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Pompeo To Rubio: “Senator, We Agree”
Washington, D.C. — During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) discussed the continuing crisis in Venezuela with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Rubio asked about the threat that the Maduro regime poses to the U.S. national security interests. In response, Secretary Pompeo highlighted that the Maduro regime continues to receive assistance from Russia, Cuba, and Iran. Rubio also noted grave and growing threats that Israel faces from the Iranian regime and Foreign Terrorist Organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Senator Rubio and Secretary Pompeo’s full exchange is below.
Rubio: “The President recently expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of cocaine that is being produced in Colombia, and I thought it was important to point, and I know he’s aware of this, that the migratory situation coming from Venezuela into Colombia is an extraordinary drain on that nation’s resources. We have ELN and other drug groups operating openly and with impunity on the Venezuelan side of the border, with the support of all the Venezuelan government officials. The migrants, by the way, are very vulnerable people, some of whom are now being actively recruited in efforts to get them to join some of these gangs on the border. The drug flights that come out of Venezuela carrying the cocaine headed north. By the way, many of those planes land right in the Northern Triangle countries where they are passed on to drug trafficking organizations that are fueled by the drug proceeds and, of course, are a key part in destabilizing Central of America, leading to our migratory crisis. On top of that, in Venezuela you have an active and growing Russian military presence, as we have seen in open source reporting. Yesterday, the open source reports about the resumption of direct flights from Iran by the airline that our nation has sanctioned for support to the IRGC. And adding to all of this fun and games, is the fact that we know that they have purchased a series of MANPADS of Russian-made systems, which in a place where you’ve got gangs acting with impunity in the streets, links to drug trafficking organizations, links to guerilla groups on the border, there is always the concern that these MANPADS could be stolen or transferred for profit. They’re involved in every sort of illegal trafficking imaginable. I guess that leads to the question, could not the argument be made, or is it our position, that the Maduro regime, based on all of this that I have just outlined, represents a direct threat to the national interest and the national security of the United States?”
Secretary Pompeo: “Senator, I don’t think there is any doubt that that’s the case, that the Maduro regime presents a threat to the United States of America. You mentioned Iran. Hezbollah has been in South America, this risk is very real. The drugs, something that has been around for a long time, that is not a new problem. And now the Russian footprint. Couple that with their connection to the Cubans, and the Cuban inner-circle that is around Maduro, and it is clearly the case that the former leadership of Venezuela, the Maduro regime, is a true threat to the United States of America.”
Rubio: “And I guess the broader point is that, of course we care about human rights and democracy in our region and especially in our hemisphere, and we are going to be supportive of it. But beyond that, there is a national security interest for the United States and what is happening there.”
Secretary Pompeo: “Senator, we agree.”
Rubio: “And one more point on these gangs. They call them the colectivos, you are aware of them as we have seen. The normal argument you hear out there is the military is sticking with Maduro and there is truth to that. But really what he is using now to control the country and repress are 50,000 members of over 500 gangs, literally street gangs, that he’s armed and actually openly calls upon to take the streets and repress people. It would be my view and I think that the White House and the State Department would share, that these military officials, high ranking military officials, who in the past in Venezuela have openly discussed how these groups are unconstitutional and operating outside the law, it would be incumbent upon them to step forward and confront these groups at a minimum. They may not do a coup d’état, they may not take out Maduro, but they must confront these armed groups in Venezuela who are basically running the streets.”
Secretary Pompeo: “Senator, we agree and to the extent we’ve had the capacity to talk to them directly, we have shared that they need to do that. It is a bit embarrassing to be a Venezuelan senior leader. You’ve got the Cubans protecting Maduro and you got the colectivos keeping down people inside of the country. We hope they will make decisions that are very, very different from that. We have also spoken about this publically, it’s a real threat. These little roving gangs are doing enormous harm inside of the country. Not only are there water shortages and food shortages, but there are now Venezuelan people being observed by these colectivos and their behavior isn’t consistent with what Maduro would wish. They’re under the thumb of these roving gangs.”
Rubio: “Yeah, just one side note on that. These gangs, they’ll be repressing people in the street and attacking them and spot somebody walking down the street and snatch their purse, and then go back to repressing. They’re criminals. One last question, I support the designation of the IRGC. I think that was the right decision. Has the Administration made clear through every channel, that if in fact now as a result of this, U.S. troops in Iraq are targeted, not just designated terrorists groups, but targeted, whether it is by Shia militias, the IRGC, or a combination thereof, no matter who targets us in Iraq from that Shia militias or the Iranians, that we will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm that comes to our personnel in the region, even if they do it through a third party surrogate?”
