Date: 18:00 – 19:00 Wed 15th November 2017
Location: Committee Room 6, House of Commons, Houses of Parliament, SW1A 0AA
Speaker: Diego Arria, Venezuelan Politician and Former United Nations Ambassador
Event Chair: David TC Davis MP and Baroness Hooper
Diego Arria: When I came in I was looking at the Pete Room and I was thinking of Miranda who all the time had many meetings with Pete, and the two best libraries in London – one belonged to Pete and the other belonged to Miranda, and all the Latin Americans who came to London at that time came to visit Miranda, who had the great idea of the liberation of Latin America. Thank you so much for being here, dear friends and dear amigos. It is a great honour and a pleasure to be back again in this cradle of parliamentarian democracy in the world. I was here exactly 7 years ago. And I was thinking at that time I came to say that we had a man in charge of the country who was a dictator and a very dangerous man for the whole region. And I said why he was a threat, and some of my countrymen in Venezuela thought that I was a radical. At that time I remember I quoted 11 political prisoners. It took me two minutes to give their names. Tonight, it would take me two hours to give you the names of all the political prisoners in Venezuela. That tells you how in 7 years he has augmented the threat against the Venezuelans. I plan to speak shortly and then I will have question then answer. The two points that I would like two address are: the first, where are we? What’s happening to us? Is there any way out? I didn’t bring my crystal ball with me, but nevertheless I will try to do my best in that sense. When I came here 7 years ago and I see (*inaudible*)…arranged for me to speak here, to speak at the Oxford Union, to speak at the (*inaudible*) Society, and even took me to hard talks in the wider week, and I’m very happy to be here again. Where are we? I in the Churchill culture I had improvised had written a lot of papers before I came here, but I decided to put them aside because I just came from a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the formula goal that has my name called the Arria Formula which allows non-council members to attend any formal meeting of the Security Council (*inaudible*). Most of you know where we are, but I would like to answer the title that we put to this conversation which is: Venezuela is a threat to international peace and security as a very dangerous Narco-State. This is similar to a conference that I gave two weeks ago at the Council of Foreign Relations in Houston. It replicates what transpired at the Security Council two days ago. I would like to read you a paragraph of the Security General of the US (*inaudible*) at the beginning of his intervention at the UN Security Council because I think it encapsulates the whole thing and the whole dimension of the Venezuelan tragedy. It’s in Spanish so I will translate it. It says: “this meeting is fundamental. In Venezuela, a tyrannical dictatorship has been installed. The country is governed under a criminal scheme with official links to Narco traffic that uses this dead mince for the drug trafficking and money laundering, where the people are incarcerated and tortured, and where the people gather in the streets to reclaim liberties and yet 130 people were killed by the security forces of the state, and more than 15 000 people were hurt. In the wealthiest country in the region – an oil country – people are lacking all kinds of medicines and food. This is important, but at the same time the representative of Caritas – which as you know is a major Catholic organisation – presented views which to me are very painful to even repeat. The representative of Caritas said: “today Veneuela with 31 million people only has 4 million people eating twice a day. 85% of the population is in poverty. 65% of the poor people eat from garbage cans. And this is the wealthiest country in the region. Malnutrition reaches today about 15%. Where the death of children from lack of equipment in hospitals…y’know, when I was governor of Caracas we were (*inaudible*)…they say, that the daily bread is the death of a child, for lack of equipment in medicine. Even though to me it’s an honour and a privilege to be here with you, it is very painful, because I come from the Venezuelan democratic society that was for many years for me a great pride to speak either as a governor or as a Minister for Information or a Minister for Tourism, or as ambassador at the United Nations Security Council promoting and defending the best cause of humanity. And to come here and to explain the deepening human tragedy of my country is something very painful. Especially for people here in the United Kingdom and international community keep telling us that we must enter into a dialogue and to negotiate, because these are the usual words that all diplomats use. I have used it in other countries, but I know what it means, it means you cannot do anything else. It’s like giving aspirin to the people who are really dying. And Venezuela is today the only country in the world under the control of a Narco (*inaudible*). The only country in the world. (*inaudible*) was never a Minister for Defence, was never a President of Columbia, was never a President of the Supreme Court. El-Chapo was never the President of Mexico nor the Minister of Defence. But in Venezuela, the counterparts are. The Vice-President of Venezuela has been indicted as one of the biggest Narco-traffickers and money-launderers in Venezuela. The President of the Venezuelan Supreme Court has been tried for two murders. The President of the Supreme Court. We have 25 generals indicted by the US Treasury Department and now the Canadian government as likely traffickers and money-launderers. And I ask you: how do you deal/negotiate with these kind of people? And I wanted to narrate this to explain how such heinous and horrendous have been committed against Venezuela by certain people if you don’t know what kind of people are in charge. Besides that, Venezuela is not an island. Venezuela is at the tip of South America. It is much more dangerous what happens in Venezuela than could ever happen in Cuba. It is not an Afghanistan with oil, but it is very close to the United States, and now we have the increasing presence and influence of the Russians and the Chinese, both militarily and economically. This presents to the world a very challenging case of how to deal with a regime of that nature and that dangerous dimension. It is not an exaggeration to hear that it is the only country in the region of Latin America where children still suffer malnutrition and people are dying. This is the only country – not even in Haiti. Haiti, which is the poorest country in the region, is better fed than Venezuela, because Haiti had at least some agricultural development. Venezuela, when the Chavez regime came, they liquidated all the agricultural sector, so we became a food importer. Now that they have thrown away the money, corrupted the economy, they don’t have the resources to buy the food. So the dimension of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis is more dramatic and unprecedented. We have an enormous problem that most of you know which is the Venezuelan exodus. I have seen here many Venezuelans in the room. We have about 3 million people who have left the country in the last 10 years. We used to be an importer of talent, of people. We had the luck to bring all kinds of Europeans to our countries in the ‘50s. We are now an exporter. In 1990, there were 60 000 Venezuelans living outside Venezuela, today there are 3 million. Not because they are tourists, but because they are forced by economic situation, circumstances and violence. Venezuela has become a violent, failed, and robbed state. If you go to MIT, the President of MIT is a Venezuelan. If you go to Memorial Hospital in New York, two of the directors are Venezuelans. If you go to the Jackson Hospital in Miami it is the same and all over the world. But this will be the capital which we will need to rebuild the country because without the Venezuelan diaspora that it going to be absolutely impossible. One of the limitations that we have today among many is that we have won elections but it is not enough in Venezuela to win elections if you don’t have the power to force it. We have used all the Jeffersonian methods to (*inaudible*) constitutionally and peacefully. We won the National Assembly 2015 by two thirds. What did the regime do? The next day they immediately eliminated 3 of our congressman and lately created something that they call the National Constituency – something absolutely fraudulent, illegitimate and illegal. Not because I say so, but because the European community said so, because the Latin American countries said so, and all the institutions have condemned this. Recently we had an election, we had a popular plebiscite asking three things to the people: 1) would you repudiate this national constituency? 2) will you demand the the armed forces protect and enforce our constitution? And 3) would you create a government of national unity? Well, the President of the National Assembly didn’t do any of the three things, and the government is out to take the temperature on some of the members of the opposition. And immediately they knew that they could really get away with murder. What did they do? They called for elections of governors. I’ve been a governor but a real governor. I had the police, education, health… today the governors are not members of the political party of the regime, they are only people who are paid salaries, they don’t have any power or control. But nevertheless, some of the opposition political party members presented themselves to the selection and won 4 or 5 governorships, which is to me a way to legitimise a fraudulent election. The international community is warning us to not participate in elections that are not clear, transparent and under supervision of the European Union or the organisation of the American States, because not even the United Nations is equipped properly to handle elections. This didn’t happen, and that actually presents a problem for us. We have been trying to create a citizens’ platform independent, plural, representative, beyond the small increase of political parties. I think when you have a working democracy, the political parties are fundamental, we all know that. But how do you react, which instruments do you use when you are facing a Narco-State? This is a question that I would like ask you, because I have been in many countries in the world when I was on the Security Council, and I’ve never seen anything more complicated an institution to overcome. But I am convinced that without a forceful, external intervention we will never be able to rescue our country. Some people may be scandalised. Well I am more scandalised by the idea that we’re going to be perpetually under a tyranny, a Narco-militarised tyranny. I would rather have a more forceful intervention. I believe that a stronger humanitarian intervention in the region is essential. When you see that so many children die – already the human capital of Venezuela has been (*inaudible*). About 20% of the children who are less than 5 years old will not be normal. They are already handicapped in their growth. That’s pathetic. When you see that, anyone who can help us will be useful. I remember when President Trump said ‘well we want to help Venezuelans, and I am considering a military operation’. And I said ‘well, whoever will help us to rescue our freedom, our rights, and to rescue our people is more than welcome’. I believe that that is going to happen, but to happen it will be an alliance of the willing. In Iraq and in the Gulf War, at that time President Bush organised the alliance of the willing – a war to enter Iraq to rescue Kuwait. Something of that nature would have to happen in Venezuela. The secretary general…
David T. C. Davies MP: I’m very sorry, we have to go vote, but Baroness Hooper will take over. We may be back.
Diego Arria: When I was here 7 years ago the Baroness was also sitting next to me so I’m very happy to see her again. The secretary general said ‘real politic is becoming immoral politic’. We have suffered the indifference of the international community for many years. When we, as Venezuelans, had a democracy, there wasn’t one single country in Latin America that doesn’t owe us a debt of gratitude for what we have done for them politically, and in terms of human rights, and democratically, there’s not one single exception. This is changing, but now the international community is changing. For example, for the European Union to take this decision a couple of days ago is very significant. The European Union is a large, fundamental organisation and I believe that this will lead them to further steps. It is the same as the Canadian measures. Argentina, for example, is planning to take the properties of Venezuelans linked to the regime who have stolen Venezuelan property. And I’m sure that if the Argentinians do that, some other Latin American countries will do it too. And when you see the President of Columbia saying that his worst nightmare is Venezuela you have to pay attention, because Santos said one time that Chavez was his best friend, and I said ‘yes he’s your best friend because he’s destroying our economy and he’s benefiting the Columbian economy. I would understand from that point of view that he is a great friend’. But now that the economic interests are fading and political realities are emerging, he understands that we’re a nightmare. I said once to President Uribe when he was more interested on the economic advantages of Venezuela, I said “Alvaro, we are the North Korea of Columbia. Take us seriously. Venezuela is a major threat to you”. And now there’s been a peace plan with the Columbian (*inaudible*) it is much more dangerous. Well, we make a highway through Columbia of drugs. (*inaudible*). This is a horrendous thought. But I’m not making it up. This is a reality. Venezuela continues to be controlled by the Cubans. The Cubans are very talented people, so talented that a few people in this small, poor island have been able to conquer Venezuela without firing one shot. During the war of independence that we had with the Spanish, the King of Spain sent 22 000 soldiers. We have 60 000 Cubans in Venezuela. I’m not saying they are all soldiers, but many of them are, and they (*inaudible*) that control intelligence, they issue our passports, our identification, (*inaudible*). We have lost absolute sovereignty of our country, and we have lost it to a small power. Cuba is the occupying power of Venezuela. It is ironic, absurd, but it is real. (*inaudible*). Well if it’s so serious, so grave, so dangerous, why do I continue? I have daughters who are 20 years old. I now have 3 grandchildren, 3 years, 2 years and 1 year old. I would like for them to really be able to live in my country again. I am committed to the freedom and rescue of the liberty of my country. I’m not running for anything, my role has always been independent. I’ve been encouraged by the young people that were killed in the streets holding Venezuelan flags, or playing the violin, or a lady stopping a tank. There were so many encouraging signs. We have really great people. Thank you.
Baroness Hooper: Thank you very much. I’m taking over the chair at the request of David Davis. Just to introduce myself, I’m Gloria Hooper, Baroness Hooper, a member of the House of Lords with a longstanding interest in Latin America. And I wanted to say thank you to Diego for what he has told us. But a lot of it is not new, because we have had a number of visitors from Venezuela recently, and in September Julio Borjes, the president of the Asamglea Nationale, as was the mother of Leo Pollo Lopez, Antonietta Lopez, and as a result of the meeting we had here in parliament, I tabled a question asking the government what could be done on a national and international level to put pressure on the present regime in Venezuela to help solve the crisis. The reply of course was that we’re working with all possible partners in order to do this, but it does seem to me that a regional pressure has to be brought to bear and I know that the LIMA group, led by Ricardo Luna, the foreign minister of Peru, has been busy in this area. But if the neighbours of Venezuela could put pressure on it seems to me that that would be even more effective than international pressure because also the IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union) which has representatives from all the elected parliaments in the world, is putting pressure on. They’ve sent representatives from the IPU international and also their committee on human rights. So the difficulty is knowing what we can do in order to achieve a more effective result. I would like to hear from you about the effect of regional pressure and in particular the LIMA group, but there may be other initiatives. But I know there are other questioners who want to add something, so perhaps if we take two or three questions in a go, because there is not so much time.
Question: How do you deal with Narco-traffic gangs? If we look at the past and we look at how you deal with Narco-traffic gangs in Columbia where they get killed, or how you deal with Narco-traffic gangs in Mexico where they get killed, why should the ones in Venezuela be any different?
Question: What would happen if America stopped importing heavy oil and if the army had its trafficking stopped and wasn’t able to pay salaries, would they kill the citizens?
Diego Arria: I’ll start with Baroness Hooper. Two days ago when we had the meeting at the Security Council on the issue of Venezuela, the LIMA group requested that the ambassadors not attend the meeting, and this was the most important political event for 18 years for Venezuela. So I wrote to them and said what’s going on? They said ‘well, a percentage of some of the opposition party told us that they were willing and about to start negotiations and even Maduro announced it so they said if there is a meeting at the United Nations Security Council it would be rough and it would reveal the details of the tragedy, and that may affect our negotiation. I think that’s very unfortunate. I wrote a letter from this platform that we created to the president of the LIMA group as well as to the president of the Dominican Republic who was organising that event. The Dominican Republic for 18 years have voted against our country at the United Nations. If you look at what happened to Columbia making the mistake of choosing (*inaudible*) as the centre of negotiations, Venezuela would be more or less repeating that. If we knew how to stop the Narco-traffic gangs – the Americans have spent trillions of dollars in the war against drugs to little success. In Venezuela you might think it would be easier because the main traders are in the government or related to the government, or in the army or the police. It is the safest drug route in the world in Venezuela. Because you are escorted by a national guard of policemen or some members of the army, so there’s no danger. (*inaudible*). It would only be possible if we get rid of this regime, without that it would be impossible. I wrote an article in Madrid a couple of months ago where I said ‘why don’t we replicate the Iraqi model?’ Give the money from oil for food and medicine. You have to ensure the food and the medicine are not squandered by a corrupt regime, but that would be one way.
Now to the armed forces. A very wise British general said to me once: ‘ambassador, the military way until they cease to way’. That’s all I know about the military. It’s very difficult to know what’s going on in the armed forces. They are supervised by the Cuban intelligence and there are many Cuban officials watching. The only time that I’ve seen two Venezuelan officers together is because they were married to two sisters, so I hope they were not willing to chat to the other one.
Question: (*inaudible*) how do we tackle the corrupt passport system?
Diego Arria: Minorities everywhere in the world will want to organise themselves, and when they organise themselves they have power. This is the greatest democracy in the world, nobody can deny it. So my own suggestion is to organise better.
