U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) questioned Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols at a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing assessing U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Rubio pressed Nichols on the Biden Administration’s sanctions relief to the Maduro regime after a U.S. delegation traveled to Miraflores, and about the status of the ongoing investigation of a plane linked to the Maduro and Iranian regimes in Argentina.
Video of Rubio’s remarks can be found here and a full transcript is below.
Nichols: No. The conversations led by our special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, are active and ongoing. I believe that he has briefed, in the past, along with [U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela] Jimmy Story, on some of the conversations that we have had.
Our focus is securing the release of all wrongfully detained Americans worldwide. If you are in a conversation with [U.S. Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs] Roger Carstens, and you are a foreign country, that is not a normal relationship. That means that you are engaging in activity which is reprehensible, and we will do everything in our power to secure the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans. I have a photo of Tomeu Vadell, given to me by his family, that I keep in my office to remind me of the priority of this effort.
Rubio: I understand. But earlier this year, the ambassador to Venezuela, Jimmy Story, and the National Security Council's Juan Gonzalez, visited Caracas, ostensibly, as it was reported, to discuss the release of American citizens. So they were there for that particular purpose. And then there were these leaks or stories out there about how they had offered sanctions relief in return for releasing, for example, the CITGO 5. So were those stories, those media accounts of the ambassador and Mr. Gonzalez's visit to Caracas, were those inaccurate stories?
Nichols: The visit had two purposes. One was to, in close concert with the interim government and the Unitary Platform, to create a framework for a return to negotiations in Mexico City. And two, to negotiate with the regime on the release of wrongfully detained Americans. And we took advantage of that opportunity to also visit imprisoned U.S. citizens and provide them with [services].
Rubio: But I guess that's my question. So we sent the ambassador to Venezuela [and] we sent a member of the National Security Council staff to meet with the regime. At that time, it was not [Carstens], it was them. They went to talk about two things, a framework to get Maduro back to the negotiating table and a framework to release unlawfully detained, unjustifiably detained Americans. In exchange, I imagine the Venezuelans would want something in return, other than a visit. As part of that conversation, were there offers made that—if you return to negotiations, here's sanctions relief? If you release these people, here’s sanctions relief?
I understand the hostage negotiator and the ambassador in charge of that [have] not done it, as you've testified. But as part of that meeting? Because there's these stories out there, so I just want to know. Do you know? Are those stories false, that they actually offered sanctions relief in exchange for whether it's returning to negotiations or releasing Americans?
Nichols: Thank you, Senator. As I said in my opening statement, we are willing to modify our sanctions policy in response to progress toward negotiations and concrete steps by the Maduro regime in negotiations. And that was discussed with the Maduro regime in close coordination with interim President Guaido and the Unitary Platform.
Rubio: So just to be clear, the sanctions modifications [and] relief would be in exchange, for example, for them returning to negotiations, agreeing to return to negotiations?
Nichols: Substantive progress in the negotiations.
Rubio: Okay. Because you're aware they've used negotiations repeatedly over the years to buy time? Even the Vatican no longer is willing to step in the breach and put that together. I hope that hasn't been forgotten.
I don't want to run out of time, but I want to ask you about something else that's happened…
In June of this year, a cargo plane landed in Buenos Aires. The plane used to be owned by U.S.-sanctioned Iranian airline Mahan Air. It was illegally transferred to the U.S.-sanctioned Venezuelan state airline Conviasa. I understand that it's now subject to a seizure warrant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last month, I, along with Senator Ernst, sent a letter to the Attorney General asking him to cooperate with law enforcement. What is the status of the judicial process in Argentina concerning the confiscation of that plane?
Nichols: Thank you for that. We will continue to use all the law enforcement tools available to stop criminality and sanctions violations.
Rubio: What’s the status of the process?
Nichols: There's an investigating judge in Argentina who is conducting an investigation and we are cooperating in that process. I would have to refer you to the Department of Justice for additional details.
Rubio: So we're waiting for the Argentine judge. It’s their process, I understand.
Nichols: We are supporting that process. We have provided information into that process at various points, which led to the final judicial order to seize the plane.
Rubio: Okay. Thank you.