In Austin, Rex Tillerson lays out Trump agenda for hemisphere

Kicking off a tour of Latin American countries with a speech Thursday in Austin, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump administration policy for the Western Hemisphere is built on to promoting democratic values, rooting out corruption and countering “predatory actors” that include Russia and China.

Economic growth is essential to promoting security throughout the hemisphere, Tillerson said in a half-hour speech at the University of Texas.

But attention also must be paid to security threats in the region, particularly the transnational criminal organizations — cartels involved in drugs, human trafficking and smuggling — that pose “the most immediate threat to our hemisphere.”

Acknowledging that U.S. demand for drugs is driving the violence and lawlessness of the cartels, Tillerson said U.S. is working with other countries to find strategies to attack the organizations’ revenue streams, halt the transfer of weapons from the United States and find and prosecute “the middlemen who enable them.”

“When their nations are stronger, ours is safer,” he said.

Tillerson also said still-active dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba require special attention.

The United States will continue trying to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to return the country to the democracy as established by its constitution, Tillerson said, adding that the administration is not pressing for Maduro to step aside.

Venezuelans are suffering, he said, “because of a corrupt regime that steals form its own people.”

“The great tragedy is that although Venezuela could be one of most prosperous countries in the region, it is one of the poorest in the world. It’s all the result of man-made collapse,” Tillerson said.

He said Cubans have an opportunity to transform itself as power is transferred from the Castro regime.

“The future of our relationship is up to Cuba,” Tillerson said, adding that the State Department will “continue to support the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.”

President Donald Trump’s top diplomat returned to his alma mater, where he also performed with the Longhorn Band, on the eve of a seven-day trip to Mexico City, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica.

Tillerson focused much of his talk on economic ties, noting that the United States has 20 free-trade agreements, with 12 of them in the Western Hemisphere — helping to fuel almost $2 billion in annual trade, 2.5 million U.S. jobs and a $14 billion annual trade surplus for the United States.

An important step toward improving that situation, Tillerson said, are the Trump administration’s efforts to “modernize” the North American Fee Trade Agreement during ongoing negotiations with Mexico and Canada. NAFTA, he said, was put in place 30 years ago, before China became the world’s second-largest economy and the digital economy transformed trade.

Tillerson did not directly address Trump’s threats to pull out of NAFTA if negotiations don’t produce an agreement to his liking, but the secretary of state acknowledged concerns about the trade deal’s future.

“I’m a Texan, a former energy executive and I’m also a rancher. I understand how important NAFTA is for our economy and that of the continent,” Tillerson said. “Our aim is simple, to strengthen our economy and all of North America.”

Tillerson also singled out China and Russia for predatory practices in the region — China for spreading its economic muscle through state-led investments, onerous loans and unsustainable debt, and Russia via arms sales to regimes that do not share U.S values.

“The U.S. is eager to create even deeper relationships with the aim of expanding freedom to more people,” Tillerson said.

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