The United States is considering imposing sanctions on Venezuela that could cripple its oil industry and is probing whether the plan would be supported in the region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday in Argentina.
Tillerson and his Argentine counterpart, Jorge Faurie, also said in a news conference that their countries had agreed to work together to combat fundraising in Latin America by the militant group Hezbollah, a rare acknowledgment of the Middle Eastern group’s active presence in the region.
Tillerson was in Argentina midway through a five-nation diplomatic swing through Latin America and the Caribbean. On Monday he meets with Argentine President Mauricio Macri before continuing to Lima, Peru.
Throughout the trip, Tillerson has sought to rally regional support for a widening campaign to put pressure on the leftist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Many leaders in the hemisphere as well as human rights organizations accuse Maduro of trampling on democracy and sending his nation into a humanitarian and economic crisis.
The United States has imposed sanctions on more than 50 Venezuelan officials and businesses in hopes of isolating Maduro, and several countries in the region have joined or applauded the efforts.
But taking the next step — banning sales of Venezuelan oil in the United States and halting refining of Venezuelan crude by U.S. companies — is more complicated because of the potential harm to the already suffering Venezuelan people as well as to American businesses and neighboring countries that depend on Venezuelan oil.
“Is it a step that might bring this to an end, to a more rapid end, to a more rapid close,” Tillerson said of the Maduro government’s actions, “because not doing anything to bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time.”
Faurie also expressed caution.
“We should closely follow up on this to ensure an appropriate balance between what the Venezuelan nation needs and what is being used by the leaders of the Venezuelan government” to enrich themselves, he said.
Several Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Colombia have been reticent to cut off Venezuela’s oil revenue but at the same time have expressed frustration that sanctions and talks so far have had little impact.
Maduro, after shutting down congress and setting up his own assembly of loyalists, called snap presidential elections to take place by April 30. He will use the vote to further solidify his grip on power, critics say.
On the issue of Hezbollah, both Tillerson and Faurie said they agreed to jointly oppose efforts by the Lebanon-based group to raise money in South America to finance what the American diplomat called terrorist operations.
“We did specifically discuss the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah in this hemisphere, which is raising funds, obviously to support its terrorist activities,” Tillerson said. “So it is something we jointly agree we need to attack and eliminate.”
Faurie said that Hezbollah posed a threat to regional peace.
It was unusual for an Argentine leader to acknowledge the presence of the group in his country. Argentina has a large Lebanese population — a former president was of Lebanese descent — and a history of terrorist incidents, including a deadly 1994 bombing at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that was blamed on Iranian agents. Hezbollah is often a proxy for Iran.
Tillerson indicated the discussion was broader than Hezbollah, saying he and Faurie spoke about how countries in the hemisphere “must all jointly go after these transnational criminal organizations — narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling, money laundering — because we see the connections to terrorist financing organizations as well.”
Tillerson made a point of welcoming Argentina back into a role as a world leader, praising Macri’s 2-year-old government and its partnership with Washington. This was an implied slap at the previous leftist government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Even so, the two governments are at odds over thorny trade issues, including high tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on imports of Argentine biodiesel fuels, which Buenos Aires says are costing it millions of dollars.
Faurie said he raised the issue with Tillerson but that talks would have to continue. Washington claims the Argentine industry benefits from government subsidies. Argentina has said it will file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.