adrienne for the warm introduction, your friendship and Jason thanks for moderating this important conversation and thanks for what the Atlantic Council does to have these important – facilitate these important conversations about policy that affects the security United States the region and the world. When we look at this region there is so much promise and so much potential. Look at it as a beacon of freedom, the numbers of democracies and what we all share really makes it a neighborhood. And you think about what constitutes a neighborhood the proximity to all of us particularly United States, the values and democracies that we share, the familia piece of it, the people and of course the huge intellectual human capital that constitutes those people. Resources, a very resource-rich neighborhood and all that is under assault it’s under assault by a vicious circle of threats, the center of which is, as you characterized Jason, Venezuela.
[20:42] Admiral Faller: But to get at Venezuela to march around that circle it’s young democracies and emerging institutions and we need strong institutions that’s really a key here to getting after the illicit flows. This corruption which eats at the democracies and the institutions and it’s an environment that the transnational criminal organizations and narco-terrorists have thrived on. External state actors also thrive on those same conditions: corruption emerging institutions, and young democracies weak democracies in some case and we see Cuba, Russia, China, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela all these countries mixing it up in that space.
[21:27] Admiral Faller: Covid has complicated the ability of all these nations and also has really exasperated the problems as you mentioned. So, Venezuela it all comes together in Venezuela. And just stepping back and we look at what the impact has been: 5.2 million migrants, human suffering, the increase the drastic increase in narco-trafficking coming out of Venezuela which is killing lives killing people here in the United States whether it’s Miami Pittsburgh, the same in Central America and throughout the hemisphere. And so at the heart of the threat it’s the lives that are we’re losing unnecessarily and it’s the undermining of democracy and that was the choice Maduro made to take the once thriving state into the current dictatorship that it is. Covid has allowed him to him to lock down even further on the power and we see FARC dissidents, ELN actually having territorial expansion within the state so all those threat vectors are headed in a negative direction which is a significant reason why we have upped the amount of engagement we’re doing with our partners and launched our enhanced counter-narcotics operation.
[22:51] Jason Marczak: Admiral thank you very much. You describe this cocktail of security threats that we have emanating out of out of Venezuela: the trafficking, of course the illicit gold mining in which criminal groups are very heavily involved, money laundering, weapons trafficking, massive corruption. You were you were just referencing the enhanced narcotics operations and the working with regional allies in that regard. So, I’d like to pick up on that point and ask you specifically how is SOUTHCOM working with regional allies to disrupt some of the illicit trafficking coming from Venezuela? And, a second part of that question, is what is the biggest challenge that you’re currently facing in doing so?
[23:34] Admiral Faller: Partners in this region are strong and we have a good history working together which has allowed us to adapt to the Covid environment and allowed us to adapt to the increase in the threats. So, everything in in the military to military realm and the security dimension starts with intelligence sharing and we do that, and we’ve increased that as a result of the crisis of Venezuela. One of our principal commands is joint interagency task force south and key west where we have 22 partner nations, they’re all aligned there under the common threat of narco-trafficking and the connection to Maduro is his complicity in that threat. So, the nations that go there they go there for their national interest but working together for the good of the hemisphere. It’s been a success and we have actually seen an increase in partner nation involvement year to year last year to this year currently about 50 of all our counter-narcotic operations have some involvement of a partner nation that’s a indicative of the importance of investing in partnerships over time, security cooperation funds, and those sorts of elements really play heavily in there. The challenges of course going forward are the center of gravity for the Maduro regime’s illicit activities are Cuba, Russia, increasingly Iran, and to a lesser extent but an important extent China. In order to get the true international unity that we need, and I’ll leave this to the diplomats that are on the call here to talk later, but in order to get the true international unity we need to have unity in that space as well and we don’t and the long-standing involvement of Cuba, essentially Maduro’s intelligence service and all his presidential guard are Cuban controlled. It’s his praetorian guard he’s essentially a puppet. So, to break that center of gravity is a bigger problem set than just cutting off the flows of illicit money, and illicit drugs, and we’re working both the money part is part of the and the drugs as part of the US government and a whole nation approach.
[25:52] Jason Marczak: So we’ll talk about this next conversation that my colleague will moderate but when we look at how the United States, international community can really wrap up coordinated action to isolate the Maduro regime it is – what I’m hearing is it’s really about the action against some of the state actors: the Russians, Cubans and others that that are helping to keep these illicit flows moving, would you agree with that?
[26:19] Admiral Faller: I think that the center as we look at things, what keeps Maduro in power, what allows him to operate unchecked, what allows him to continue to stranglehold on his population, why has Venezuela turned into a virtual paradise for narco-terrorists and thugs and of all types – and it there’s interests that are running counter to the interest of human rights, democracy. And I think that that’s one of the keys is to shift that center of gravity away from Maduro and there’s a lot of people working in this space I think that US whole government efforts have been have been quite well knitted certainly the results haven’t gotten to where we want them to be but, there’s been great partnerships and with folks that are on the on the screen here today.
