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Transcript: Juan Cruz talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - JUAN CRUZ
CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL
PRODUCERS: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

Listen to this episode on Stitcher

MICHAEL MORELL:

Juan, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show. And most importantly it's great to see you again.
JUAN CRUZ:
Thank you, Michael. Good morning.
MICHAEL MORELL:
I remember having the best mojito of my life (LAUGH) with you in a Bogotá restaurant, I don't know, probably six or seven years ago. It was served in a bowl.
JUAN CRUZ:
Yes, I remember.
MICHAEL MORELL:
But I don't think we can talk about the rest of the story. (LAUGH)
JUAN CRUZ:
No, no. Yeah, it's Andres D.C. I remember that place, yeah. A large gourd. It was--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes--
JUAN CRUZ:
--a large gourd.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Juan, you've retired from government.
JUAN CRUZ:
Yes, sir.
MICHAEL MORELL:
You spent the last part of your career at the National Security Council -- in the early days of the Trump administration. How did you end up at the NSC?
JUAN CRUZ:
Fortuitously. The front office of the State Department was looking for somebody. As was the White House. The predecessor in the position had departed after a very brief time there, less than a month. And I had been interviewed previously for the job. And General McMaster had heard of me. I thought I was going in for an interview. And instead he pitched me. And I ended up there in less than 30 days.
MICHAEL MORELL:
He's a great guy isn't he?
JUAN CRUZ:
Yeah, I respect him a lot. General McMaster didn't know me from Adam. Gave me a great opportunity. And in his style he recognizes talent, and brings it in, and lets it flourish.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So let's dig into Venezuela which is the issue that I really want to talk to you about. Venezuela was not a high priority for the Obama administration.
JUAN CRUZ:
Yes.
MICHAEL MORELL:
I was there. I know. But it became one for the Trump administration. Why did that happen? How did that happen? How did it go from fairly low priority to high priority?
JUAN CRUZ:
You know, that's an interesting question. I would say that we almost went almost two decades of uneven attention to Venezuela. Even before the Obama administration. But I have no idea why President Trump chose Venezuela as an issue. It's authentic.

It comes from him. It was not something that was briefed or coached to him by a member of his foreign policy staff. It's something he believed in. There are some issues like that that he absolutely is tied to and is authentic. Immigration. Drugs. And Venezuela.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Is it the humanitarian piece do you think? I was struck when Syrian President Assad used sarin gas and the president was so taken with the pictures of the dead children. If it was the humanitarian piece in Venezuela. Or if somebody had talked to him about it. It's just interesting to me that it almost came out of nowhere.
JUAN CRUZ:
I don't want to be trite, but he did know Venezuela before through his connections to the Miss Universe pageantry. And Venezuela of course being a producer of Miss Universe's takes pride in the pageantry. And so he had been there before and had a connection through that. Maybe he saw the slow deterioration of the conditions of Venezuela.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Juan, how would you describe U.S. interests in Venezuela? Why should Americans care? Is this just a humanitarian issue or is this a national security issue as well?

And I'll tell you, I was at a dinner last night where we were talking about Venezuela. And one of the people there said -- and I disagree with this so I'm interested to know what you're going to say -- that this is not a national security issue. That this is only a humanitarian issue. What's your sense?
JUAN CRUZ:
Well, I'd say there's what I call the trifecta of interest in Venezuela by the U.S. First, it very much is a human rights issue. It goes to the heart of what we believe in. And these issues of human rights violations, or the violation of democracy, is what drives a lot of the U.S. interest.

And then finally it is a national security issue. It is a national security issue from the point of view of stability in the region. And inviting those actors from outside of the region who have been involved in issues in Venezuela for a long time-- Russia, China, Iran come to mind.

And so it's very much of interest to us. As a student of democracy, I'd point out that when I started in the region in the '80s most of the countries were dictatorships. Mostly right wing dictatorships. Except tellingly Venezuela. Venezuela was a very stable democracy and had dedicated itself for a better part of a decade of two to help other countries reach democracy. So to see Venezuela slip back into a dictatorship is particularly hurtful.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Can you kind of describe the situation inside Venezuela today?
JUAN CRUZ:
Absolutely. It's a failed state. That's the best way to put it. It's a place where nothing functions. And what little functions does so through corruption. It's a place where almost everything you can point to is failing. That means the banking system. Employment.

