Crisscrossing Latin America over the past week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to rally support for stiffer sanctions against Venezuela, including a possible embargo on its oil exports, but had only mixed success.
While most governments in the region blame Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist policies for the country’s deep political, social and financial crisis, an oil embargo would cripple what’s left of the battered economy. That could destabilize its neighbors and raise gas prices at the pump back in the U.S.
Caribbean island nations have resisted U.S. efforts to build a united, hemisphere-wide front to challenge Maduro. Most rely heavily on cheap Venezuelan oil and have resisted cutting the supply.
Speaking in Kingston, Jamaica, on Wednesday, the final day of his weeklong trip, Tillerson said he was trying to recruit Latin American energy producers like Mexico to become alternative sources of oil and gas for the Caribbean.
Tillerson said the United States, Canada and Mexico were forming a working group to consider ways to “mitigate” an embargo’s impact on Caribbean countries and on U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, which process Venezuelan crude.
Tillerson said he consulted the presidents or prime ministers of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica this week over whether they would support an embargo.
“It was important because I wanted to hear their views,” he said. An oil embargo, he added, would be “pretty dramatic.”
Tillerson said he would present his findings to President Trump, who already supports tougher U.S. action against Venezuela.
U.S. relations with Venezuela have been fraught for nearly two decades. U.S. sanctions so far have focused mostly on individuals in Maduro’s government and a ban on buying new Venezuelan debt. Restrictions on the country’s oil industry would sharply escalate the financial pressure.
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in a news conference with Tillerson, said he welcomed a chance to move away from Venezuelan oil. With the United States now a net exporter of energy, Holness said he expected Jamaica to benefit from “the new paradigm.”
In a meeting last year of the Organization of American States, the hemisphere’s premier diplomatic body, an effort to create a coalition against Venezuela’s Maduro, led by the United States and Mexico, was thwarted by Caribbean nations.
Some Latin American leaders also view cutting off Venezuela’s oil revenue as too radical a step.
Despite its vast oil reserves, the country of 31 million people is suffering from hyperinflation plus severe shortages of food and medicine. Cutting off its only real source of foreign exchange could cause the economy to collapse, fueling a refugee crisis and rocking regional economies.
World markets are looking at whether Venezuela will continue to pay down its international debt, which Maduro has tried to do despite the economic pressures.
“Any sanction that compromises Venezuela’s ability to pay its debt or pushes it toward default would significantly complicate the wider region,” said Sergio Berensztein, an Argentine political analyst.
A senior State Department official insisted that Tillerson got more support than it sometimes appeared on the trip.
Most importantly, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said his government would not recognize the results of snap presidential elections that Maduro has called by April.
“The elections are completely invalid because voters have no guarantees,” Santos said in Bogota during Tillerson’s visit on Tuesday. “Maduro will never, never hold free and fair elections, because he knows he would lose.”
Colombia is especially alarmed by the crisis because Venezuelan refugees have already begun to flood its cities and border regions.
Tillerson said that an oil embargo would cause pain but the suffering might be worth it if it brought a swifter end to the crisis.
“We are heartbroken by what we see happening in Venezuela,” Tillerson said.