SANTIAGO, Chile — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took direct aim at China and Russia on the first leg of a four-country trip to South America on Friday, saying the two countries’ military and economic influence in the region was abetting authoritarian leaders and spreading corruption.
“China’s bankrolling of [Venezuela’s] regime helped precipitate and prolong the crisis in that country,” Pompeo said in an address at a convention center in Santiago, Chile’s capital. “Russia, as everyone knows, also has long-standing ties to authoritarian leaders in Cuba and Nicaragua.”
Pompeo lashed out at the two longtime adversaries as the Trump administration seeks to topple President Nicolás Maduro and grow a coalition of countries supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Maduro has maintained his grip on power with the support of Russia and China despite hopes from some officials in the Trump administration that he could be ousted quickly through crippling economic sanctions and massive opposition protests.
As the stalemate drags on, Venezuela has been beset with chronic electricity outages, exacerbating the shortages of food, water and medicine.
Chile, a longtime U.S. ally and pointed critic of the Maduro regime, has stood strongly with U.S. efforts against Venezuela. But analysts have warned that as the humanitarian crisis worsens, millions more Venezuelan refugees could flood into neighboring countries and sow divisions among U.S. and Latin American allies.
The United States opposes any dialogue with the Maduro regime to find a way out of the crisis and has tried to enforce that line among members of the Lima Group regional bloc addressing the situation. Chilean Foreign Minister Roberto Ampuero has hinted that as the crisis deepens, he could be more open to alternative outreach efforts but maintained the importance of consistency within the Lima Group.
“This group was created in order to seek a solution to this profound crisis,” Ampuero said at a news conference with Pompeo. “At the same time, we as a country need to play a role of diplomatic bridge and thus explore all the spaces of convergence with other players.”
Analysts said it could become more difficult for the United States to maintain unity among South American countries.
“The Chileans are in a tough place,” said a former U.S. administration official familiar with the process, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with U.S. and foreign officials. “They are committed to the Lima Group approach, and do not want any light to open between countries in that group. . . . However, they are beginning to feel the heat at home as the Venezuelan crisis drags on and as fears rise that we might turn to intervention and military action — something which would ignite the left.”
During an interview on his plane Thursday, Pompeo doubted that Ampuero or any other key allies would seek dialogue with Maduro.
“Look, everybody’s looking for the thing that will ultimately deliver democracy for the Venezuelan people. I am. So is he,” said Pompeo, referring to Ampuero. “No one thinks that having a conversation about Maduro participating in an election makes any sense at all.”
Mexico, a key member of the Lima Group, however, has taken a different tack and has moved against efforts to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Pompeo’s address was meant to send a message of hope that as democratic backsliding continues around the world, South America is a bright spot.
As the continent takes a rightward shift politically, Pompeo applauded anti-corruption efforts and economic reform in Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Brazil.
Pompeo specifically cited the populist victory of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, known as the “Trump of the Tropics.”
“Brazil’s citizens said ‘enough is enough’ to the corrupt ruling class,” Pompeo said. “They had seen, through scandal, how rotten their government had become.”