CUCUTA, Colombia — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a lot to feel good about on his four-country swing through South America this past week.
During his visit to Santiago, Chile’s foreign minister stressed the importance of Washington’s “diplomatic pressure” in working to unseat Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
In Peru and Paraguay, diplomats underscored their lockstep support for the U.S. goal of bringing relief to the millions of Venezuelan refugees flooding into neighboring countries.
And in Colombia, Venezuelans who have fled there thanked him for his efforts in the border town of Cucuta, where the United States has positioned tons of aid in case Maduro’s regime allows food and medicine into the country.
But as Maduro maintains his grip on the military, and as the pace of nations recognizing opposition figure Juan Guaido as the rightful leader slows, Pompeo has defended U.S. leadership in the crisis and the righteousness of its intent.
During a news conference in Lima, Peru, Pompeo responded testily when a Washington Post reporter asked whether Peru might consider engaging with Maduro if Western sanctions against the regime worsen the humanitarian and refugee crisis.
“Your question showed an incredible lack of understanding,” Pompeo said. “To have suggested that somehow the policies that Peru has taken or that the Lima Group has taken or that the United States has taken have driven these refugees. You shouldn’t ask questions like that.”
When the reporter reiterated the intent of the question, Pompeo responded: “The responsibility for these refugees lies squarely with Nicolas Maduro, not any policies that any democratic nation has taken with our deep intent to make lives better for the Venezuelan people.
Sanctions experts said questions about the impact of U.S. sanctions on the humanitarian situation remain important and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
“As a sanctions analyst who is broadly supportive of sanctions pressure on Maduro, asking about humanitarian consequences is not only legitimate but key to trying to calculate if our strategy is fulfilling our goals,” said Neil Bhatiya, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank in Washington.
Despite the uncertainty about Maduro’s future, the U.S. maintains broad support in South America for its efforts to pressure him to step down nearly three months after saying he must go.
Summoning the memory of Ronald Reagan, Pompeo said near a warehouse filled with aid: “Mr. Maduro, open these bridges. Open these borders. You can end this today.”