The broad agenda that is impelling U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his current Latin American tour looks like a replay of the national security doctrine that determined Washington’s relations with the region during the Cold War.
Today, the threats that Tillerson is talking about, communism and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, no longer exist the way they did back then. China and Russia are the threats today.
Paradoxically, it was Russia, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, which intervened in the 2016 elections in which Donald Trump was elected president.
But while in Washington the FBI is investigating this matter, and the alleged involvement of Trump and his circle in it, Tillerson is touring several Latin American countries to warn that the Russians and Chinese are a danger to the region.
Last Thursday, hours before starting his tour in Mexico, the chief U.S. diplomat held a press conference at the University of Texas in Austin, in which he outlined the Trump administration’s strategy for the region.
“Latin America,” he said, “does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people.”
A Latin American diplomat said Friday in a private meeting in Bogotá that “Tillerson didn’t say so, but the message is that with the imperial power of the United States, the region can look after itself. It is a return to the national security doctrine of the 1960s and of the Monroe Doctrine (which proclaimed America for Americans).”
In line with what Tillerson suggested in Austin, the Chinese development model “doesn’t have to be this hemisphere’s future,” while Russia’s growing presence in the region “is alarming as well,” because it sells arms to governments “who do not share or respect democratic values.”
And this is where Venezuela, another central theme for the U.S. secretary of state’s tour of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica, shows up in his script.
It is well known that one of the measures Washington is thinking about using to ratchet up the economic sanctions on the government of Nicolás Maduro is a boycott of Venezuelan exports of petroleum, a product that generates 96 percent of the country’s foreign exchange and is, therefore, key to the survival of the regime.
Venezuelan oil production has plummeted in recent months. Production in December was 1.6 million barrels a day, down 40 percent from a year ago.
And although the United States buys only a quarter of that crude oil, the bulk of the dollars that state oil company PSVSA receives comes from the U.S. because exports to China, the other big buyer, are in the form of loan repayments.
Thus, a U.S. embargo on the purchase of Venezuelan oil would have a drastic effect on the country’s economy, which has lost almost half of its GDP in the last four years.
In Argentina on Sunday, Tillerson said that the United States is considering the possibility of imposing sanctions on petroleum exports from Venezuela, although it is evaluating the impact that those measures would have on the public.
An oil embargo would ignite anti-imperialist rhetoric from Maduro and would give him an excuse to blame Washington for the Venezuelan economic crisis, at a time when the regime has decided to call presidential elections by next April.
That same Sunday, Feb. 4, Maduro responded to Tillerson’s threat with a campaign speech: “Workers in the petroleum industry, imperialism is threatening us. We are ready to be free, and nothing and no one is going to hold us back.”
In referring to Venezuela, Tillerson didn’t just talk about oil. He also raised the possibility of the Venezuelan military deciding to overthrow Maduro. That would be a solution like in the days of the Cold War.
Last Friday, following talks with the U.S. secretary of state, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said that he agreed with Washington that democracy itself is at stake in Venezuela, and noted: “We cannot remain indifferent in the face of the systematic deterioration of the situation” in that country.
Tillerson will also find support in Argentina, Peru and Colombia for his strategy against the Maduro regime.
Those three countries and Mexico make up part of the Grupo de Lima, a block of 12 Latin American nations that has denounced the breakdown of constitutional order in Venezuela. They reject the call for presidential elections on the grounds that the conditions for democratic, transparent and credible elections are not in place.
The Double Standard
While he was traveling through Mexico, Tillerson warned the country of possible Russian interference in the presidential election this coming July. It is likely that he will make the same appeal this March when visiting Colombia, where in May they are also having presidential elections.
This, of course, is happening while the FBI is trying to determine if Russian intervention in the election of Trump was with his consent and with the participation of his closest allies.
Several non-governmental organizations have expressed their opposition to Tillerson’s visit to Latin America because they consider it “interventionist.”
In a communiqué, the Articulación de Movimientos Sociales* pointed out to Alternativa Bolivariana para América Latina y el Caribe** that while Tillerson is raising the alarm about possible Russian interference in presidential elections, “The United States is the government that has given rise to the most interfering, high-handed and malicious practices in Latin America and the world.”
The chief U.S. diplomat has another problem. Trump is a very unpopular president in Latin America.
He has irreversibly offended not only Mexico and the Mexican people, with issues like the wall and immigration, but also El Salvador and Haiti, which he called “shithole countries.”
He threatened Colombia, a strategic partner of Washington in the region, with decertifying their antidrug campaign if they don’t make quick and efficient progress toward reducing their coca leaf production. This is a return to the hysterical focus on blaming drug-producing countries for the excessive U.S. demand for drugs.
And last Friday, on the eve of Tillerson’s arrival in Colombia, Trump said that several countries are sending large quantities of drugs to the United States.
Although he did not mention any country by name, the president said that “they're pouring drugs into our country and they're laughing at us," and "I want to stop the aid."
Last year, Columbia got $450 million in aid from Washington to support the peace agreement with the former guerrilla group FARC and the war on drugs.
*Translator's Note: In English, Organization for Coordination of Social Movements
**Translator's Note: In English, Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean