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Tillerson sees value in a Venezuelan military coup

01 Feb 2018 21:53 GMT
Tillerson sees value in a Venezuelan military coup

Washington, 1 February (Argus) — Venezuela's return to democratic rule would be easier if President Nicolas Maduro left on his own or if his military overthrew him, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said.

"There will be a change in Venezuela. We want it to be a peaceful change," Tillerson said today at the University of Texas-Austin, ahead of a weeklong tour of Latin America.

Tillerson plans to discuss on his trip Venezuela's rapidly accelerating humanitarian crisis and the spillover effects on its neighbors. The US has condemned Maduro's decision to advance presidential elections to 30 April, as well as his sidelining of the opposition-controlled National Assembly by the government-controlled constituent assembly.

"We have not advocated for the regime change or removal of President Maduro," Tillerson said. "Peaceful transitions, peaceful change is always better than the alternative. In the history of Venezuela and other South American countries, often times it is the military that handles that. When the things are so bad that the military leadership realizes that it cannot let the citizens starve, they will manage a peaceful transition."

But Tillerson added that he did not know whether that will happen. "Maduro could choose to just leave, that would be the easiest. He has friends in Cuba and they can give him a nice hacienda on the beach and he can have a nice life there."

Trump last year briefly floated the possibility of a US military intervention in Venezuela. But that garnered condemnation from South American leaders and administration officials have downplayed the possibility.

The US administration says all options — including more oil sector sanctions — remain on the table. But the immediate priority is to tackle the humanitarian crisis caused by a mass exodus of Venezuelan citizens to neighboring countries, primarily Colombia.

Tillerson said the US will support for Colombia's efforts to address the growing flow of refugees, which he estimates at 300,000. Another 200,000 cross the Venezuelan-Colombian border on a regular basis to obtain food and medicine. "It is a real problem for Colombia, and it has the potential to destabilize Colombia," he said.

The State Department said Tillerson during his visit will call on South American leaders to work together to address the Venezuelan crisis. But governments in South America for the past year also have asked Washington to take more action on Venezuela.

"We continue to pressure the regime," Tillerson said. Venezuela's oil reserves are the largest in the world and "it could be the strongest economy in the region, but it is instead among the poorest in the world."

US sanctions imposed on Venezuela in August 2017 contributed to Venezuela's slide into sovereign default and may have scared US crude buyers away from Venezuela at a time when oil production is falling. Production fell to 1.62mn b/d in December, according to data communicated directly to Opec by Venezuela's energy ministry, nearly 400,000 b/d lower than a year earlier.

Weekly crude imports from Venezuela averaged 376,500 b/d in the first four weeks of January, down from an average of 756,000 b/d in the same period last year, according to estimates by the US Energy Information Administration.

But Maduro has consolidated power despite US pressure and is proceeding with plans to hold a presidential election on 30 April.

US undersecretary of state Thomas Shannon was tasked two years ago with negotiating with Maduro, but no meetings have taken place in recent months, the State Department said. Shannon — the most senior career US diplomat at the State Department — today announced he would step down after 35 years in the Foreign Service.