The head of the United States’ foreign service lands in Argentina today as part of a landmark regional tour seeking to pressure the Venezuelan government and improve relations between the United States and Latin America.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked upon a five-nation, six-day tour of the Americas on Thursday night, a trip that will see him visit Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica.
The 65-year-old former oil executive flew to Mexico Thursday afternoon for a working dinner with Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and senior US and Mexican officials. Yesterday, he met with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña before jetting off to Argentina.
During his time in Argentina, Tillerson will first visit Bariloche and tour the Nahuel Huapi National Park on horseback, learning about “scientific exchanges and conservation practices.” He is due to hold a press conference later today.
According to reports in local media, the US secretary of state is believed to have personally requested he stop in Bariloche, where unconfirmed reports have suggested he may visit the facilities of state-owned nuclear entity INVAP.
Tomorrow, Tillerson is due in Buenos Aires for meetings with President Mauricio Macri, Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie and other Cabinet members. The secretary of state will then meet with the heads of the US missions in the Latin American region, where Venezuela will reportedly be a key topic for discussion.
On Monday, Tillerson will depart for his next stop, Peru – the host of the upcoming Summit of the Americas – before visiting Colombia and Jamaica, arriving back in Washington on Wednesday.
Tillerson has a packed agenda and Venezuela is expected to be the topic of much discussion, especially during his time in Buenos Aires. Speaking on Thursday before his departure, the US secretary of state set out a vision for a free and prosperous Americas, damning what he called the failed model of Venezuela’s regime.
“The corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream, an antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens,” he declared in a speech at the University of Texas, his alma mater.
Tillerson noted that the United States, Canada and European Union have imposed economic sanctions targeting Maduro loyalists seen as profiteers or human rights abusers.
Washington’s position is closely aligned with President Mauricio Macri’s administration and building pressure from the ‘Lima Group,’ a coalition of Latin American nations that have denounced the government in Caracas.
Representatives from Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia will be present in Buenos Aires for discussion on Venezuela, local outlets have suggested.
Speaking in Davos last week, Macri branded Maduro’s government “a dictatorship” and said it would not recognise the results of upcoming presidential elections, which have been called early as the government seeks to take advantage of disarray within Venezuela’s opposition political parties.
Tillerson is seeking to bring the region’s governments back into the arms of the US, after years of growing Chinese influence in Latin America.
Prior to his departure, Tillerson lamented the fact that China is now the largest trading partner with Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru and was strongly critical of both Chinese and Russian influence, branding them “imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own power,” terminology that some on social networks mocked as ironic due to previous US actions in Latin America and US President Donald Trump’s “America First” sloganeering.
CHINA, RUSSIA WARNING
On Thursday, the former oil executive warned to beware of Chinese investment, saying it was reminiscent of European colonialism. He also derided Russia for selling weaponry to unfriendly, authoritarian governments in the region.
Tillerson accused China of seeking only to enrich itself with investment and development projects, saying the region’s governments should protect themselves against “predatory actors,” specifically mentioning China, whose investment he said comes at a “heavy price.”
“China, as it does in emerging markets throughout the world, offers the appearance of an attractive path to development, but in reality this often involves trading short-term gains for long-term dependency,” Tillerson.
Alleging unfair trade practices, the US secretary state said Chinese offers almost always demand the use of imported Chinese labour, large loans and unsustainable debt and ignore human and property rights.
“While this trade has brought benefits, the unfair trading practices used by many Chinese have also harmed these countries’ manufacturing sectors, generating unemployment and lowering wages for workers. Latin America does not need a new imperial power,” said Tillerson.
In his speech, Tillerson said he will be pushing good governance and anti-corruption efforts as well as promoting trade with the United States, which he hailed as a better alternative to China.
“We do not seek short-term deals with lopsided returns,” he declared bluntly.
Tillerson also took aim at Russia, saying its “growing presence in the region is alarming.”
Russia, he said, “continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.”
“Our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers who do not reflect the fundamental values shared in this region,” he added.
Tillerson will also use his trip to warn of the power of so-called transnational criminal organisations, or TCOs, in a series of meetings addressing drug-cartels and drug-trafficking. He will also help US officials in the region prepare for our major diplomatic events, starting with April’s Summit of the Americas in Peru and June’s G7 meet in Canada. Later this year on November 30 to December 1, Latin America will for the first time host the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires.
“We’re going to have a year of high profile events,” a senior US State Department official told reporters at a briefing on the trip ahead.
In related news, the most senior career diplomat in the US State Department announced he has has decided to retire this week, exactly one year after he oversaw the transition to the Trump administration.
While not a household name, Shannon is widely respected by his colleagues, lawmakers and others, and his departure in the coming months will leave another void in the top ranks. He holds the rank of “career ambassador” – the highest in the Foreign Service.
Thomas Shannon will retire as undersecretary of state for political affairs – after 35 years in which he served as an ambassador, an acting assistant secretary of state and, for two weeks last year, acting secretary of state – as soon as his successor is chosen.
Shannon, a Spanish speaker married to a Guatemalan, ran the US State Department in the interim period between the departure of former president Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry and the arrival of Tillerson, a period which was marked by reports of dissent among career staff.
Shannon has extensive diplomatic experience in Africa and Latin America, including a period as the US ambassador to Brazil.