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Rex Tillerson goes dark as Venezuela crisis mounts

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gestures as he responds to a reporter's question at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, July 26, 2017.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gestures as he responds to a reporter's question at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. AP

For a second time in six weeks, Secretary Rex Tillerson has skipped out at a critical moment involving the biggest crisis in the hemisphere instead of confronting his history with the Caracas regime.

Some Republicans say they think he might be stepping aside to avoid the perception of a conflict, but his repeated absences surrounding Venezuela matters is raising questions for other lawmakers.

“I understand the pressures of the office, but this is the nature of the job,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee. "It’s not just Venezuela. There are a lot of serious consequences all over the world. And you just don’t get to take time off from them."

Tillerson is doing just that, taking time off as U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened the so-called "nuclear option" – oil sanctions – against the South American country if President Nicolas Maduro goes ahead with plans to hold a July 30 vote and strip lawmakers of power.

And it’s not the first time.

Tillerson cancelled a trip last month to Mexico for a meeting of the United Nations-like Organization of American States, where the main focus was Venezuela’s political crisis. That meeting failed to produce a strong resolution against Venezuela’s regime because of resistance from several Caribbean islands. Some feel Tillerson’s lack of appearance gave the Caribbean islands an excuse to support Venezuela.

Tillerson instead focused on trying to resolve rising tensions in the Persian Gulf sparked by a Saudi-led coalition’s move to isolate Qatar over its ties to Iran and militant groups.

The intensified push against Venezuela and noted absences by Tillerson have raised questions about the influence he might have behind the scenes. Many wonder how decades of fighting the Venezuelan government as head of ExxonMobil have shaped his perspective.

In 2007, Tillerson was at the helm of the company when then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took control of billions of dollars worth of Exxon assets. Later in 2015, with Maduro as president, the two sides confronted each other again when ExxonMobil struck oil off the coast of neighboring Guyana in an area that Venezuela also claims.

"There are other capable U.S. diplomats," said one former State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It’s not one person has to do everything, but the secretary of state matters. This is a voice that carries. And other people judge what your priorities are based on what the secretary of state spends his or her time."

Members of Congress, such as Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, said he’d like to see Tillerson more involved in Latin America.

"We’re over-engaged in the Middle East and under-engaged in our own hemisphere," Sanford said. "I believe in the Monroe doctrine; our hemisphere is our backyard and we ought to be watching it awfully closely.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has been ramping up the pressure on Venezuela. They set the tone early, just weeks after taking office, by calling Venezuela’s vice president, Tareck El Aissami, a drug "kingpin" when announcing sanctions against him.

In May, Maduro lashed out at Trump telling him to "get your pig hands out of here" after the administration slapped sanctions against eight members of Venezuela's Supreme Court.

The State Department said Tillerson remains engaged on all issues, including the situation in Venezuela.

A State Department spokesperson said “we are encouraging governments in the hemisphere and around the world to call on President Maduro to abandon the Constituent Assembly process, and to take action to hold accountable all persons, regardless of rank or position, who threaten Venezuela's democratic institutions.”

The White House said Tillerson is working with his colleagues at the National Security Council and Treasury. A White House official, who would not speak on the record, added Tillerson was working on behalf of the Venezuelans who are fighting to restore democracy.

And Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came to his defense too: "He is a person that I believe tries to conduct himself beyond reproach.”

It is not just Venezuela’s political stability that is at stake either. The Russian state-owned Rosneft holds a 49.9 percent stake in the Venezuelan-owned, U.S.-based refiner Citgo following a $1.5 billion loan from the Russian company. Some lawmakers say they are concerned that Russia is in a position to own a substantial stake of the U.S.-based company.

On Thursday, Treasury officials fined ExxonMobil $2 million for signing business agreements with Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft. Exxon responded by filing a legal complaint against the Treasury Department.

"This is more than just the U.S. and Venezuela," said Juan Gonzalez, a deputy assistant secretary of state under Obama. "Let says PDVSA is in a situation where it defaults, which would affect Citgo. Then Rosneft has a 49 percent stake in Citgo. If Rosneft decides to up that to 51 then all of a sudden Citgo becomes subject to Russian sanctions."

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