United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Thursday that China and Russia are assuming “alarming” roles in Latin America and urged regional powers to work with the United States instead.
“Latin America doesn't need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” Tillerson said, in a major policy address before his first tour of South American capitals.
“China’s state-led model of development is reminiscent of the past. It doesn’t have to be the hemisphere’s future”, he said, warning that “unfair trading practices” would cost local jobs.
“Russia's growing presence in the region is alarming too”, he said, complaining that Moscow sells arms to “unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic process”.
Tillerson was addressing staff and students at the University of Texas before he was to fly out on a six-day five-nation tour of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica.
In his speech, the United States’ top diplomat took aim at Venezuela in particular, describing President Nicolás Maduro’s as a “corrupt and hostile” regime.
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.
Charismatic late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's oil-fuelled support for socialist-leaning allies, and domestic social welfare projects, were an attractive alternative for many.
But under current leader Nicolas Maduro, and with world oil prices down, Venezuela faces economic collapse and widespread popular protest, even as US allies like Colombia emerge from decades of conflict.
“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,” he said.
Tillerson noted that the United States, Canada and European Union have imposed economic sanctions targeting Maduro loyalists seen as profiteers or human rights abusers.
He 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.
Speaking hours before he was due in Mexico City to discuss security and immigration with top officials, Tillerson also warned of the need to fight violent drug cartels.
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”, Tillerson said. “In their pursuit of money and power, TCOs leave death and destruction in their wake.”
On Friday he is to meet President Enrique Pena Nieto before heading on 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.