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Tillerson embraces US alliances with Latin America before he visits the region

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a White House press briefing after President Donald Trump declared North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the Trump administration’s vision for Latin America for the first time Thursday, describing the region as a vital, enduring U.S. partner despite recent frictions over immigration and trade.

Tillerson, who is on his first multi-nation mission to Latin America, delivered the policy address in his home state, at his alma mater, the University of Texas in Austin, an institution steeped in studies of U.S. relations with Central and South America.

He stressed the importance of alliances and agreements forged under previous administrations for trade, security, democratic reforms and human rights. President Donald Trump has put little emphasis on them since taking office.

Tillerson said the Trump administration would pursue “three pillars” of engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean for 2018 and beyond: economic prosperity, security and democratic governance.

Although he offered few details, Tillerson listed trade deals as a priority, including the ongoing negotiations with Canada and Mexico to “modernize” the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In contrast to Trump, who has called NAFTA a “horrible” deal, Tillerson said he understood its importance to Mexico, but said it needed updating since it was signed in 1994.

He also advocated for developing regional energy resources, saying the opportunity existed to build “an energy partnership that spans the Western Hemisphere.”

“We cannot afford to squander this moment,” he said.

Tillerson promoted what he called a “holistic” approach to security that tackles economic development as well as drug trafficking and transnational crime. “You cannot have one without the other,” he said.

He said transnational criminal organizations, including violent gangs, drug cartels and human trafficking rings, are the most serious threat in the region.

“In the pursuit of wealth and power, (the groups) leave death and destruction in their wake,” Tillerson said.

He singled out Venezuela for special criticism.

“The corrupt and hostile regime of (President) Nicolas Maduro clings to a false dream and antiquated vision for the region which has already failed its citizens,” he said.

The secretary noted that Washington has imposed numerous sanctions on Venezuelan officials and companies, a campaign now joined by Canada and the European Union.

Outside the venue, a small group of demonstrators waved Venezuelan flags and chanted their thanks to “U.S.A.” They said they were Venezuelans opposed to the Maduro government.

Tillerson left after the speech for Mexico City, where he is scheduled to meet President Enrique Pena Nieto on Friday. Relations with Mexico have been strained by Trump’s harsh language during the campaign, and his demands that Mexico pay for a border wall.

Over the next week, Tillerson also will visit Bariloche and Buenos Aires in Argentina; Lima, Peru; Bogota, Colombia; and Kingston, Jamaica.


© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.