Secretary Pompeo: “Senator, we have made clear that Iran cannot escape responsibility for any harm that comes to United States interest anywhere in the world by doing it through a proxy force. They understand President Trump’s policy.”
Rubio: “Just to follow up on the Israel point. Israel, I do not think I can recall a time in recent memory where such a state that nine miles in its narrowest point has faced the array of threats it now faces. It looks north and sees Iranian and Hezbollah elements operating openly, just north of its border in Syria. It looks northwest into Lebanon and sees Hezbollah more capable with ammunitions that are now precision guided. It looks at what is happening in Gaza repeatedly, not just with Hamas, but with other sub-elements who are the ones behind these recent attacks that we’ve seen over there. It sees Iran continue to advance in its missile capabilities. And on top of all that, it’s my observation that sure, it would be great if we had this solution to this problem with the Palestinians and Israelis, but the problem from Israel’s point of view when you take all of that into context is any territory on its border throughout its history has been used to target and to attack Israel. And second, who would they negotiate with? It is not even clear who has the authority or the ability to deliver on a deal at this point. And in fact, some of the deals that are being discussed now are not nearly as generous as deals that have been rejected in the past. So I guess my first question would be, isn’t it fair that anything we do with regards to talking about Israel and talking about solutions to the Palestinian issue, take into its context all of these other threats that are currently weighing on it, recognizing that some argue that by dealing with that these other issues go away? But it is fair to take all of that into consideration.”
Secretary Pompeo: “It is not only fair, it is necessary. Israel has a right to defend itself. It has a right to create a situation on its borders that provides security for it and its people and I’m very confident that the United States will continue to support that.”
Rubio: “If tomorrow the issue with the Palestinians were resolved, and it would be great if it were, would it in anyway, in your view, lead Iran to be less hostile towards Israel?”
Secretary Pompeo: “Unimaginable.”
Rubio: “Would it lead Hezbollah or those elements to be less hostile to Israel?”
Secretary Pompeo: “No chance.”
Rubio: “And I believe it’s still the case, that some of these groups that Israel is being asked to cut a deal with have as their stated objective the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state?”
Secretary Pompeo: “That is true.”
Rubio: “I would imagine that is in that vein, that the Administration has requested $3.3 billion in security assistance to Israel and I just want, if I may, to ask you to further comment, because one of the interesting things about is, and I say this and I hope that I am wrong but I do not believe that I am, that a future Israel-Hezbollah war, even though neither side seems to want one, certainly at this point they may wind up in one anyway. In essence, as Israel is forced to defend itself by targeting certain elements, it can trigger a counter-response, from Syria for example, that Israel would have to respond to could rapidly escalate, the situation in Gaza could quickly escalate at any moment, particularly if attacks resume inside, for example, suicide attacks in Jerusalem, they will respond to these things very strongly. Any of these responses could rapidly trigger escalation that could lead to a war. So, the truth of the matter is that there is a hair-trigger threat that at any moment an open and very severe conflict can open up with anyone of these threats that they now face. I imagine that was the thinking behind the Administration’s commitment on this year’s budgeting for security assistance.”
Secretary Pompeo: “That is absolutely true. We believe that is money well spent for American security, in addition to Israel’s security. You describe the threats there are very real, almost every one of them is connected to Iran. The risk that Iran will decide to put missile systems inside of Lebanon, the Israelis will feel compelled because the threat is so enormous they won’t have the reaction time. The risks of escalation for these kinds of activities that Iran is engaged in is very, very real.”
Rubio: “One last question on the Houthis in Yemen. I have remained concerned that they would acquire from Iran, and I imagine that Iran would be the one that would supply them anti-ship missiles that would allow them to directly threaten not just Saudi shipping, but inadvertently U.S. shipping or perhaps directly as a result. I know there has been a lot of debate here about Yemen and the U.S.’s role in that, but I think lost in that debate has often been the threat that the Houthis in Yemen pose particularly as they have increasingly become it seems surrogates and agents on behalf of the Iranian regime.”
Secretary Pompeo: “The risk is not only the ships at sea, but missile systems inside of Yemen that are Iranian missile systems that land in big cities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And if they’re extended just a little bit into the Emirates and Gulf states, Americans transit there all the time. You all transit there on trips. These risks to U.S. interests are very, very real. They are not just providing the equipment and hardware either, they are providing the training so that the Houthis can actually use and implement more effectively these weapon systems. UAVs as well, the technology rate that is being transferred from Iran to the Houthis presents a real risk. Certainly to southeast Saudi Arabia, but to the broader Gulf states in America as well.”