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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Tillerson lands in Latin America with swipes at China and Venezuela

Secretary of state damned what he called the failed model of Venezuela’s ‘corrupt and hostile’ regime

Rex Tillerson has hit out at the regime in Venezuela which has caused riots and protests. AFP/Juan BARRETO
Rex Tillerson has hit out at the regime in Venezuela which has caused riots and protests. AFP/Juan BARRETO

The United States’ top diplomat kicked off his first major tour of Latin America on Thursday in Mexico, after setting out a vision for a free and prosperous Americas.

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson sought to better define US strategy in its own hemisphere as he headed to the United States’s southern neighbour, a country that has been on the receiving end of some of his boss Donald Trump’s fiercest barbs.

To lay the groundwork for his trip, he first gave a wide-ranging speech on the Trump administration’s approach to the region.

Speaking at his alma mater, the University of Texas, Mr Tillerson damned what he called the failed model of Venezuela’s “corrupt and hostile” regime and urged Latin American countries to be wary of the United States’s emerging rivals for regional influence, China and Russia.

In his first year in office, president Trump has decried free trade with Mexico, US detente with Cuba, and warned of the dangers of drug gangs and illegal immigration.

His attitude to the countries south of the Rio Grande might best be symbolised by his multi-billion-dollar efforts to build a wall across the US border with Mexico, to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs.

But Mr Tillerson, who is often left with the task of explaining why Mr Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan does not mean ‘America Alone’, was keen to tout a more positive approach to relations.

“We share an interwoven history and chronology. Our nations still reflect the New World optimism of limitless discovery,” he said.

“And importantly, we share democratic values, values that are the core of what we believe, regardless of the colour of our passport.”

In Mexico City, Mr Tillerson was due to discuss security and immigration with top officials, and he warned of the need to fight violent drug cartels.

President Trump made great play of this in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, when he cited crimes of the Salvadoran MS-13 gang to justify his hardline stance on immigration.

“The most immediate threat to our hemisphere are transnational criminal organisations, or TCOs,” Mr Tillerson said. “In their pursuit of money and power, TCOs leave death and destruction in their wake.”

He also warned that China and Russia are assuming “alarming” roles in Latin America and urged regional powers to work with the US instead.

“Latin America doesn’t need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” Mr Tillerson said.

He also went on the offensive against the leftist government of Venezuela, once a rival centre of influence for Latin American nations, now a political and economic basket case.

“The corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream, an antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens,” Mr Tillerson said.

He noted that the United States, Canada and European Union have imposed economic sanctions targeting Maduro loyalists seen as profiteers or human rights abusers.

Mr Tillerson called on Latin America to do the same. The continent’s major powers reject the regime, but are cautious about piling on more economic misery with Venezuela on the brink of chaos.

The United States has had a troubled relationship with much of Latin America where, during the Cold War, it placed Cuba under embargo and often supported dictatorial right-wing regimes against social reformers.

How the countries of South and Central America see their own future will be very important this year, with potentially defining polls in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

After the speech, the 65-year-old former oil executive flew to Mexico for a working dinner at the US ambassador’s residence with foreign minister Luis Videgaray, the acting head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and senior Mexican legal and security officials.

On Friday he is to meet president Enrique Pena Nieto before heading to his next engagement at the Andean resort of Bariloche, Argentina, and then to Buenos Aires on Monday.

Before arriving back in Washington late on Wednesday, he is to visit Peru – host of an upcoming summit of the Americas – as well as Colombia and Jamaica.