Cartagena, Colombia: United States Vice-President Mike Pence touched down here on Sunday afternoon amid a deepening crisis in neighbouring Venezuela, beginning a week-long trip to South and Central America during which he plans to reinforce US trade and security partnerships and increase pressure to restore democracy in Venezuela.
Pence’s six-day visit to Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama is expected to be dominated by the turmoil in Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro’s autocratic government seized power last month and has cracked down on dissent.
Maduro’s actions have precipitated an economic collapse and drawn international condemnation, including from President Donald Trump, who on Friday warned of a “possible military option” to confront Maduro’s government.
Trump’s aggressive threat stoked anti-American sentiment by reviving dark memories of US interventionism on the continent – including here in Colombia, whose foreign ministry denounced Trump’s rhetoric, despite being one of the United States’s closest allies in the Western Hemisphere.
Trump’s bellicosity, which generated banner news headlines across the hemisphere because it harked back to a generation of American imperialism, is likely to colour Pence’s trip, experts said.
“It is one thing for the US president or vice-president to discuss sanctioning the regime and our support for the return of democracy,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is something else to discuss US intervention, which only strengthens Maduro’s hand and makes it harder for other regional countries to work with us.”
Pence arrived in South America hoping to reassure US allies and add his voice to the coalition of nations throughout the hemisphere trying to isolate Venezuela and pressure Maduro to change course. In a watershed development, 11 Latin American countries and Canada signed a hard-hitting resolution last week that calls the Venezuelan government illegitimate and demands a return to democracy.
“Vice-President Pence now needs to assure regional allies that the United States respects their diplomatic efforts and will not engage in unilateral measures that are guaranteed to be counterproductive,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a Venezuela expert at Tulane University.
Immediately after landing in Cartagena, Pence met privately with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the ocean-front presidential compound here, with Pence telling Santos that he came with warm greetings from Trump. The two men plan to hold a joint news conference, and Santos will host Pence at a dinner here Sunday evening.
In a statement welcoming Pence to Colombia, Camilo Reyes, the country’s ambassador to the United States, said, “As a peaceful and stable nation, Colombia is an even stronger economic and security partner to the United States. The bipartisan support of the United States has been fundamental to Colombian transformation.”
Pence plans to spend less than 24 hours in Colombia. He was due to fly midday Monday to Buenos Aires, where he will meet on Tuesday with Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, and give a speech about regional trade and security partnerships to representatives of the Argentine and Latin American business community.
Pence then will visit Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday, where he will meet with President Michelle Bachelet and deliver remarks that evening to representatives of the Latin and Central American business community.
On Thursday and Friday, Pence will visit Panama City, where he will meet with President Juan Carlos Varela and tour the newly expanded Panama Canal.
This is Pence’s first visit to South America, although he has previously talked with the four leaders, either in person, such as at the White House, or by phone. His wife, Karen Pence, is travelling with her husband and plans to meet with art therapists and observe art therapy sessions in some of the countries, as well as participate in cultural activities.
A senior administration official said the four countries Pence will visit are “key partners and friends of the United States” – in marked contrast to Venezuela. This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the vice-president’s trip, described “the divide between the future of South America and the past of South America”.
“Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama, they represent the future – the future of freedom, prosperity,” this official said. “Venezuela is going into the past of dictatorship, oppression.”
Although the Venezuelan crisis is top of mind, Pence plans to highlight other issues as well. He is expected to pressure Santos to curb the flow of drugs into the United States, including reducing the surging levels of coca production in Colombia.
The Washington Post