[27:14] Jason Marczak: Well Admiral with that actually I’ll transition over to our panel and thank you very much for those points and as you know the Atlantic Council is also very committed to this effort this is why we’re launching today our new effort on countering Venezuela’s illicit flows the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in collaboration with our Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security because as you’re saying disrupting those illicit flows are going to be critical for ramping up the pressure on Maduro and his stranglehold on Venezuela’s society. I’m now going to introduce the other speakers to round out the panel conversation. First, Denise Natali is joining us. Denise serves as the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the State Department. Denise previously served as the director of the Center for Strategic Research at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and at the National Defense University. She has also had a number of experiences across the world on countering conflict and moving forward conflict stabilization operations more broadly. So Assistant Secretary Natali great to have you with us today, always a pleasure to welcome you and, today to welcome you to the virtual Atlantic Council. Also joined today by Carrie Filipetti who serves as the Deputy special representative for Venezuela and also the Deputy Assistant Secretary of state for Venezuela in Cuba at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department. Carrie Filipetti previously served as senior policy advisor for the US mission to the United Nations, where she advised UN ambassador Nikki Haley on issues she’s related to counterterrorism, Middle East and western hemisphere. Assistant Secretary Filipetti great to have you today thanks for joining us, always a pleasure again to welcome you to the Atlantic Council. Doug Farah as well. Doug is the president of national security consulting firm IBI Consultants. He’s also a senior visiting fellow at the National Defense University Center for Complex Operations, and I will now add to Doug’s title, Atlantic council author since he authored the policy brief we are releasing today which is titled “The Maduro Regime’s Illicit Activities: A Threat to Democracy in Venezuela and Security in Latin America.” I’m now going to hand the conversation over to Diego Area. On my team Diego leads the center’s Venezuela work since joining us in December 2018. Before being forced to leave Venezuela, among other things, Diego was director of social development in the municipality of Sucre. Over to you Diego.
[29:57] Diego Area: Thank you Jason and thank you Admiral Faller for your insightful comments on the critical work that SOUTHCOM is leading in the region. I want to kick off the next discussion with our distinguished panel. Assistant Secretary Natali, welcome and thank you for participating in today’s discussion, I would like to start with you. Last February, right before the escalation of covid-19 cases in the US, you travel to Miami to discuss stabilization issues with civil military coordination with senior SOUTHCOM leaders; and later to Colombia to support the peace process implementation. What is the plan for the US and its allies to promote democratic stability in the region after a political resolution takes place in Venezuela? Specifically given the security threat of Colombia and guerrilla groups such as dissident FARC and ELN operating within Venezuelan territory.
[30:51] Denise Natali: Thank you, thank you Diego. I’d also like to thank Jason for moderating, Adrienne for your leadership and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council and of course to my colleagues and fellow panelists. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here this morning. Diego the short answer to your question is that we are planning for stabilization in Venezuela and the region the long answer the longer answer is that my bureau in coordination with our colleagues at the special representative Abram’s, office we have Deputy Secretary Filipetti here, the western hemisphere bureau, SOUTHCOM and others, we are convening US interagency security sector planning for Venezuela. We are conducting advanced data analytics to understand the operating environments and to improve our plans. Now one aspect that you mentioned that we’re focusing on specifically is the non-state armed groups. As you know the illegitimate Maduro regime survives by relying on this classic autocratic tools. Nowhere is this clearer than in its collaboration and reliance on non-state armed groups to conduct these activities. Venezuela’s non-state armed groups present a unique challenge as they compose a complex state-supported network of gangs, drug traffickers and transnational terrorist networks including the FARC dissidents and the ELN as you just mentioned.
[32:24] Denise Natali: Where the regime lacks the will and capacity to govern Venezuela, hollowed out by years of corruption and abuse, it instead has enabled the growth of these non-state armed groups creating an illicit patronage network and weakening legitimate institutions. Now these groups serve as a key tool of regime power and they pose a serious threat to the future stability of both Venezuela and the region. By providing a safe harbor to these groups, Maduro facilitates their transnational criminal economies trafficking people and goods. But the important point is that this challenge is not insurmountable. We know that these groups are not monolithic, we know that they have diverse agendas allegiances and interests, the qualities that Maduro uses to keep them in line. Now my bureau’s advanced data analytics and the programs that we are supporting have shown that these non-state armed groups have an active presence in the capital and throughout every state. We know that two-thirds of these groups receive at least some kind of political and logistical support from the Maduro regime, so these diverse activities tactics and motivations therefore demand a nuanced and sophisticated approach if we want to seek to weaken them Strategically. We recognize that non-state armed groups cannot be managed by the United States alone. The United States is committed to helping the Venezuelan people counter the threat of these groups and my bureau is proud of the long-standing partnership with Venezuela’s interim president Juan Guaidó and the opposition and our work supports their understanding of the threat of non-state armed groups as we prepare for a political future.
