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Pompeo Tour Prioritises Venezuela, Iran, Drugs, and Illegal Immigration

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conducted a whistle-stop tour to four nations in Latin America from 19 to 21 July. Pompeo’s choice of destinations was instructive. He started in Argentina, a visit which served the US government’s interests of trying to justify its tough Iran policy. He then moved on to Ecuador, which has flipped from hostility to hospitality in its ties with the US in recent months, where he discussed combating drug trafficking and ramping up the pressure on the de facto government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

Pompeo was ostensibly present in Buenos Aires for the second Western Hemisphere counterterrorism conference, hosted by Argentina. But the symbolic significance of the visit far outweighed the importance of the conference. Pompeo took part in commemorations marking the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Jewish community centre (Amia) in Buenos Aires which claimed 85 lives. The government led by President Mauricio Macri designated the Islamist militant group Hezbollah, backed by the Iranian government, a terrorist organisation on 18 July. Days earlier the US treasury department had announced sanctions on Salman Raouf Salman, a Hezbollah operative, for his “prominent role” in the Amia bombing, and offered a US$7m reward for information on his whereabouts.

At a time of heightened tensions with Iran, and criticism of US policy towards its Islamic Republic, especially from the European Union (EU), highlighting Iran’s support for terrorism in this way served the US government’s purposes. It also had a domestic political import for Macri. In three months from now the main threat to Macri’s bid for re-election will be the joint ticket including his predecessor Cristina Fernández (2007-2015). Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor, died from a gunshot wound in January 2015, the night before he was going to accuse Fernández of conspiring to cover-up the Iranian government’s complicity in the Amia bombing.

Pompeo said that relations with Argentina were now “stronger than ever” – something that will abruptly change if Macri loses the upcoming elections – and that it was a “trusted partner in our shared efforts to restore democracy to Venezuela”. Ecuador also fits into that category now after 10 years of antagonistic relations under Rafael Correa (2007-2017). Pompeo met President Lenín Moreno in Ecuador’s coastal city of Guayaquil on 20 July, praising Correa’s successor for his “extraordinary leadership” which had helped to bring the “bilateral relationship…back to life”. Pompeo singled out Moreno’s stance on the Venezuelan crisis, and bilateral drug trafficking cooperation.

Moreno said his government did not recognise the Maduro administration which he blamed for “catastrophe and social apocalypse”. Moreno also thanked the US for its support and technical assistance in combating drug trafficking and organised crime. His government has come under fire from the political opposition for granting US military planes permission last month to use an airport on the island of San Cristóbal in the Galápagos Islands to refuel, for the purpose of “fighting drug trafficking”, the defence minister, Oswaldo Jarrín, said. It is not just Correísta legislators who have criticised the reported deal. Marcela Cevallos, of the ruling Alianza País (AP), also expressed concern about the threat to conservation and biodiversity it could pose.

On 21 July Pompeo flew on to Mexico City where he met his Mexican peer Marcelo Ebrard for talks focused on illegal immigration. On the subject of migration, the Mexican foreign ministry issued a statement claiming that Pompeo had recognised “the significant advances in Mexican operations”, meaning that it would not be “necessary to initiate any type of negotiation with respect to an eventual Safe Third Country deal between Mexico and the US”. The US State Department statement was not as effusive as this suggests, saying merely that Pompeo thanked Ebrard for “Mexico’s increased immigration enforcement efforts”.

Shortly before Pompeo’s visit, Ebrard said that Mexico would invest US$100m in El Salvador, with a view to reducing the appeal of illegal immigration, and that he would urge his US peer to persuade his government “to make a proportional effort” and invest US$2bn a year in the country. Ebrard met Bukele on 18 July, inaugurating an agroforestry project ‘Sembrando Vida’ (Sowing Life) in San Pedro Masahuat, 45km outside San Salvador. This aims to plant 50,000 hectares (ha) with fruit or timber trees and support 20,000 jobs, with US$31m of Mexican financing.

Pompeo, who visited Bukele three days later, said that El Salvador could be “a model on immigration”. He said the US would “get it right in multiple dimensions” in El Salvador, which before the advent of Bukele had, like Ecuador, been under a government fiercely critical of the US for the previous decade. Pompeo said the US would “do enforcement…do criminal gang activity…and invite private American investment to come down here”. Bukele might need to bring in some foreign financial assistance to fund his government’s security strategy to crack down on the mara gangs. He revealed on Twitter on 16 July that “a massive process of recruitment” to the armed forces would begin, with an additional 2,000 soldiers hired, revising this up to 3,000 the following day.

Maduro wins NAM backing

Against the backdrop of Mike Pompeo’s tour, Venezuela hosted a two-day summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Caracas on 20 and 21 July. The NAM issued a declaration of support for the Maduro government, rejecting foreign intervention in Venezuela. Pompeo’s Iranian peer Mohamad Yavad Zarif used the summit to condemn the economic and political sanctions imposed by the US on Caracas and Teheran as “terrorism pure and simple…a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations…” He made no reference to a report submitted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, following her recent visit, documenting arbitrary and illegal arrests, not to mention extrajudicial killings, carried out by the Venezuelan state security apparatus. Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, did refer to the report, which he described as “a marvellous document for those who attack Venezuela”, but Bachelet’s credibility on the Left exposes the implausibility of his government’s efforts to portray her as an imperialist pawn.

  • Military tensions

Just before the start of the NAM summit in Venezuela on 20 July, the defence minister, Vladimir Padrino López, tweeted that a US military aircraft had entered Venezuelan airspace in a “clear provocation”. Venezuela’s government denounced “the incursion of a US reconnaissance and intelligence aircraft” in the flight area surrounding Maiquetía airport outside Caracas. The US Southern Command (Southcom) responded in a tweet on 21 July that a US Navy EP-3 Aries II plane had been over international waters when it was “aggressively shadowed” by a Venezuelan Sukhoi SU-30 Flanker “at an unsafe distance”, adding that the incident “demonstrates Russia’s irresponsible military support” for the Maduro government.