Tillerson praises Colombia aid to Venezuelans, anti-drug efforts

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday said the United States is heartbroken by the economic and social situation effecting Venezuela and appreciates Colombia’s help in dealing with the humanitarian crisis.

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Standing beside Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, Tillerson said the two men had an extensive exchange about how they and other countries could help Venezuela, especially through multilateral organizations like the Organization of American States.

“Our only objective is to see Venezuela return to its constitution, return its duly elected assembly, to hold free and fair elections,” Tillerson said. He is on a five-country Latin American tour.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, whose approval ratings are low amid the collapsing economy, runaway inflation and rising malnutrition in the oil-producing country, is seeking re-election in a vote that must be held by the end of April.

“We are all heartbroken by what we see happening in Venezuela -- such a great country -- and we are also heartbroken to see the impact it’s having on Colombia,” Tillerson said.

Venezuela has faced an economic meltdown after a plunge in oil prices that has left millions with barely any food and hundreds of thousands fleeing to Colombia, Chile and other countries.

Venezuelans citizens, some 30,000 of whom cross the border on daily passes to buy food and other basics, are suffering, said Santos. He will visit the border city of Cucuta on Thursday to check on humanitarian efforts there.

Tillerson raised eyebrows last week before heading to Latin America - where his stops also include Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Jamaica - when he suggested that Maduro could be toppled by his own military.

The United States and other Western governments accuse Maduro’s government of violating political and human rights in Venezuela and have imposed economic sanctions. Maduro’s government says it is fighting a U.S.-led conspiracy determined to end socialism in Latin America, hobble Venezuela’s economy and steal its oil wealth.

Tillerson also said he was encouraged by Colombia’s efforts to combat the illegal drugs trade and a recent surge in cultivation of coca, the raw material that makes cocaine.

“We will continue to work with Colombia to support these efforts where we can be of assistance as well; this is a shared challenge for both of our nations,” he said.

Santos said he did not think President Donald Trump was referring to Colombia when he threatened to cut assistance to nations which send drugs and are “laughing” at the United States.

“Colombia is not laughing at the U.S. On the contrary, we think we are working together in a problem and a challenge that needs cooperation from both countries,” Santos said. There is no other country in the world that has paid such a high price in this war on drugs.”

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker