LIMA, PERU - Vice President Mike Pence met Friday with Venezuelan opposition leaders and promised that the United States would contribute an additional $16 million in humanitarian aid for people who have fled the crisis-ridden South American country.
The pledge, to the U.N. refugee agency, is intended to help Venezuelans in Brazil and Colombia who have fled the economic collapse in their home country, according to a statement describing the funding from the State Department and USAID.
The announcement came as Pence arrived in Lima for the Summit of the Americas. President Donald Trump this week canceled his plans to attend the session, the first U.S. leader to skip the regional summit since the meetings began in 1994.
After Trump bowed out, several other leaders followed suit, including Cuban President Raúl Castro, and the presidents of Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay.
“We are with you,” Pence told the opposition leaders, in what he described as a message from Trump to the opposition and people of Venezuela. “We are with you to see freedom once again prosper and thrive and end the humanitarian crisis that is Venezuela today.”
Pence was scheduled to attend a dinner Friday evening with Peru’s president and other dignitaries and then planned to have bilateral meetings Saturday with leaders of several countries, including Mexico, Canada, Argentina and Chile.
His focus is on Venezuela, a country that has lost at least 1.5 million people as conditions have worsened, according to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Officials estimate that an additional 1 million could flee this year. Many of those pouring out of the country have gone to nearby nations, straining social services.
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“In its modern history, Latin America has never experienced an exodus of this dimension,” Matthew Reynolds, the regional representative for the United States and Caribbean for the U.N. agency, said at an event Friday at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Venezuela’s economic crisis - caused by economic mismanagement and low oil prices - has produced severe shortages of food and medicine and the world’s worst inflation. The International Monetary Fund estimates it could reach 13,000 percent this year.
The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on officials in Venezuela’s socialist government, accusing it of dictatorial behavior, and encouraged other countries in the hemisphere to do the same. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused the U.S. government of contributing to the country’s crisis.
Trump’s aides said he decided to cancel his trip to the summit because of the tense situation with Syria. But he probably would have faced a cool reception. Trump’s push for a giant wall on the Mexican border, his threats to cut aid and talk of imposing tariffs have angered many in the region.
Among the members of the U.S. delegation was Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka, who on Friday morning announced a new $150 million U.S. initiative to help women in Latin America access credit for businesses.
At a business conference held in the run-up to the summit, political and business leaders affirmed the virtues of free trade and the need to develop deeper ties in the hemisphere to compete with Asian countries.
“Participation in world trade, as we all know, is a zero-sum game,” said Danilo Medina, president of the Dominican Republic, as he warned that the Western Hemisphere was falling behind China and other Asian countries. “They are winning the race.”
Few, if any, political and business leaders mentioned Trump by name during the speeches Thursday and Friday, but some laid out visions that contrasted with his speeches.
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“Building bridges, sharing ideas and working together to create growth throughout the Americas: That’s why we meet, that’s why we make these relationships a priority,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Asked about the news that the Trump administration is considering rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which includes several Latin American countries, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico said that “the door is open for the United States to rethink and reconsider its position.”
Trump had lambasted the accord during his presidential campaign, and pulled the United States out of the deal shortly after taking office.
Peña Nieto, who has been involved in a difficult renegotiation of North American Free Trade Agreement initiated by the Trump administration, portrayed Mexico as a country that had moved beyond its protectionist past to fully embrace free trade.
“To slide back is very easy when policies are wrong and when we adopt failed models from the past,” Peña Nieto said.
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The Washington Post’s Simeon Tegel contributed to this report.