Baroness Hooper: Excuse me but we may be the greatest democracy in the world, but in the Houses of parliament we’re not supposed to take photographs or film without a special permission. Maybe you have a special permission, but if not please don’t. Thank you.
Question: Winston Churchill once said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and American US intervention has never ended well whenever they militarily intervene in third party nations. And there are elections next year, are there not, where there will be an opportunity to elect a new president? Can you also comment on the sanctions (*inaudbible*)? I’ve got to head off to the vote…
Baroness Hooper: Perhaps we could have a quick answer then?
Diego Arria: Yes, a quick one. We have something called the ministry of the national election council, it’s an arbiter, although it is not, actually they call it the ministry of elections of the regime. Lately, a friend of mine who’s a German has a company here and in America that advises on elections, and in the last election he said that minimum 100 million votes were fraudulently included. That talks highly about the best model in the world. President Carter has been criticised harshly by many of us during those years. He has repented from this dogma, I had a talk with him last year and he’s not saying that this situation is completely different. With the system that we have today, it would be impossible to win because they won’t allow us to participate in a clean election for governor. They only have one purpose which is to stay in power, because many of them will not have anywhere else to go. Their crimes against humanity and corruption, we have to learn how to manage these things if we really want to get rid of them terminally. Now you can go vote, thank you.
Question: My experience on the ground suggests that most people dislike or distrust the government, but a) don’t think much better of the opposition and b) literally can’t afford to protest against the government on a daily basis. So given that the government doesn’t seem inclined to relinquish power in a democratic power and has most of the army on its side, is there any chance for change any time soon that doesn’t involve US intervention?
Diego Arria: Yes. You have a population that’s been decimated. The exodus is 3 million people out of the country. So many people are subjected to hunger and diseases that it makes it very difficult to mobilise. I’m not saying that the only way will be exclusively intervention by the US, I actually believe that it should be an alliance of the willing. I think the Columbians and the Brazilians have much more to lose than the United States. By the way, when the gentleman who left talked about US intervention, maybe I shouldn’t say it in this house, but twice in the last 100 years have the Americans helped us. First, when the British wanted to take the Sakibo area from us and we were a defenceless, weak country. And in 1902-3, England, Italy and Germany put a naval blockade over Venezuela, and who lifted it? President Roosevelt. So in the case of Venezuela, we were saved twice.
Question: could you maybe say something about the influence of China and Russia in Venezuela, and what form does it take?
Diego Arria: China has a different kind of relationship in internal affairs than Russia do. The Chinese have enough territory to operate, the Russians do not. We have become the second buyer of Bellic armament and supply from Russia. Russia has chosen Venezuela as the last strategic alliance when Chavez was in power. He signed many contracts. And the Russians look at Venezuela as a much more advantageous place than Cuba: Cuba’s an island, Venezuela is the tip of South America which is very important, we are the greatest oil reserve in the world and so have great mining potential, and we are very close to the United States. The Chinese have been helping Venezuela more from a financial point of view, but we have been paying them in oil in conditions that I consider unjust and unfair on Venezuela. But the regime has found in the Chinese a willing supporter, which allows the Chinese to increase their influence and power and economic activities in Venezuela. The same thing the Russians did yesterday, they re-financed $3 billion to the Venezuelans to regain much more power and influence in mining and other commercial activities.
Question: how do we provide aid to Venezuela that might then give them some energy to help find regional solutions to the problem?
Diego Arria: I believe you’re very right. We should provide humanitarian intervention outside the country, to those bordering Venezuela such as Columbia, Brazil, and other countries like Panama. If we were to provide medicine and food to these people to relieve their load it would be good, but it is complicated because we would need either OAS or the United Nations or another organisation because the government believe that if we give food to Venezuela it would be viewed as an intervention rather than a humanitarian assist.
Question: (*inaudible*) can you explain the real situation in terms of all the actors in the conflict?