Pollution, if you want to talk about something that most people haven't focused on, but tremendous environmental effects of what's taking place in Venezuela. The shortage of drinking water. Of course energy. Security. Public security. Almost everything you can point to, Venezuela is an example of the collapse of that.
MICHAEL MORELL:
One of the things you hear about is the shortage of medicine and the impact that that has as well. What about refugees? Talk about refugees a little bit.
JUAN CRUZ:
I'm really pained to see the number of Venezuelans that have left over a period of time. Not only the recent migration issue of Venezuelans, but it actually predates that. About four years back. We have a little over four million Venezuelans living outside of Venezuela as a result of that initial movement. 

And in Colombia in particular we have almost 1.8 million Venezuelans in Colombia. If you want to talk about what kind of stress that places on a neighboring country just think that's about three times the population of Washington, D.C. And that's not to speak of the population of the Venezuelans in Panama, and of course Brazil, and Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina primarily. And those who departed earlier to places like Italy and Spain. Portugal.
MICHAEL MORELL:
It's those refugees in the immediate neighborhood that creates risks to those other countries, right?
JUAN CRUZ:
And a stress on their ability to respond. Imagine if you're Colombia. It's already tough for you to provide education and medical services to your own population just coming out of a 60 year civil war. And then have to extend that even more to an additional 1.8 million people.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Juan, let's keep the discussion going on the current situation. Why do you think Maduro has survived? You know, when you have an economy that's cratered. People fleeing the country by the millions as you noted. And what seems like a vast majority of the country actually despising him. Why has he been able to hang on?
JUAN CRUZ:
I think that's the definition of a dictatorship there. Through an abuse of power and the use of might to stay in power. And of course using the instruments of government to suppress democratic expression. Interestingly enough, Maduro comes to power tapped by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, to replace him. Handpicked successor.

Here's an individual who did not have the grassroots support for a position like that. And certainly not within the leadership of Chavismo. So it's a little bit of an aberration. And his inner circle is quite small and tight. And so part of the reason he's remained in power is because others permit him to remain in power.

He's got a number of rivals. And there's this very delicate balance that allows an individual like Maduro to stay in there. And let's not forget of course that Maduro has a very close relationship to the Cuban government. That allows him of course an instant area of support and legitimacy that substitutes the lack of support within his own party.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And how much does that Cuban support matter to him? How important is that?
JUAN CRUZ:
I think it's invaluable to him. It's just not giving him advice. He takes advice from the Cubans and a little bit of a security blanket. And of course their critical members of his security team. Bodyguard force and palace security.

If it weren't for the Cubans I think Maduro would be further weakened. And it's not just him. It's him and his inner circle have been born of Cuban influence. Maduro studied in Cuba. Ideological studies if you will. And he does have a base of support. Curious because while he is very tight with the Cubans he's not especially close to Raul Castro. I don't think they personally like each other.
MICHAEL MORELL:
But as you know there's a big split in Cuba, right? And he's more aligned with the further hardliners, correct?
JUAN CRUZ:
That's right, old school.
MICHAEL MORELL:
What about the Russians? What role do the Russians play?
JUAN CRUZ:
You know, that's a curious role that the Russians play in Venezuela. There are no historical ties between Venezuela and Russia. This is a relatively recent phenomenon invited through Chavez's desire to have a counter-balance to the U.S. influence. So he invites the Russians.

He invites the use and the purchase of Russian military equipment. Communications equipment. Doctrine. Something that is really a foreign import into Venezuela. He does that also as a way to provide some regional balance. And the Russians love it, right? The Russians come in and they get to put their thumb in the eye on the United States. A little bit of a counter-balance to the U.S.'s interest and involvement in issues like the Crimea for example. Or even Syria.
MICHAEL MORELL:
I want to ask you about Juan Guaido, the opposition leader. What can you tell us about him, and his movement, and where that stands today?
JUAN CRUZ:
Juan Guaido is a recent phenomenon in politics in Venezuela. And a welcome one. Here's an individual that's the opposite of a lot of other Venezuelan figures. He's not a tired figure. He represents a youthful outlook. I would say that even socio-economically and culturally he reflects more of the typical Venezuelan.

And he's got a great story behind him. So he's selected to be the president of the National Assembly. And he shows up. And all of a sudden he takes all that energy, youth, enthusiasm, and commitment and he turns it into something. And between that and the support of the other opposition parties he's able to really change things around.

We were in a low point in trying to encourage the regime to change its ways, its behavior, and to move towards democracy. And he rather quickly moved in there, got the support of the other parties, became a tremendous natural leader, and galvanized the country. And so what we have here is a surprise. I don't think anyone expected this sort of thing. He's come through strong. And he's gotten the support of I guess it's 54 countries now. And that's not an insignificant thing.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Juan, we seem to be stuck at the moment. The kind of picture I have is that both Maduro and Guaido are sort of hanging by their fingernails. How does this standoff end? And what role do you think the U.S. should be playing?
JUAN CRUZ:
Well, there are few options. And even fewer options after the failed let's call it coup attempt of 30 April. I think most everyone was a loser as a result of that event. And now we have these incipient talks promoted by Norway taking place in Barbados.

