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Venezuela crisis dominates Pompeo regional tour ahead of border visit

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Peru on Saturday on the third-leg of a four-nation tour of Latin American allies focusing heavily on Venezuela and countering China’s economic reach.

Pompeo held talks with President Martin Vizcarra and Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio before attending a dinner for business leaders.

He paid tribute to Peru’s welcome for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees and Vizcarra’s fight against corruption, which has embroiled the previous four Peruvian presidents.

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But he became irritated when a reporter asked if that contradicted US President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policy at home.

“Our objective is to allow people to stay in their home countries, this is President Trump’s desire, we want to create conditions in these countries where they can stay in their own country,” he told the press conference with Popolizio.

Pompeo also spoke by telephone with Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, the State Department announced late Saturday.

“They reaffirmed the close friendship between the United States and Brazil and pledged to continue working together to address the… crises in Venezuela, their effects on Venezuela’s neighbors, and the need for outside actors, including Cuba, Russia, and China, to stop propping up Nicolas Maduro,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

Visit to Paraguay

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Earlier Pompeo had become the first US secretary of state to visit Paraguay, formerly ruled as a dictatorship, since 1965, paying tribute to the country’s transition to democracy as an inspiration to the region.

The top US diplomat arrived in Asuncion late Friday after talks with Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera in Santiago that focused heavily on his country’s developing trade relationship with China.

The highlight of Pompeo’s trip will be a brief visit Sunday to the Colombian city of Cucuta on the Venezuelan border, where he will meet refugees.

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All four countries on his itinerary are led by right-wing or center-right leaders favorable to Washington’s uncompromising approach to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

In Asuncion, Pompeo had praised Paraguay’s support for US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido in Venezuela, and its role in the Lima Group of mostly Latin American nations seeking a solution to the Venezuela crisis.

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“Paraguay is a leader in defending democracy and calling Maduro as he is, a tyrant who has ruined his country,” Pompeo said.

Foreign Minister Luis Castiglioni said Paraguay’s position on Venezuela remained strongly aligned with that of the United States.

“We have always said: with dictators, with tyrants, there is no dialogue. You fight them. We must fight them until liberties are restored so that the Venezuelan people can return to live with dignity,” he told reporters.

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Asked by a US journalist if Paraguay would back a military intervention in Venezuela, he said: “We are convinced that all the diplomatic efforts that are being made to isolate this regime will have results in a short time.”

Transnational crime

The two officials also discussed Paraguay’s commitments on combatting threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and transnational crime in what is known as the tri-border area, the border region Paraguay shares with Argentina and Brazil.

“Paraguay has declared all-out war against transnational crime,” said Castiglioni.

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“This battle that we are fighting is a battle of no return until we win. We have assured the Secretary of State that Paraguay wants to cooperate very closely with the US government, since we are on the same path.”

The US official said before his arrival in Chile on Friday that the current US administration had “spent a lot of time” in Latin America seeking to improve trade in a region which has turned its back in recent years on a slew of leftist governments.

“This is an historic opportunity,” he told reporters, referring to “a handful of countries that are truly market driven, democratic in ways that we haven’t had in South America for decades. And we think it creates real opportunity.”

Asked about China’s influence at a press conference following a working lunch with his Chilean counterpart Roberto Ampuero, Pompeo said: “I think the Chilean government and the United States government both share the same concerns.”

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“China’s trade activities often are deeply connected to their national security mission, their technological goals, their desire to steal intellectual property, to have forced technology transfer, to engage in activity that is not economic,” he said.

He iterated his concerns Saturday in Peru.

“Too often we see China’s predatory lending and debt diplomacy reverse positive advances in this area,” he said.

“Our shared goal would be to resist Chinese overtures and promote transparency.”

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