[34:20] Diego Area: Thank you, Assistant Secretary. Deputy Filipetti, first of all thank you again for joining us today. Now I would like to bring you into the conversation. As we know, the support of international actors is further anchoring the regime’s position and, as Admiral Faller mentioned, Russia, China, Turkey and Cuba have provided lifelines of support for Maduro. Most recently, we have seen increasingly close Iran Venezuela ties which is concerning for the international community. Connected to that, two weeks ago Secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced that special representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams will be also serving a special representative for Iran. What does this mean for US policy towards Venezuela specifically regarding illicit flows?
[35:11] Carrie Filipetti: Thank you very much Diego and thank you of course to Jason and Adrienne as well and it’s great to see my colleagues, I haven’t seen them in a very long time because of Covid, so it’s nice to be in the same room so to speak together. You know, something that Assistant Secretary Natali mentioned is the non-state actors, and Diego you mentioned now there’s this other component which is the state actors. On the one hand, when we see this increase in a relationship between Iran and Venezuela, it does signal something interesting for the United States which is that far from being able to rely on its more traditional allies like Russia, Cuba, China, we’re starting to see them undertake the same sort of relationship they used to have with those countries now with Iran. And so that makes us think that the diplomatic and financial space between Venezuela and some of their more traditional more capable allies is decreasing so in some sense I think seeing this expansion is reflective of an opportunity.
[36:07] Carrie Filipetti: But what it reflects really is kind of the basis of this discussion which is that as US sanctions and international sanctions have constrained the Maduro regime’s ability to finance itself through more traditional sources of income. We’re seeing them move to illicit sources, whether that’s illegal gold mining, whether that’s narco-trafficking. or whether it’s coordination with states like Iran. So we’re seeing that Iran is supplying material to Venezuela and we’re working very closely with our international partners to try to limit Iran’s ability to supply the illegitimate Maduro regime. In terms of the relationship between the two though, what we’ve seen in press reporting is that Maduro has illegally stolen about nine tons of gold bars that’s more or less the equivalent of 500 million dollars and sent them to Tehran in exchange for Iran’s assistance. It’s not immediately clear what type of assistance Iran is providing, which is of course really concerning for us as well although we know that they have offered to assist in boosting Venezuela’s oil production. Obviously, that hasn’t been successful given that Venezuela has fallen from 3.3 million barrels of oil per day um under Chavez, to about 350 000 barrels per day under Maduro. So, I would say that it’s not exactly worth the 500 million dollars that that Venezuela has provided, but it does show that increasing cooperation. I think going to your question about the special representative, first and foremost, we have Iran and Venezuela as two of the top priorities of the Trump administration. So, the fact that they are now being handled by the same individual I think highlights this growing symbiotic relationship. Special representative Abrams deeply understands that relationship between Venezuela and Iran, he deeply understands Venezuela and Iran also separate and apart from the relationship. And so, I as we seek to kind of confront this more multifaceted problem, ensuring that this is all kind of under the same purview of the same individual will help us with that internal coordination. I think it’s a fantastic addition to special representative Abram’s portfolio and we know that he’s very well positioned to ensure that US policy is taking this more holistic approach to disrupting the illicit flows between Iran and Venezuela in support of our policy strategies for each country.
[38:38] Diego Area: Thank you very much Deputy Filipetti. Now it’s time to bring in our Atlantic Council author Douglas Farah. Douglas welcome. I’d like to ask you Douglas, in the policy brief we are launching today, you characterize the Maduro regime as the leader of a regional quote-unquote joint criminal enterprise. Could you please explain the regional and global nature of the regime’s criminal activities and the threat to security and political stability it represents for Latin America?
[39:08] Douglas Farah: Well thank you Diego and thank you to the Atlantic Council it’s nice to see other folks showed. Assistant Secretary Natali oversaw my research at national defense university for a few years and I’ve worked very closely with Admiral Faller’s J2 and other folks there for through the years so i appreciate the opportunity. I think but we’re the point of what we’re trying to outline in this paper and other work we’ve done in support of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for counter-narcotics and global threats of the defense department, is analyzing that it is a consortium of states that now embrace transnational organized crime as a legitimate instrument of state power. And I think that is the fundamental tipping point between what we’ve seen with other regimes in the region and the ability of beginning with Chavez and the in the Castro brothers in Cuba, to intentionally knit together a community of criminal enterprises that allow them and their ultimate objective which is to displace the United States as much as possible from the region and bring in extra regional actors like Russia, Iran, China, Turkey as much as possible into the region. So, I think you have to understand it as an intentional setup from the very beginning PDVSA, under Chavez was designed to launder money that’s that was the primary purpose of the influx of billions of dollars that they could move. So, you see Nicaragua laundering uh through the Ortega regime tens of billions of dollars you see the FMLN and el Salvador participating in and laundering billions of dollars on behalf of PDVSA. You see all of these regional actors in Bolivia you see Evo Morales carrying out certain roles in Ecuador under Rafael Correa so you had the ability to adapt to different strategies that the united states and others were carrying out by immediately turning to your network of outside support and having them fill in the gaps. So what we’re seeing now in our research is that a lot of the gold from Venezuela is now going to Nicaragua and being exported from Nicaragua as Nicaraguan gold which is a way to avoid sanctions only possible because of the alliance of intentionally criminalized states operating a criminal enterprise in which criminal activity is viewed as a necessary support for state functions.
[41:17] Douglas Farah: I think a few years ago when I was addressing NATO in the EU one of the speakers has said that the problem dealing specifically with Russia was that we think we’re all playing soccer and we think a yellow card makes you know we’ll slow down the game a red card you’re expelled and what the what the general said Breedlove said at the time was Russia’s not playing soccer they’re playing polo on the same field. So they don’t care about yellow cards they don’t care about red cards they don’t care about any of that stuff and that’s the way I think for a long time we treated Venezuela as if they were playing the same game on the same field as we were not realizing that they had an entirely different game going on and that the nutritional rules and ways of getting at them were not viable. And so, you have the FARC and ELN directly supporting a criminal enterprise because they are criminal enterprises and it spreads to the state, so I think that that is the what the paper is doing. I greatly appreciate the council giving me the opportunity to publish this paper there, and it’s an attempt to help understand the magnitude of what the network is as opposed to being a Venezuela specific threat.
[42:22] Diego Area: Thank you very much Douglas. Admiral Faller, it’s a pleasure to share this virtual floor with you today. I would like to ask you: US foreign policy has made extensive use of sanctions to put pressure on the Maduro regime. Despite these sanctions, Maduro continues to serve as de-facto in Venezuela. What tactics are you seeing on the ground that Maduro is taking to evade sanctions and also what actions is SOUTHCOM taking and what other measures will it take to combat it?
[42:56] Admiral Faller: So, I’d like to just pivot back to Mr. Farah’s comments about the extensive network which is broader than Venezuela. I agree 100 percent with that assessment and it’s a been a generation in building this network back to Chavez and so that web that complex web which I characterize as this vicious circle is strangling democracy and undermining citizen security across this whole neighborhood this hemisphere. And it’s alarming and, to the extent to which external state actors and non-state actors both in the region and out are advantaging of themselves of this is extensive. And so, when you look at the sanctions, I believe that pressure is working and that the whole of government pressure that the US has applied diplomatic and economic has worked. The international community has set conditions to work up to a point – up to the point where the UN wouldn’t be able to get on the same page because of involvement of the actors that we’ve discussed and others have articulated here from colleagues at state.
[44:13] Admiral Faller: The sanctions and evading sanctions is a natural extension of the types of tactics techniques procedures that Maduro regime has been using to launder money, make money, whether it’s gold diamonds, agriculture ,the business enterprises that they use to buy off the military loyalty and keep themselves in power so the same types of interrelated evasion tactics that’s what they’re using, second countries, second third countries and front companies cryptocurrency, money laundering. And so the key to putting more pressure on is in the financial realm and getting after the money flows and we’re working that space hard but it’s a complicated space to work in. It’s DOD supported and we’re supporting our colleagues across the interagency and international partners with the increased intelligence sharing so passing what we know about all the illicit activities including the sanctions evasions are very important and where we can and where we want to we put that out through our diplomats in the in the public space to call out the what Maduro’s doing with the complicity of international actors to mortgage the future of not just Venezuela but the hemisphere’s. That strain is being felt across the hemisphere and we see it with what it’s done to the economies pre-Covid it and it will only accelerate that trends as we move forward. So, it’s a great question it all points back to this larger web this vicious circle and the key going forward is how we can better share intelligence and then how the international community can better leverage that to force and change the behavior of Maduro and the external state actors.
[46:16] Diego Area: Thank you Admiral a quick reminder to our audience that you can submit questions over the zoom Q&A feature we’ll be taking one or two at the end of the conversation. Deputy Filipetti, would you like to add any comments on the invitation of sanctions by the Maduro regime
[46:33] Carrie Filipetti: Sure, thanks very much Diego. So, I actually I also want to go back to something that Doug said which is he said you know we assumed that they were playing soccer, but they were playing a totally different game. And I think this is really relevant when we think about sanctions evasion inside Venezuela because I think a huge part of the resilience so to speak of the Maduro regime is because we assumed that he was trying to run a government and he needs a certain amount of money in order to run that government. As it turns out he wasn’t trying to run the government, he was simply trying to give largess to people who would ensure that he would remain in power. So, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how much money he needs to stay in power because he doesn’t care about providing the essential services to the people of Venezuela. We see that most clearly in in corruption cases involving the clot program and other things that were really created in an effort to provide for the people of Venezuela. You know I do partially want to quibble with the idea that um the sanctions invasion has kind of been successful because I think we’re seeing those sanctions have an enormous impact on his access to resources but once again you know he really needs less money when he doesn’t even pretend to spend the money on his people.
[47:49] Carrie Filipetti: I think there’s a second reason why Maduro has proven resilient in the face of some of the most comprehensive sanctions that the US government has imposed on a country. And this is again going back to the core of this discussion that he’s doubling down on earning money through illicit means where sanctions have much less of an impact because they’re more focused on what would otherwise be legal sources of income. So, he’s always been involved in drug and gold smuggling, but he’s now really dependent on those proceeds and as Doug mentioned he’s really dependent on the criminal and terrorist networks that are his de facto partners. And third, just going back to our discussion about um about Iran, he’s really doubling down on these alliances with autocratic regimes whether it’s Cuba, Iran, Russia and others. It’s actually really ironic because as we all know Venezuela was really Cuba’s patron when the Cuban economy fell into total disrepair following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And now Venezuela kind of needs a patron and, it presumably is looking to Iran to provide that, but it has really limited the candidates for who will provide that support because how illegitimate this regime really is. And so a country that was once supporting another country is now really looking for others to boost it up and I think that’s a reflection as well of the significance of US sanctions, of the significance of the policy that has involved bringing in other actors, whether it’s the region through the Rio treaty to impose sanctions on individuals who are close to the Maduro regime and enabling them to continue to repress um the people of Venezuela. So I think our sanctions will continue to be effective in in in their objective of really putting enough pressure on the Maduro regime so that it will come to the table to have a genuine and good faith conversation about how we can get a transitional government in place inside Venezuela.
[49:52] Diego Area: Thank you very much Deputy Filipetti. Douglas, I want to go back to you. Let’s pivot the conversation and now center on the role of Europe. Could you please explain to the audience how the regime is using European banking structures to move and hide billions and billions of dollars in assets?
[50:13] Douglas Farah: Thank you Diego. I think that first, it’s important to distinguish the fact that the Europeans are not part of the joint criminal enterprise and not criminalized states in that sense. But if you look at the history of the Bolivarian joint criminal enterprise, they’re drawing on multiple decades of experience from the FMLN and el Salvador, running their contraband weapons into El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran which has extensive experience in sanctions busting, North Korea now or Nicolacito the president’s son spends enormous amount of time over in the last few months. So, they have learned over time that Europe is much more tolerant and much less willing to clamp down on financial institutions over things that they do not view as a particular problem in their particular area of influence. So, I think the what we’ve seen is particularly flows into Spain, where there’s been uh friendlier relations between the Spanish government and the Maduro regime than the EU as a whole. You we’ve tracked and I know that others have looked at those enormous amounts of money that flow into Portugal because it’s a relatively easy place to get into. We see in our work on the external networks, the enormous amount of front companies set up in Luxembourg in Switzerland in the famous case of the Banco de Andorra in Andorra. So, you have a much more tolerant state there. And these folks who have dealt with sanctions for years, know where the cracks are they know where the seams are so if you if you read the history of the of the building of North Korea’s atomic capacity back in the 80s and 70s, they used an entirely European network to do that, and elements of those networks survive
[52:00] Douglas Farah: One of the things that astounds me because I’m old and I’ve been doing this a long time, is you see a lot of the same players turning up again and again. Some of the people that were helping the Sandinistas do different things are now handling the money for Daniel Ortega in Europe. Some of the folks that were setting up the FMLN logistics, Jose Luis Medina and others, were running billions of dollars through PDVSA through the same structures that they used in the war that go back to the 1980s. So, you have this wealth of experience, they’re not inventing anything new they’re simply exploiting and going down the road they’ve already know explored and pushing further and they’re very creative they’re very innovative and they understand the cracks. But I think that what we underestimate a lot of times is that they some of these and, with the Cubans they’ve been doing this for 30 years. And so, they’re very experienced and they know the core players who are willing to run the risks and do certain things for a lot of money and they’re willing to pay that money. So I think Europe has to become a little more aware of the regional threat that the regime poses and the network poses in Latin America which will also directly impact them on the amount of cocaine that’s being shipped to them, on the amount of gold that’s being shipped to them, and crashing their mark as the real estate boom in Spain is in part due to the gross inflation of prices due to Venezuelan corruption. So there it doesn’t impact them and I think that helping them understand that and getting much more compliance of already existing laws to people [inaudible] who right there may not understand how important it is I could go a long way.
[53:35] Diego Area: Thank you Douglas. Deputy Filipetti, any thoughts on the potential role of Europe to combat the Maduro regime’s illicit network Douglas just described for us?
[53:44] Carrie Filipetti: Yeah, I think I think Europe is really essential and as Douglas mentioned, you know we really have been focused on coordinating with these countries. Whether it’s Spain, whether it’s Portugal, whether it’s the UK. I think that the recent bank of England ruling is sort of a testament to the importance of countries recognizing interim president Guaidó as a matter of policy and practice as well. In that case, really billions of dollars were at stake that the Maduro regime was was trying to steal for itself that are not the legitimate property of the Maduro regime. So, there is a legal implication of this recognition when we talk about almost 60 countries recognizing Guaidó, there’s a reason why that matters, it’s not purely symbolic. You know, I think when it comes to combating other illicit threat networks and Europe’s responsibility, there’s the banking sector and there’s also, as Doug mentioned, illicit gold. When you look at how the international community combated things like blood diamonds, for example really, required a global comprehensive approach in order to help identify the best due diligence practices, the best ways of combating the supply chain there.
[54:47] Carrie Felipetti: You know, unfortunately gold is very distinct from diamonds it’s not as easy. It’s almost impossible to identify the original origin of gold. But what I think we can do is, by building strong relationships with European countries, we can help um ensure appropriate due diligence for the global supply chain of gold by you know monitoring the exports of gold mining or extraction equipment for example and material by promoting best practices in the jewelry industry to promote – to kind of prevent the types of mining practices that keep the Maduro regime in power. and so again, I think this really requires a major priority of the Trump administration now, which is a comprehensive international approach to addressing Maduro’s continued usurpation. It’s not something that the United States can do alone, it’s not something that the Venezuelan people can do alone, we really do need our European partners to step up to the plate to increase the number of sanctions, to make sure that they’re protecting assets for the Venezuelan people, and to not fall for the tricks that the Maduro regime tries to play.
[56:06] Diego Area: Thank you. Actually, I have a follow-up question for you. Talking about Europe as, we all know two days ago Jose Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, released a statement saying that quote conditions are not met at this stage for a transparent, inclusive, free, and fair electoral process in Venezuela. How do you see the response from the international community following these illegitimate elections, especially given what is increasingly known about the criminal nature of Maduro regime, its partnerships with irregular armed groups, and involvement in activities such as narcotics trafficking and illegal gold mining, just to name a few?
[56:50] Carrie Filipetti: Yeah, I mean, I think the most important thing is for us, as an international community, to not fall for the Maduro regime’s tricks. These elections are fraudulent. You know, that’s clear in in Burrell’s statement, but it’s been clear for months prior to now. You know they’ve declared individuals illegitimate for running for election, they’ve completely ignored the Venezuelan constitution and appointed a new electoral council outside the boundaries of what’s even legally possible for them, they have taken over the leadership of opposition political parties, they’ve declared opposition political parties as being terrorist groups, there’s full censorship, they have almost no voting machines and they throw people in prison for indicating dissent. It’s not just that they haven’t met all the conditions as Barrell mentioned, they haven’t met any of the international conditions. And I think there’s something else that needs to be said here: you cannot have a partially free election. You either have an election that’s free, or you have an election that’s not free, there’s really no ability to take a look at you know all of the international standards for minimum conditions and say, well the Maduro regime met one or two of these so it’s a free election. Even if they do meet one or two, they have to meet all of those conditions because the reason those are the minimum conditions is because that is the absolute floor for what would be considered a free election.
[58:22] Carrie Filipetti: And when you have the complete censorship of all of these parties, when you have the people you know fearing for their lives for advocating or campaigning, this is why the opposition made the determination and issued a statement, I think it was a few days ago, noting that they are not going to participate in these elections. Because they’re not elections and we need to stop calling them that. We as an international community need to first be very, very clear and unified that this is not a free election. We also need to do more to support the interim government and the opposition in its fight. They’re not running but they’re doing something much, much more important which is they’re putting their lives on the line on a daily basis to confront a dictator. The international community needs to do more to stand by them, needs to pledge transition support. Something that Assistant Secretary Natali mentioned is the importance of security assistance in a transition. The Maduro regime has built up the capacity to cause chaos even if there’s a transitional government, so we all, as an international community, need to pledge to be with the Venezuelans when that moment comes. And we also need to make it clear what the consequences will be for the Maduro regime once these elections take place on December 6. So, you know, I think the first step of making it clear that the minimum conditions haven’t been met. I think Burrell’s statement made that very, very clear but I also think that we need to remain united and we and we need to ensure that there are actual actions and consequences for this behavior because if there aren’t the Maduro regime we’ll continue with impunity
[60:06] Diego Area: Thank you Deputy. Assistant Secretary Natali, talking about stabilization, you have extensive experience in post-conflict stabilization in Pakistan, Iraq, among other locations. What best practices does that experience offer for stabilization in Venezuela, what is the US doing to coordinate with partners to prepare for stabilization in a post-Maduro Venezuela?
[60:29] Denise Natali: Thanks Diego, I’ll make this quick. One of the points that we are working on at CSO is to improve the way that the United States government approaches stabilization. And I point to the global fragility act that president Trump signed in December of 2019, this is a very important piece of legislation and this is the way that the United States is moving forward, in the way that we approach fragile states, and the way that we’re going to approach the lessons we learned in the past specifically to countries such as Venezuela. And as I mentioned, we are coordinating the interagency planning so that we can look at the stabilization needs in Venezuela as they prepare for a transition. Now we believe that the best pathway forward is outlined in the democratic transition framework which calls for again a transitional government to administer free and fair elections as Deputy Assistant Secretary Filipetti noted, really free elections not partially free elections. Just to look at one of the one of the ways we approach this in Iraq, and we were able, and I want to focus again and reinforce what my colleagues said about the importance of an international coalition. And this touches upon not just Venezuela but Iran, China, Russia, and Cuba, but we were able to bring together over 50 countries in the fight against ISIS and this condition created a funding mechanism which remember we called the UNDP’s funding facility for stabilization through which the United States and 27 other countries contributed 1.2 billion dollars. That worked. This helped centralize stabilization funding and all of our efforts in Iraq so today we have more than 4300 stabilization programs in Iraq that are planned underway or completed.
[62:17] Denise Natali: So, one of the lessons learned and one of the ways that we can look at Venezuela is through this prism. And again, we also have similar objectives to work we want the Venezuelan people to lead, which is our new approach to Venezuela as our approach to stabilization. And the final point is about working with our European partners in particular. Now again to better coordinate we work very closely my bureau with our counterparts in eight or seven other countries that have stabilization priorities: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany the Netherlands, and United Kingdom. And all of this community this group which we call the stabilization leaders forum is committed to international cooperation we have linked these stabilization units to the interim government so that they can absolutely coordinate not only security sector assistance but who is doing what so that we can fill the gaps. We continue to work with and encourage and enforce burden sharing as we approach the transition for Venezuela because this is critical, as my colleagues indicate. So this is the approach our approach to stabilization learning from some of the positive and negative lessons from the past, Thanks.
[63:27] Diego Area: Thank you very much Assistant Secretary. Back to you Admiral Faller. SOUTHCOM’s enhanced counter narcotic operations in the Caribbean has the support of 22 Nations. Why is it increasingly important to partner with allies to combat narco-trafficking originating from the Maduro regime and irregular armed groups while guaranteeing security in the hemisphere?
[63:52] Admiral Faller: I can’t stress enough the urgency of the threat. I think every speaker here today has pressed that this threat to democracy the threat to economic stability. Add Covid and I think we’ll see second and third order impacts that have me deeply troubled in terms of undermining stability of other nation states. And so, the driver of that threat has coalesced people to work together against it, the 22 nations is one example you cite. I think as we look at this, and we look at important investments that we’ve made as a nation in the past: the US-Colombian Action Plan is still moving forward where Colombians are training partners across Central America to conduct operations against narco-trafficking and terrorists, it’s extremely beneficial. We look at the Central America Security Initiative, the Caribbean Security Initiative these are important investments where the United States time and financial resources will put pay forward for enhanced stability. And that’s part of the solution set here, is making sure we have it right in those states, those investment areas to keep the democracies that have made progress in Central America, and South America and the Caribbean keep them moving forward against this vicious circle of threats, this network that Doug so aptly characterized.
[65:23] Diego Area: Thank you Admiral and thank you everyone. Now I will turn the mic over to Jason, who will take questions from the audience. Back to you Jason.
[65:33] Jason Marczak: Hey thank you very much, thank you very much Diego, thank you for the panel. I’m gonna have two, three questions I’m gonna put together. First question from, Diane Negroponte asked that the panel could be a little more specific on how Colombia could counter the Maduro regime. And I want to tie that to a question from Cristina Burrelli who has specifically how does the panel propose to crack down on the listed traffic of gold from Venezuela through Colombia, and other countries. A question on Colombia from Diana and Cristina. And then a question from Ambassador Anne Patterson, who asked more specifically about Russian, Russia and Venezuela, and mentions that this is potentially a very serious strategic issue for the United States. Note, she knows the raw snap pullback and ask what is the current extent of Russian presence and influence? Admiral Faller, I’ll turn to you first for addressing either one or both of those questions.
[66:27] Admiral Faller: I’ll take the Russian, because it gets right to the heart of this, what’s the center of gravity what keeps Maduro in power, and the Russian influence is front and center in that. Whether it’s in cyber, whether it’s in upgrading air defense systems, whether it’s in helping and evade sanctions with oil, the list goes on whether it helps whether it’s in the information space is spreading disinformation, lies about the extent of their complicity, in keeping Maduro in power the extent to which Maduro has wrecked the country. And so, I watch with alarm what Russia is doing globally, in particularly in Venezuela in terms of the numbers of personnel the back and forth, the rotations of those personnel special whether it’s special operations for us or technicians. And so, I’m completely aligned with Ambassador Patterson on how we view that. I think I’ll in the interest of time I’ll kick it back to you Jason you can let some of the other panelists come in.
[67:29] Jason Marczak: Thank you Admiral. Assistant Secretary Natali.
[67:30] Denise Natali: Thank you so much. I just want, I’ll address the issue on Colombia. When I talked about the role of non-state armed groups, one of the key players in here is Colombia because these non-state-owned groups are not just lodged in Venezuela, they’re moving back and forth. ELN and the FARC, as you know are coming from Colombia as well, we work very closely with our Colombian partners in the government they have been very strong allies in this issue, on addressing the non-state armed groups. One of the ways that we’re doing this in our programs is to enhance the role of the state in some of the rural areas, whether that is through you know narco-trafficking, whether that’s the security sector, for us it’s implementing the peace accord as well, okay and getting the role of the state strengthening that in some of the rural areas um to address some of these non-state armed groups. So, we recognize fully that Colombia is critical to this effort.
[68:25] Jason Marczak: Thank you. Deputy Secretary Filipetti.
[68:29] Carrie Filipetti: Sure so to Diana and Christina’s question on Columbia, you know I think one of the most important things that we’ve been working on when it comes to these illicit threat networks, whether it’s with respect to gold, or whether it’s respect to narco-trafficking, is really ensuring the coordination within the US government. That is sort of first and foremost because we have so many different experts in different fields within the US system that it’s really important that all of them be sort of cohesive and approaching this in a holistic way. So when it comes to gold, we have established an interagency gold working group and the purpose of this is to have all of the experts, whether it’s from the regional bureaus, whether it’s from you know narcotics and law enforcement, whether it’s the law enforcement agencies within DOJ, whether it’s SOUTHCOM and DOD all of them coordinating together to make sure that we’re identifying the various mechanisms that we can deploy in order to confront the illicit gold trafficking. The other thing that’s critically important is for us to make sure that we are working with our partners on border security issues. This is something that we’ve been working with them on for a while now, especially in light of also the huge refugee crisis in the region, it’s the largest refugee crisis that the western hemisphere has ever experienced. And so, making sure that we are really addressing border security is hyper important because what happens is the gold will make its way to Brazil or Colombia and then get exported as if it’s Brazilian or Colombian gold. So preventing it from making it there in the first place is going to be really important so I would say that’s something major that we can do at the border to try to prevent that in addition to the sort of broader um discussions that we had about making sure that they’re not able to mind the world illegally in the first place by not having the equipment and so on.
[70:24] Carrie Filipetti: And to ambassador Patterson’s question on Russia. You know Russia’s role has changed a bit. Certainly, Russia provides probably the largest amount of international support to Venezuela in terms of its role on the security council, and so on and so forth. But we have seen the financial relationship decline a little bit. I think what Admiral Faller mentioned about the disinformation this is a key tactic that both the Cubans and the Russians use, that’s something we need to be especially on the lookout for because that kind of propaganda can be can unfortunately be quite effective so we need to always be on our toes to figure out where the sources of information is coming from to make sure that it’s um it’s not intentional misinformation from either the Russians or the Cubans
[71:09] Jason Marczak: Fantastic thank you. And Doug I’ll give you the, we’re just almost out of time, I’ll give you the opportunity to address that as well.
[71:17] Douglas Farah: Just two quick points. I think what Deputy Assistant Secretary Filipetti said on gold is incredibly important and we see, what we don’t look at very well is the really off the radar places like Suriname, which is the main exporter now Venezuelan and FARC gold; Nicaragua, their ability to move across traditional paths off our radar screen to get stuff to mark I think is a really key part. And, creating the understanding that blood gold is blood gold, it brings prostitution, child labor, slavery, all environmental degradation, all of those things together. And secondly, just briefly on Russia, I would say that it one of the things we have to do is expand our look at what Russia is doing in Venezuela out of Venezuela most of the propaganda and the stuff that is happening during the unrest at the end of 2019 by the Russians came out of Nicaragua and Cuba. That’s where they are operating out of when they can’t be directly in there, so again they have a much broader network they have very strong presence of Russians in Chile, and Argentina, where they’re running front groups that produce all kinds of internet content and things that we’re very little aware of and things that give them platforms what we don’t when we look at Venezuela only, as Venezuela and not his broader network.
[72:22] Jason Marczak: Thank you great thanks Doug. Actually, there was there was a question we didn’t get a chance to get to which was specifically asking about Russia and Nicaragua and the Q&A but I guess, we’ll leave that for the next conversation. I want to end by thanking all of you for joining us today. Admiral Faller, as always fantastic to see you thank you very much for your time and your service. Assistant Secretary Natali, great to have you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Filipetti, Doug Farah thank you all for joining us today. Wish we could all be together in the same room but at least being together in the virtual room is a step in the right direction. And also reminder today’s conversation is really an important reminder of the persistent need for coordinated action against the Maduro regime and its support for democracy and Venezuela. Before we end it, also like to invite the audience to read the policy brief that Doug authored that we released this morning it’s on the Atlantic council website, and also share again this is part of a series of programming on Venezuela, and Venezuela’s illicit activities. Specifically, of course the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center has had extensive Venezuela programming for the last few years but a new series now on Venezuela’s illicit activities. And with our next publication we’ll look specifically at the issue of Iran and Hezbollah. So, with that, again thank you. I want to thank Domingo Sadurni and my team who put this whole event together, Diego thank you for moderating the panel and Adrienne, wonderful you could join us today. With that I hope everyone has a great rest of the day and thank you very much for joining us.