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In his first visit to Latin America, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatens sanctions against Venezuela, promises to fight drugs and crime, and warns of the dangers of Chinese imperialism.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are seen during a joint news conference in Bogota, Colombia February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are seen during a joint news conference in Bogota, Colombia February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga


Diplomacy has always been a game of delicate rhetorical balancing, but last week Rex Tillerson upped the ante in a speech at the University of Texas to kick off his six-day tour of Latin America which concludes today.

In a bold stroke of Trumpian bravado, Tillerson not only defended the Monroe Doctrine—the 1823 declaration that any further European colonization of Latin America would henceforth be precluded by American hegemony in the region—but also warned of the perils of Chinese imperialism.

“Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people," implored the 'America First' presidency's chief representative to the world. “China's state-led model of development is reminiscent of the past. It doesn't have to be this hemisphere's future."

Apart from possible regime change in Venezuela, throughout the secretary's six-day trip to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica, it was unclear which model not reminiscent of the past Tillerson might put forward for the region.

In a region long weary of its northern neighbor, a recent Gallup poll of Latin Americans saw their approval of American leadership plummet from 49% in 2016 to barely 24% in 2017. Only 16% of them approve of Trump's personal handling of the job.

In a speech ripe with historical allegory, Tillerson reiterated how “the corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream and antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens."

Asked whether a peaceful transition might be achieved in Venezuela, Tillerson reminded his audience that “oftentimes it's the military that handles" that kind of thing. But “whether that will be the case here or not," the secretary said, “I do not know."

“Our position is Maduro should get back to his constitution and follow it… And if the kitchen gets a little too hot for him, I'm sure that he's got some friends over in Cuba that can give him a nice hacienda on the beach."

Despite predictable quips about growing Russia influence in the area—and its penchant for arms sales and turning blind eyes to human rights violations—Tillerson did offer a common vision for US-Latin American ties driven by energy, trade, and optimism.

Noting that 36% of all US liquefied natural gas exports now go to Latin America, the largest of any region in the world, he also reiterated how 12 of the 20 free trade agreements the US has signed are with nations in the Western Hemisphere.

But something more intangible is also at stake. With an “interwoven history and chronology," he said, “our nations still reflect the New World optimism of limitless discovery" and “shared democratic values [...] at the core of what we believe, regardless of the color of our passport."

When it comes to NAFTA, however, color still matters.

Though a supporter of the treaty and the 2.5 million US jobs reliant on the country's USD2 trillion annual trade with Latin America, Tillerson said “it should come as no surprise that an agreement put into place 30 years ago, before the advent of the digital age and the digital economy, before China's rise as the world's second-largest economy would need to be modernized."

Yet just what kind of modernization that entails slipped past the secretary in his Friday meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at Los Pinos. Falling back upon old themes, the two mostly discussed greater security cooperation and combating drug trafficking and organized crime.

In his visit to Peru on Monday, the question of drug trafficking also dominated the agenda. His trip coming on the heels of Trump's threat last Friday to cut off all aid to countries from which drugs were “pouring across the border," Tillerson had to tread carefully.

Admitting that the US was the single largest market for illicit substances in the world, Tillerson received assurances from Peruvian minister of foreign affairs Cayetana Aljovín to “continue to join forces in this fight."

His stop in Colombia was two-pronged: to discuss the historical surge in coca production and commend the nation for its treatment of asylum seekers fleeing Venezuela's increasingly failed state.

Tillerson arrived in Jamaica this morning, where he is expected to discuss obtaining mutual assistance from Prime Minister Andrew Holness in combating crime and supporting sanctions against Venezuela.

This was also the subject of talks with Argentinian counterparts over the weekend. Meeting with Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie on Sunday, Tillerson mulled over the possible effects of sanctions on the Venezuelan people.

"Is it a step that might bring this to an end, to a more rapid end? Because not doing anything, to not bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time," the secretary added.

Looming behind much of Tillerson's voyage was the retirement last week of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, the country's top career diplomat.

A former ambassador to Caracas in the 1990s, his was one of the strongest voices of caution against Venezuela sanctions. One of many such shakeups at State since Trump's arrival, it is widely believed that Shannon's departure will empower hardliners on Cuba and Venezuela.

Maduro was quick to strike back in a televised speech. “Nobody threatens Venezuela. Venezuela will overcome any threat, any embargo, and we will continue selling oil to the world."