Tillerson to Seek Unified Venezuela Stance on Latin America Trip

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a renewed call for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime to face international isolation, a theme he plans to pursue at each stop in a six-nation tour of Latin America.

“The corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream and antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens,” Tillerson said Thursday at the University of Texas at Austin during a stop en route to Mexico. “It does not represent the vision of millions of Venezuelans.”

Tillerson, who received a standing ovation at the university, his alma mater, outlined a strategy that focuses on ramping up international pressure on Maduro to agree to credible elections to ease the country’s economic and political crisis.

The top U.S. diplomat indicated he’ll also work to highlight the advantages of trade with the U.S., as China make new inroads into the region. His trip will include stops in Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica.

A previous effort by the Trump administration to rally support on Venezuela, made in June at a meeting of the Organization of American States, failed as critics of Maduro splintered over what approach to take. Tillerson’s stop in Jamaica is aimed at bolstering support from divided Caribbean nations to force Venezuela into talks with opposition leaders.

While Tillerson said the U.S. isn’t seeking to orchestrate regime change, he said of Maduro: “If the kitchen gets a little too hot for him, I’m sure that he’s got some friends over in Cuba that could give him a nice hacienda on the beach and he’d have a nice life over there.”

Venezuela Undeterred

Venezuela’s leaders haven’t been deterred by the U.S.’s push to ratchet up sanctions pressure, announcing last month that they would proceed with presidential elections in April. Speaking on a call with reporters earlier this week, a senior State Department official declined to say whether more sanctions were under consideration, adding that the U.S. would “use all economic, political, and diplomatic tools at our disposal.”

One of Tillerson’s first trips as secretary was to Mexico a year ago, but this will be the first time he travels further south in the role. As with in the Middle East, he is familiar with many of the main actors: He wrangled with Venezuelan officials shortly after becoming chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp. when the late President Hugo Chavez nationalized the company’s assets in the country in 2007.

Band Trip

The oilman-turned-diplomat recalled that his first trip abroad was to Peru as a member of the University of Texas Longhorn band.

The trip will be an effort to reassure nations that the U.S. remains interested in a region that under President Donald Trump is mentioned mostly as a source of illegal immigrants and crime. Trump continues to insist that Mexico ultimately will pay for his promised border wall and must accept changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement or he’ll quit the accord.

As he’s done on many issues, Tillerson took a gentler tone, underscoring that the U.S. has a $14 billion trade surplus in the hemisphere and saying the administration appreciates the “hard work” of Canadian and Mexican negotiators on Nafta. He said only that the accord needs to be “modernized” and didn’t mention Trump’s border wall.

Pushing for deeper trade ties, Tillerson characterized Chinese investment in the region as a bad deal, with any agreement likely to benefit only Beijing.

“Our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers who do not reflect the fundamental values shared in the region,” Tillerson said. “We do not seek short-term deals with lopsided returns. We seek partners with shared values.”

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