Updated February 06, 2018 09:58 PM
Fernando Vergara AP
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday said he was “heartbroken” to witness the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and said Washington’s top priority for the region was for the troubled South American nation to hold “free and fair elections.”
Speaking at Colombia’s presidential palace, Tillerson said the United States was also studying the idea of helping Colombia financially as it deals with more than 600,000 Venezuelans who have fled across the border in recent years amid an economic meltdown.
Colombia is Tillerson’s fourth stop on a trip that has taken him to Mexico, Argentina and Peru and will end in Jamaica. During the tour, Tillerson has been shoring up support for increased sanctions against Venezuela, including the idea of hitting the country’s critical oil sector by halting U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude.
But he stopped short of making additional threats Tuesday, emphasizing the need for regional, multilateral solutions.
“This is our only objective, to see Venezuela return to its constitution, to return to its duly elected assembly and to hold free and fair elections — to give Venezuelans the right for their voices to be heard,” he said.
Instead, it was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos who came out swinging against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“Along with the grave humanitarian crisis that the dictatorial regime [in Venezuela] refuses to recognize, now we have a call for presidential elections — elections that, for us, are not valid because they provide no [democratic] guarantees,” Santos said. “Maduro would never accept free and transparent elections because he knows he would lose them.”
Amid fevered negotiations being held in the Dominican Republic between the Venezuelan government and a faction of the opposition, the administration in Caracas is expected to announce the date of presidential elections in the coming hours or days.
While Tillerson has also used the trip to talk about trade, regional security and the drug war, it’s Venezuela that has been getting top billing.
On Monday, Maduro accused Tillerson of overplaying his hand by trying to build support for a damaging economic embargo against the country.
“Rex Tillerson has failed. He’s failed on this tour of Latin America,” Maduro said on the steps of the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. “Even the right [wing] has turned its back on him because he came here with extreme ideas.”
The United States has slapped sanctions on more than 50 current and former Venezuelan officials, including Maduro. And Washington has barred U.S. financial institutions from providing fresh funding to the government or the state-run PDVSA oil company.
But those sanctions seem to have had little effect on changing policies in Caracas.
Colombia is one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the region, receiving billions of dollars in military and development aid over the years.
But a dramatic increase in Colombian coca crops — the raw ingredient of cocaine — has been threatening to sour relations. Last week, President Trump said the U.S. should consider cutting aid to countries that don’t do enough to stem the flow of drugs.
“I won’t mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them — we send them massive aid and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us,” Trump told border patrol officials, according to Bloomberg News. “So I’m not a believer in that. I want to stop the aid. I want to stop the aid.”
On Tuesday, Tillerson said Colombia and the United States were very much partners in the war on drugs and he said he was assured that Colombia was on the right track to reduce coca crops.
“We are quite encouraged by what we hear and will continued to work with Colombia to support these efforts,” he said. “This is a shared challenge for both of our nations.”
Santos said that he didn’t believe Trump was making a reference to Colombia with those statements. “Colombia isn’t making fun, it’s not laughing at the United States…We don’t make light of this very serious issue,” he said, citing the assassination of political leaders, journalists and law-enforcement. “No country has paid a higher price for waging the war on drugs.”
Tillerson travels to Jamaica next, where he will be meeting with Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
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