I think that there are only a few ways out. It's got to be either a negotiated way out -- And I don't think conditions are ready for something like that. The regime has become quite good at using talks, and mediation, negotiation, to simply kick the can down the road and perpetuate themselves in power.

And in the case of the opposition, quite frankly in these negotiations they've gotten the short end of the stick time and time again. So the regime is pretty practiced at abusing the issue of negotiation. Now thankfully Norwegians have a long experience in this. But I don't think the conditions are there yet. You've got to provide the right confidence-building measures. So that this time the regime really is serious and will abide by negotiations. Things they haven't proven to do in the past. And that the Norwegians can nudge them in the right direction.

So one option is negotiations. The second of course is something that is unstated largely. Which is the international community would probably would prefer some sort of coup. Something like the failed 30 April event. Something that allows a faction of the military to, in a bloodless effort, push away the toughest aspects of the regime. And create a transitional government where everyone gets to sit at the table and move the country back into democracy.

The problem is that 30 April, the fact that it's a failed event probably makes that less likely. And what makes it more likely is probably a palace coup. The only winners on 30 April are the military. And they're problem now in a position to stage a coup where they could remain in power without inviting important members of the opposition. Or really only the ones that they would like to co-op.

And then thirdly, something that's had a lot less talk lately, and is a topic for a lot of division, is a military option. And a military option, whether multinational or largely by the U.S., is a serious matter. I think that most people who react poorly to that probably haven't properly defined what military option is.

If you think of military option as a full-scale invasion then I can understand why you would be against it. If you thought a military option could be something other than that -- nuanced options, maybe even non-violent ones, non-kinetic -- then I think that you could probably convince people that some sort of quote, "military option" is an option.
MICHAEL MORELL:
It's that latter type that the Trump administration means when it says all options are on the table?
JUAN CRUZ:
I think the president likes to believe that if you're the United States and you have a whole menu of options, why would you voluntarily discard them? So for the president, when he says that all options are on the table, it's not a rhetorical claim. I think that he really believes that these are instruments that could be applied under the right conditions.

And I don't think that he'd be in favor of a full-scale invasion. If you know the president he's allergic to military adventurism overseas. But, however, in Venezuela that's not the case. But it's not totally an opposite position, a contrary position. It's actually one that's a little bit modified. Yes, I think it's something that might even be something non-kinetic. But still involving the U.S. military--
MICHAEL MORELL:
Is there a regional military option? A Colombia-Brazil kind of thing? Or not?
JUAN CRUZ:
You know, there are a number of countries now that are stakeholders, right? They have skin in the game. And so for the U.S. to look for an option that excluded allies would be even tougher. And in the past, both the Brazilian and Colombian governments have spoken about possible participation. Long since, however, they've discarded that. Now the question to ask yourself is whether that's a position you hold publicly or a position you continue to hold behind closed doors.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Juan, I know that one of the things that you care deeply about is the day after. The day after Maduro falls and a new transitional government is in place. Why are you so concerned about that? Why are you so focused on that?
JUAN CRUZ:
I'm very optimistic on Venezuela. I would say that right off the bat. And to talk about day-after scenarios really is the talk about more positive things. Regardless of how we reach day after, we are in a day after scenario. So something good happened.

And now we're about rebuilding the country. And the challenges are huge. They're enormous. I think a lot more challenging than most people even assume. You have a failed state where most of anything that used to function is broken, outdated, non-functional, and not economically viable. So the opportunities are endless. For example, just to pick something critical to the rebuilding of Venezuela which is its energy and electric infrastructure, to do something like that we could leapfrog into technology that could help Venezuela not restore what it had, but actually create tech that would make it among the most modern in Latin America.

But quite honestly I end up gravitating to my strengths, the issue of security. And the security threats of Venezuela are a long list. And would probably get longer on a day after scenario. Because you'd have a dissident military, dissident Chavistas, and others anxious to make any transitional government fail and step in instead of them.

And in that list of security matters I think are issues that we could quickly get to and resolve. These include everything from counter-narcotics, FARC dissidents, prison gangs-- known as pranes in the country. Thuggery in the form of motorcycle gangs that have been deputized by the Venezuelan regime to do its dirty work, these so called collectivos.

