Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sen. Bob Menendez On Venezuela


Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, is the ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee. And we started our conversation by asking him about the Russian troops in Venezuela that Special Representative Elliott Abrams says are rebuilding the ground-to-air missile system that was damaged by all the blackouts.

BOB MENENDEZ: Well, we know that Russian military aircraft arrived this week with a hundred or so Russian military personnel onboard and, ostensibly, with some purpose to help the Maduro regime in terms of some equipment. I'm really not sure of the nature of the equipment. But I really have serious questions, and we have asked our intelligence community about what is the true nature of the Russian presence. And I have no doubt that part of it is to prop up Maduro's generals so that they don't defect.

SIMON: So you think it's possible Russian military personnel are there to make Venezuelan military personnel think twice about rejecting or running out on Nicolas Maduro.

MENENDEZ: Absolutely. I have seen already the Cubans are there. The Cuban security apparatus has been helping Maduro create silos between the generals so they don't talk to each other because they know that there is a risk in doing so, that they could actually lose their life. And I don't believe that, all of a sudden, the Russian presence is there for something as benign as helping them with military equipment or hardware.

SIMON: My colleague Ari Shapiro of All Things Considered has been reporting from the Colombian side of the border, and he spoke with the Colombian ambassador to the U.S., Francisco Santos who said plan A in Venezuela would be a peaceful resolution. But he said if that didn't work...


FRANCISCO SANTOS CALDERON: Plan B would - would involve violence. I don't even want to think about it, to be very sincere. I don't want the continent to have a plan B option. I'm very scared of what might happen.

SIMON: What do you think he means?

MENENDEZ: Clearly, you have to be really concerned because, to the extent that there's been any invasion in Venezuela, it has been by Russians; it has been by Cubans. The Chinese are helping Maduro as well, financially and in other regards. So you have this presence of foreigners inside of Venezuela, for the most part propping up a dictatorship that is having his people starving. You see pictures of children eating out of garbage trucks. If we want a peaceful resolution, which we do, we have to internationalize the sanctions against the Maduro regime and make it very clear there's nowhere for you to go.

SIMON: Do the sanctions, though, hurt all the wrong people - the poorest in Venezuela?

MENENDEZ: Well, first of all, we try to target our sanctions against Maduro's inner circle. But there's only a handful of peaceful diplomacy tools in our arsenal globally. So it is the use of aid and trade to induce nations to act a certain way and then denial of aid or trade or access to our financial systems which is, in essence, the very essence of what sanctions are.

SIMON: I have to ask you before we go, Senator, about the end of the Mueller investigation. President Trump tweeted, complete and total exoneration - all caps. Your trial on federal corruption charges ended in a mistrial in 2017. You sounded vindicated, saying the way this case was started was wrong, the way it was investigated was wrong. Is President Trump entitled to say he's exonerated?

MENENDEZ: Well, first of all, you're wrong about my trial. I was exonerated by a federal judge of the overwhelming number of the charges when he dismissed them and said there was no there there and by 11 of 12 jurors who simply didn't believe any of the government's cases, not one single element in count (ph). So let's differentiate that.

And finally, until we see the 300 pages of the Mueller report and see what it says, I don't think that anybody should come to any conclusions on a four-page summary by a political appointee of the administration.

SIMON: Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey - thank you, sir.

MENENDEZ: Thank you very much. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.