President Mauricio Macri met with United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Monday morning to continue discussions about the ongoing political and economic crisis in Venezuela.
The pair met at the Olivos presidential palace after Tillerson flew into to Buenos Aires on Sunday from the southern city of Bariloche, where the top US diplomat rode on horseback and rested, half way through his five-day trip to South America.
No further announcements were expected following today’s meeting.
Tillerson is in Argentina during a tour of Latin America to bolster a common front against Venezuela’s bid to hold a presidential election that opponents deem illegitimate, and to improve relations between the United States and its allies in the region.
At a press conference on Sunday, Tillerson said that the Donald Trump administration was not ruling out sanctions on Venezuelan oil as it turns the screw on President Nicolás Maduro. However, he added that the US is wary of hurting the country’s people.
Maduro himself shot back on Monday, in a video on Facebook, saying that Tillerson “has just threatened us with an oil boycott. Well, we are ready. Nothing and nobody is going to stop us.”
Tillerson will today fly on to Peru and then Colombia, a nation which has already received around half a million Venezuelan refugees. He will then visit Jamaica for talks on how regional powers can replace the subsidised oil that Venezuela ships to Caribbean nations, in the event it is hit by sanctions or economic collapse.
The top US diplomat has received support from other governments in the Americas, including on Sunday from Argentina’s Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, but some are cautious about sanctions.
At a joint press conference, Tillerson — a former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil — confirmed the ultimate option of sanctioning Venezuela's key oil sector is under consideration, but that Washington shares its allies' concerns.
Oil-rich and once one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, Venezuela under Maduro faces economic collapse and widespread popular protest. The US, Canada and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions targeting Maduro loyalists seen as profiteers or human rights abusers.
Tillerson did not push back against the suggestion that sanctions on oil might also hurt US companies that have built refineries in the southern United States geared to accept Venezuelan crude.
“Obviously sanctioning oil or prohibiting the oil to be sold in the United States ... is something we continue to consider,” Tillerson said, while acknowledging Faurie's concerns.
“As the foreign minister indicated, our disagreements are with the Venezuelan regime not with the people, the Venezuelan people are suffering mightily in the current circumstances.”
Tillerson said oil sanctions could be deployed if it is decided that this would bring the crisis to a more rapid end “because not doing anything to bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time.”
But he added that Washington was also looking at how to “mitigate the impact on US business interests.”
Faurie agreed with Tillerson that Maduro's attempt to call an election on terms set by Venezuela’s non-elected Constituent Assembly was illegitimate and would be rejected by Argentina.
“As for the sales of oil and trade in oil that exist, that is particularly important, we should closely follow up on this to ensure appropriate balance between what the Venezuelan nation needs and what is being used by the leaders of the Venezuelan government,” he said.
Tellerson and Faurie also confirmed on Sunday that both countries are to work together more closely to cut off Lebanese Hezbollah's funding networks in Latin America.
Argentina has a large Lebanese expatriate population and US authorities suspect groups within it of raising funds through organised crime to support the Iranian-backed armed movement.
“With respect to Hezbollah, we also did speak today in our discussion about all of the region about how we must all jointly go after these transnational criminal organisations — narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling, money laundering — because we see the connections to terrorist financing organizations as well,” Tillerson said.
“And we did specifically discuss the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah in this hemisphere, which is raising funds, obviously, to support its terrorist activities.
“So it is something that we jointly agree we need to attack and eliminate,” Tillerson said.
Faurie, standing by Tillerson's side at a joint news conference, agreed, saying that South America had become a “zone of peace” and that outside groups must not be allowed to jeopardise this.
In 1992, the violence of the Middle East erupted in Argentina, when bombers attacked the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. Two years later, an attack on the AMIA Jewish community centre in the city left 85 dead.
None of the bombers were ever convicted, but international investigators followed a trail that appears to link them to Hezbollah — a group which Washington has designated a terrorist organisation — and to senior Iranian officials.
The bombings did not continue, but US experts believe that Hezbollah, working under close Iranian supervision, has built a fund-raising network in Latin America that profits from drug smuggling to fund its political and military activities.