Diego Arria: Venezuela has become a transit. We don’t produce cocaine even though laboratories – I was talking to a friend of mine about establishing laboratories because they are under the protection of the authorities. But Venezuela is not alone: Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua etc. we don’t have a monopoly on sin. But we are the only one that is controlled by the regime, and that makes us an exception.
Baroness Hooper: Well we’re running out of time now and there’s a gentleman at the back who wants to ask a question and you wanted to so these will be the last two questions.
Question: Several weeks ago there was an inter-party meeting on Venezuela. They were raising the issue of the danger that Venezuelans pose who come to the UK because of the drug trade. But what I want to ask you is could you talk more about the links between Venezuela and international terrorism in aiding and abetting and how that poses a danger to the UK?
Diego Arria: I think this is a very significant point. It’s always the most complicated to prove. Venezuela has been providing passports to people from our consular member in Oman and Lebanon for a long time. We would just give them visas for Venezuela and when they came to Venezuela we gave them a passport, and we do not need visas almost anywhere except the United Kingdom for different reasons. So that became a problem, it was like a Bermuda Triangle. People would come through Venezuela and they would disappear and appear in any other country with a Venezuelan passport. They didn’t speak Spanish, but they still got Venezuelan passports. There are many people that link us to people in Hezbollah and other groups in the Middle East. I personally have not participated in any kind of these investigations or have access to them. I remember talking to the intelligent community in Washington to talk about issues like this and how we faced it in the Security Council. And I said ‘listen they are giving visas and passports in Venezuela to all over the place. Listen, if you walk from the Wahida peninsula you can walk to the Panama Canal in 5 or 6 hours. So if you bombed the Panama Canal it would be more serious than any threat that happened on September 11th. But people are not paying attention. An American said to me about Chavez: “don’t worry, we’ll not judge him by his words, we’ll judge him by his deeds”. And I said “listen John, words tend to turn into deeds”. They underestimated Chavez, they thought he was a buffoon, and I said yes, but a very dangerous one.
Question: (*inaudible*) Links to Syrian terrorists from Venezuela.
Diego Arria: When I speak I try to be as sure of what I’m saying, and I did not go into detail. Of course, the President and his father and the Vice-President is linked to the Ba’ath Party or whatever, I don’t know about that, but that’s what the public says. Nevertheless, he’s being indicted by the US Treasury as a Narco-trafficker and a money-launderer, and he’s the Vice-President of Venezuela.
Baroness Hooper: Well I’m afraid we have to finish; we have the room only for an hour. But I think Diego you’re a very brave man. But I think the Consul is also a brave man because he’s probably a minority of one amongst us. I would like to know, who in the room is from Venezuela? Virtually everybody, yes. So part of the diaspora that we’ve been talking about. Well whatever we’ve achieved today, we’ve been able to get some things off our chests. I don’t think we’ve found a solution, but we must find a solution because there is a terrible humanitarian crisis, as you say. Anything that we on the UK side can do to help, obviously we wish to do, and I think the fact of being able to have a meeting such as this here is all part of the way forward. But I would like to think that we could find something positive to do. I’ll pick up the suggestion over there because I think it’s something practical that maybe we can move on to do. We hope that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and if everybody keeps the issue alive then that at least is very important for the people who are having problems.
Questioner: Baroness Hooper, Venezuelans have been a race always of never leaving their own country because they live two worlds. Now if the mass emigration continues, there will be more Venezuelans out of the country than in the country.
Diego Arria: the word ‘diaspora’ is a new word for the Venezuelan people. I bet that 99% of the Venezuelans never knew the meaning of that because we never had diaspora. So this is something that’s been happening, learning a new word. I want to thank all of you, and I want to tell the Venezuelans something. (*inaudible*). I tell the Venezuelans, listen, the day that we really unite ourselves, we’ll be surprised by the wonderful things we’ll be able to achieve together, and Venezuela will not come out of this in parts, it will come out together, or it will not come. Thank you very much.
Baroness Hooper: Thank you very much Diego, and thank you to the Henry Jackson Society.