Pence addresses Venezuelan community in remarks at Rice’s Baker Institute

Moments before Vice President Mike Pence took to the podium in Baker Hall’s stately Doré Commons, against a backdrop of a royal blue curtain and U.S. and Texas flags, Carlos Vecchio, the ambassador of Venezuela’s opposition government to the U.S., spontaneously roused the audience with patriotic cheers and clapping.

Vice President Mike Pence said that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro “must go” because of the “suffering he has brought” to the people of that country. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The moment set the tone for Pence’s roughly 30-minute speech Friday to a capacity, invitation-only audience of more than 300 people in which he outlined the Trump administration’s policy on Venezuela and the U.S.’s efforts to restore the South American country’s freedom, democracy and rule of law.

The vice president was introduced by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the honorary chair of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Pence is “a model vice president and a strong and effective advocate for the conservative policies advanced by the White House,” said Baker, who also served as chief of staff to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “Today, he is one of President Trump’s most active international spokesmen, one who delivers the president’s ‘America First’ agenda in a resolute voice. In just two years, he has made at least 10 diplomatic trips to six continents.”

Pence repeatedly called for incumbent President Nicolas Maduro’s exit and said “libertad” — freedom — can’t be restored to Venezuela until then.

“So as we gather here at Rice University, one of the great institutions of higher learning in America, we do well to focus on freedom — freedom across this hemisphere and our own,” Pence said.

The vice president’s April 5 visit came at a time of growing political turmoil for the South American country, with Maduro’s government announcing last month that it had barred interim President Juan Guaido from holding public office for 15 years.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III introduced Pence.

Guaido invoked the Venezuelan constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Houston is home to a large community of Venezuelan immigrants and expatriates, as well as Citgo Petroleum’s corporate headquarters. Pence has called for the release of six of the company’s executives who’ve been jailed in Venezuela. Before speaking about the country’s crisis, Pence also met with a group of displaced Venezuelans. The activists and former Venezuelan government leaders spoke with passion and urgency about the worsening conditions in their country, where access to food, water and electricity have been dwindling.

In his remarks, Pence said that “for the suffering he has brought to the people of Venezuela,” Maduro “must go.”

Pence also shared the news that, as part of an ongoing effort to deprive the Maduro’s regime of resources by targeting the country’s oil sector, the U.S. will now impose sanctions on 34 vessels owned and operated by the national oil company, PDVSA, as well as two other companies carrying Venezuelan crude oil to Cuba

“Venezuelan oil belongs to Venezuelan people,” Pence said, underscoring that PDVSA is a “vital source” of the Maduro regime’s wealth.

Carlos Vecchio, the ambassador of Venezuela’s opposition government to the U.S., roused the audience with patriotic cheers and clapping.

“Those looking on should know this: All options are on the table,” he said. “And Nicolas Maduro would do well not to test the resolve of the United States of America. The United States will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy.

“All of the families here and all those that are looking on, from President Trump, ‘Estamos con ustedes’ (we are with you),” Pence said.

Hosting Pence continues a tradition for the Baker Institute, which has been visited by every vice president who has held office since the institute was established 25 years ago, as well as by every living former president.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.