The United States Secretary of State visited the Colombian border with Venezuela on Sunday as he concluded a tour of Latin America that has seen him travel to Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Colombia.
Mike Pompeo visited the four South American nations to try to apply increasing unified international pressure on the embattled president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, who, over the past several years, has presided over a worsening economic and political crisis in the oil-rich nation.
The crisis, which has seen rolling blackouts and shortages of basic supplies such as food and medicines amid soaring inflation, has led to an exodus of millions of Venezuelans into neighboring countries, the majority into Colombia.
On Sunday, Pompeo met with Colombian president Ivan Duque and visited a refugee shelter at the border town of Cucuta, where he urged Maduro to reopen the border to allow the influx of humanitarian aid provided by the US and other countries.
In a nod to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 message to Mikhail Gorbachev, in which he urged the Soviet leader to tear down the Berlin Wall at the end of the Cold War, Pompeo told Maduro to “open these bridges, open these borders.”
“I hope you will care now when you see the horror, when you see the tragedy, to change your ways and to leave your country,” he said.
The crisis has seen millions flee Venezuela, with 1.5 million seeking refuge in Colombia over the past two years, Duque told reporters on Sunday.
During his stop in Peru one day earlier, Pompeo praised the Lima government for “generously” taking in 700,000 Venezuelans who have escaped the crisis in their homeland.
"They fled their home country to escape the breakdown of health services, the limited water supply, the bare breadshelves, rolling blackouts and hyperinflation - part of the reason the United States has provided more than $30 million in humanitarian aid to Peru, complimenting your government’s efforts to provide protection for these Venezuelans," Pompeo said.
The Secretary of State also thanked Peru for its support of the leader of the opposition-controlled parliament, Juan Guaido, who declared himself the legitimate president of Venezuela following the disputed results of elections which granted Maduro another six-year term.
The polls were boycotted by the opposition and were denounced was fraudulent by most international observers.
Guaido has since been recognized as the country's legitimate leader by more than 50 nations around the world, including the US and most of the nations of Latin America and Europe.
During his trip to Lima, Pompeo thanked the government for supporting Guaido as the leader of the interim Venezuelan government, and placed the blame for the refugee crisis “squarely with Nicolas Maduro.”
“We have exactly the same objective (as Peru),” Pompeo said. “Our objective is to allow people to stay in their home countries... We want to create conditions in these countries where they can stay in their own country and they don’t have the need to migrate somewhere else from Venezuela.”
Peru’s foreign affairs minister, Nestor Popolizio, said that his country was working with other members of the Lima Group to step up international pressure to isolate Maduro's government and to support the people of Venezuela through humanitarian aid. The Lima Group was established in 2017 by 12 countries from the Americas to peacefully resolve the Venezuelan crisis.
"In Venezuela, there is a systematic violation of human rights. We have to continue isolating Maduro's illegitimate and dictatorial regime," he said.
With the Lima Group and the international community, Peru is carrying out a number of activities to complement the economic measures that the US and other members of the European Union have already taken to isolate Maduro's government.
"In Venezuela, human rights are constantly being violated. We’re going to continue working under the scope of the Lima Group as well as with other countries to continue to isolate the illegitimate government of dictator Nicolas Maduro," Popolizio said.
Pompeo’s tour of South America also saw him visit Asuncion, where he met with Paraguay’s foreign minister Luis Alberto Castiglioni, who pledged his country’s support for the international community’s efforts to diplomatically isolate Caracas and oust Maduro, who has ruled since the 2013 death of his predecessor and socialist mentor, Hugo Chavez.
"Our intention is to continue with the work of isolating that regime so completely that it doesn't have a bit of oxygen left," the foreign minister said after his meeting with Pompeo.
The Paraguayan minister slammed the Maduro government and said the Venezuelan head of state is taking advantage of the "little oxygen" that remains in the country "to consolidate his position of repression" and "make people suffer."
Castiglioni also discussed some of the topics he covered during his private meeting with Pompeo, in which they agreed to keep pushing other countries to join the coordinated effort to further increase Maduro’s isolation.
"He won't be able to hang on much longer and will inevitably fall. That regime will have to fall because it will be impossible for it to keep going," he said.
Pompeo had kicked off his tour with a visit to Chile on Friday, where he met with President Sebastian Pinera and Foreign Minister Roberto Ampuero, who reiterated Chile’s commitment to a return to democracy in Venezuela.
“We condemn dictatorship, and we promote democracy according to standards of foreign policy. Chile actively seeks a peaceful way out of the crisis and the return to democracy in Venezuela through free, transparent elections, and according to international standards,” Ampuero said ahead of a ministerial meeting of the Lima Group on Monday in Santiago.
“We are working together with the member countries for a clear, robust statement in favor of two key elements – return to democracy in Venezuela through a peaceful outlet by Venezuelans themselves, and the attention to this humanitarian crisis suffered by that country,” he added.
Maduro has consistently denied that there is a crisis gripping Venezuela, and has blocked the entry of tons of aid shipments since February on the grounds that they could be a pretext for a US-led military invasion.