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article imageTillerson to rally Americas, amid Venezuela crisis

By Dave Clark (AFP)     Jan 30, 2018 in Politics

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to embark on his first major tour of Central and South America this week as a worried region watches Venezuela's slide into crisis.

On Thursday, Washington's top envoy will lay out his vision for relations with the United States' southern neighbors in a speech in Texas before jetting on a five-nation voyage.

The political and economic turmoil in Venezuela will top the agenda as Tillerson rallies support for Washington's tough stance against President Nicolas Maduro's regime.

But Tillerson will also tackle crime and immigration in US neighbor Mexico, after President Donald Trump threatened to tear up a North American trade pact and build a border wall.

And, in his talks with senior officials, he will help prepare four major diplomatic events, starting with April's Summit of the Americas in Peru and June's G7 meet in Canada.

Then, later this year on November 30 to December 1, Latin America will for the first time host the G20 Leaders' Summit of the world's great powers in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"We're going to have a year of high profile events," a senior State Department official told Washington reporters at a background briefing on the trip ahead.

"The secretary's speech will, I think, set the stage for all of that," he said, explaining Tillerson's stop over at the University of Austin, in Texas on his southward leg.

In addition to the international timetable, several major Latin American economies hold elections this year, including Venezuela, which plans to vote before the end of April.

Washington has vowed not the recognize the result of that vote, which it says was set up in violation of Venezuela's own constitution simply to entrench Maduro's beleaguered regime.

Less controversially, but still critically for the democratic health of the continent, other players will also go the polls.

Mexico votes in July, perhaps delaying high-wire negotiations between Washington and President Pena Nieto's government to save the NAFTA trade deal and fight organized crimes.

There will also be a Colombian election in May and a Brazilian election in October.

Venezuela will be top of the agenda at each of the stops: Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and then a few hours in Jamaica on the homeward leg.

All the stops but Jamaica are members of the Lima Group set up to coordinate a joint Americas response to the Venezuela crisis, and Jamaica has joined meetings and played a role.

- Corruption and instability -

Venezuelans and sympathizers protest in front of the Venezuelan Embassy in Lima on January 27  2018
Venezuelans and sympathizers protest in front of the Venezuelan Embassy in Lima on January 27, 2018
CRIS BOURONCLE, CRIS BOURONCLE, AFP

The Lima Group has urged Maduro's government to carry out democratic reforms, release political prisoners and allow foreign organizations to supply aid to Venezuelans.

Regional heavyweights Brazil and Argentina have been reluctant to follow Washington's lead and impose sanctions on Maduro's regime, fearing poor Venezuelans will suffer most.

But they agree with the political message, and Argentina's President Mauricio Macri confirmed to AFP on Saturday that his government would not recognize Venezuela's upcoming election.

Venezuela -- hit by low oil prices, corruption and instability -- is enduring one of the worst crises in its history under Maduro, late leader Hugo Chavez' hand-picked successor.

Inflation for this year is forecast to hit 13,000 percent, and from April to July last year angry Venezuelans clashed with security forces in the street, leaving 125 dead.

Tillerson will be in Texas for his speech on Thursday, February 1 before flying to Mexico City for two days of talks, including with Nieto and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.

On Saturday he arrives in Argentina's Andes' resort of Bariloche, and on Sunday he heads on to Buenos Aires, for talks with senior officials including Macri and diplomats at the US mission.

As he turns back and heads north, he has talks in Lima, Peru on Monday and Tuesday, when he also arrives later in Bogota, Colombia before flying home via Kingston on Wednesday.

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