Territorial militias. Colombian guerilla. ELN. (LAUGH) I mean the list is endless. And that's why I think we need to quickly devise a plan and a strategy to address those security threats before they have a chance to neuter any new government or transition government in Venezuela.
MICHAEL MORELL:
What would a plan look like?
JUAN CRUZ:
I think a plan starts with prioritizing the threat. Most of these threats exist today and are ignored by the government. So it's not like all of these threats have to be addressed at the same time. So prioritization of the threat is number one.

And I said number two is a good security system. Right now I don't think we can say that about Venezuela. You'd need to train or retrain security services. You'd also have to give them new capabilities. And you would benefit from using lessons learned that we've had in the region from past examples like this.

I think that's where you could get a multilateral approach on Venezuela. Several countries could come in with their expertise or best practices. Partner up with Venezuela and counterparts. And accelerate their move into a more modern, responsible, and democratic security service that can address this list of security challenges.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Is Plan Colombia a model?
JUAN CRUZ:
I think vast aspect of Plan Colombia could be a model.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Plan Colombia was? Just for our listeners.
JUAN CRUZ:
Oh, yes. It was a partnership between the United States and Colombia. A partnership of effort, of resources, to address a whole litany of security and other issues that were threatening Colombian security. And help Colombia recover from everything from drug violence and guerillas. And to do so in a methodical, strategy-based fashion. A Plan Colombia in an amended form for Venezuela would be actually a fantastic idea. And if nothing else we do need a strategy.
MICHAEL MORELL:
But it would almost need to be, right, a Plan Colombia on steroids given the significance and the degree of the problems in Venezuela wouldn't it?
JUAN CRUZ:
It would. And the amount of money we're talking about is daunting I think. And it would have to rely on more than the United States. A number of countries to come forward, and participate, and invest in a Plan Colombia. There are a lot of scary numbers out there on how much money would be needed to help Venezuela recover.

It's in the billions. Some say $80 billion, $85 billion. I think that number's probably a little low. And I also think that if you look at the numbers on how to rebuild Venezuela's oil industry, which a new Venezuelan government would require to help fund its recovery, then that also tends to be some scary number in the billions. And also a long timeline. Folk who are experts in the oil industry tell me that it could take up to ten years.
MICHAEL MORELL:
My fear is that once Maduro is gone that the international community will say, "We won, it's time to move on." And that there is not a focus on the day after. That's my concern. Do you share that?
JUAN CRUZ:
Michael, you've hit the nail on the head. First, if your measure of success is Maduro's departure, that alone doesn't necessarily mean that there'll be a significant change in the regime. Or even how business is conducted in Venezuela. It might not even mean anything in terms of moving the needle on redemocratization. And quite frankly Maduro, as I said earlier, is not an individual who's particularly a strong leader. Or has a strong following. He simply represents the party. So someone else could step in and be worse than Maduro.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So I know you're not in government anymore. But do you have a sense to what extent there are discussions going on about day after? Not only in our government but between our government and other governments? Is this something that people are actually focused on?
JUAN CRUZ:
I haven't been in government in these discussions recently. But I do know from various forum-- mostly think tanks that have taken this on who have invited foreign governments and members of this administration to sit down and talk about day after scenarios-- I know at that level some discussions have taken place.

I'm comforted by the thought of some really serious countries having deep thoughts and conversations on this issue. The Netherlands comes to mind, believe it or not. You have to remember that the Netherlands has territory in the Caribbean just north of Venezuela in the form of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. So they have some interest.

And then of course places out that you wouldn't normally associate with something like this. The Japanese have had very serious considerations. The South Koreans. The Taiwanese. You know, it gives you just a snapshot on some of the countries that you wouldn't immediately think of who have had some deep thought about day after contributions of Venezuela. And given the enormity of the challenge of a recover of Venezuela, we'll need every single country we can count on.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Juan, just a couple more questions on Venezuela. And then I wanna ask a question about Colombia. On Venezuela though, I don't hear senior administration officials, Trump administration officials, talking about Venezuela as much as they used to talk about it.

And I'm wondering if it's still a priority it was at the beginning of the administration, or whether it's slipped a bit. Either because there's a lot of other pressing stuff out there, from Iran, to North Korea, to China, et cetera. Or because this is really hard. And making progress on this is really hard. And people have kind of moved on. What's your sense on that?
JUAN CRUZ:
You know, 30 April was significant. A number of top advisors on these issues had their fingers singed on that failure on 30 April. The president was supremely unhappy on the developments that day. I think that he probably put a lot more optimism into the outcome.

And so when it didn't happen that way folks had to take a step back. Part of the silence is probably due to regrouping. Taking a quick inventory of where we are and what still can be done. And also it gives everybody a chance to take a deep breath.

