The United States will continue hammering Venezuela with economic and political sanctions to keep the country from "collapsing into a dictatorship," Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday as he began a four-country tour of Latin America.
But even as Pence talked about isolating Venezuela and forcing change, he said Washington's goal is to find a "peaceful solution" for the troubled South American nation.
Last week, President Donald Trump, in off-the-cuff remarks, riled the region when he said he could not rule out the use of military force in Venezuela.
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Pence didn't outright contradict his boss, saying the U.S. has "many options for Venezuela."
"But the president also remains confident that, working with all of our allies across Latin America, we can achieve a peaceful solution to the crisis facing the Venezuelan people," he added.
Pence spoke in Cartagena, Colombia, the first country on a trip that will take him to Chile, Argentina and Panama. This is the administration's first high-profile visit to the region, and Pence suggested that the Venezuelan crisis would be major topic on each stop.
"Working with free nations across the hemisphere, the United States will continue to bring the full measure of American economic and diplomatic power until democracy is restored in Venezuela," he said.
Venezuela has been racked by months of turmoil as the socialist Nicolás Maduro administration has begun rewriting the constitution in a move that critics fear will destroy the last vestiges of democracy.
Washington has slapped 30 Venezuelan officials including Maduro with financial sanctions and barred them from traveling to the United States. But Pence said more measures were in the works.
Asked if the U.S. would consider cutting off the Venezuelan crude imports that support the economy, Pence said, "We are looking at a full range of additional economic sanctions and calling on nations around the world to become more engaged and more involved."
Colombia is the United States' staunchest ally in the region, and President Juan Manuel Santos said he would do "whatever is possible to restore democracy in Venezuela."
But he also cautioned Washington against resorting to violence.
"A military intervention would be unacceptable to all countries in Latin America," he said. "What we all want is to reestablish democracy in Venezuela, and we will continue pressing in this regard."
"America is a continent of peace. Let's keep it that way," he added.
During Sunday's meeting, Pence and Santos also talked about Colombia's historic peace deal with armed FARC rebels, trade and booming coca production here.
Colombia is the world's largest coca producer, and Pence said the country's inability to control the problem was "our greatest concern."
Santos has been under pressure to resume aerial spraying of coca crops, which was suspended in 2015 due to health concerns. Instead, the government is hoping that a mix of voluntary substitution and manual eradication — led by the military — can slash production.
But as pressing as the drug issue is, it’s Venezuela that’s seen as the problem child in the region.
"We will not accept the emergence of a dictatorship in our hemisphere," Pence warned. "The Venezuelan people deserve better and the hemisphere deserves better."
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