You'll read in the press that the president is maybe losing interest in Venezuela. I personally don't believe it. I think that much like everyone else he's trying to take an inventory on where we are on this thing. And what our options are moving forward.

Maduro's proven a lot more resilient than anybody expected. And I think this is one of those opportunities where the president just wants to make sure the next time he sticks his neck out it's going to have the kind of ending that he would prefer.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Two questions here. What's the best outcome that you think we can hope for in the short to medium term here? And then what's the worst outcome that you fear?
JUAN CRUZ:
The best outcome would be something akin to what 30 April had in mind. The future of Venezuela will be one where everyone will have to be a participant, whether you're a Chavista, or whether you're in the opposition. It's something where we're going to have to forgive some sins. Where there'll be people sitting around the table negotiating who perhaps are not the folk that you would want there.

But in the best interest of peace and a resolution of Venezuela, you'll have to permit them to express themselves. And at the end of this there'll be some sort of government that in cooperation, in transition, governs jointly for a period of let's say nine to 12 months. With the objective of moving this into a fair, free, monitorable election where you get an opportunity for democracy to help make choices in Venezuela.

That would be, I think, the best case scenario. And worst case scenario is status quo. Because what you have in Venezuela is an economic vortex, right? I don't think anybody sits around the table and believes that things are going to get better in Venezuela. It's not a bet you want to make. And between the sanctions of the international community, and the incompetence of the regime, and poor economic policy-- it's a bad economic system-- I think that pretty soon you'll see a bad situation get even worse.

And if for some reason the international community can't coax the regime into doing the right thing I think that what we'll have is the regime just holding on indefinitely. And then unfortunately, Venezuela's a domestic and electoral issue for the U.S. as well.

And so as we roll into some pretty critical dates at the beginning of 2020 I think it'll be harder and harder for the administration to do something really seminal in Venezuela. And by the way, conditions will change also with Juan Guaido. He's only president of this national assembly because there's an agreement among the opposition parties to rotate that position. He'll be rotating out of that.
MICHAEL MORELL:
When's that?
JUAN CRUZ:
It'll be in December, January timeframe as well. It coincides with some other timelines.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And do you think there's a risk of a bloodbath in Venezuela? That guns might be turned on the protestors in a significant way? Or do you not worry about that?
JUAN CRUZ:
I do worry about it. I worry about it from the point of view more of a generalized civil unrest. What happens if you don't actually get a coup but you get armed factions within the military? Or the security services turning weapons on each other?

Getting some sort of standoff. Or the population gets cut between those who hold the weapons. Just short of the civil war but some sort of civil unrest is a scenario that keeps me awake at night. It's also the case of where if they did turn their weapons on the population, on the average Venezuelan citizen, we have to think of a Rwanda-style catastrophe. And what we and the world community would be prepared to do about it.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So this difference between best outcome-- which is a transitional government that begins to try to solve some of Venezuela's problems, get back to democracy-- and the status quo, do you think that turns on what the international community does? That internally there's nothing to break the log jam? And is going to take something from the outside?
JUAN CRUZ:
I think it would take something from the outside. But it would have to work in conjunction with something happening inside the country. So right now Maduro can stay in power because he's able to pay off a number of factions. Whether these are corrupt members of the military and security services, or of his own civilian government.

But if you had a number of factors come into play all at once. For example, gasoline shortages and people demonstrating about that. A return to the serious blackouts in the country. And huge demonstrations. And an inability to pay off, you know, corrupt officials. I think all those factors coming together could be the kinda catalyst that makes for a change inside the country. And allows for international foreign actors to assist them.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Juan, let me just finish up here by asking you about the situation in Colombia. And I'm wondering if you're concerned or not. Seems that the peace plan is beginning to unravel a bit. Cocaine production is on the rise again. Are you concerned about what's going on in Colombia? And is there any link to the situation in Venezuela?
JUAN CRUZ:
Unfortunately, the situation in Colombia's gotten a little messy. And it'll be hard for the government to uphold its commitments for the accords. But it's made worse by the fact that you have just alarming rates of coca production. And of course consequent cocaine production.

Something like that makes it harder for the government to respond. Some of these conditions are taking place in areas where the FARC has dominated. Or you have recidivism by members of the FARC. Or you have FARC members who are dissidents and never agreed. Or rather never complied with the agreements.

So those kind of conditions make it tougher for President Duque of Colombia to respond to the needs of the country. And then if you superimpose on that, as we discussed earlier, just 1.8 million Venezuelans and the needs of those people, then I think it makes for a pretty hard country to govern and conditions to be met.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Juan, thank you so much for being with us.
JUAN CRUZ:
Thank you, Michael.
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