By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence urged Latin American countries on Thursday to help isolate crisis-stricken Venezuela, an ideological adversary of Washington that is struggling under a severe and prolonged economic crisis.
Pence met with Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno as part of a tour of Latin America that has included meetings with Venezuelans who left the socialist country because it is so difficult to obtain food or medicine.
“One specific threat to our collective security that is on (our minds) … is the ongoing collapse of Venezuela into dictatorship, deprivation and despair,” Pence said during a news conference with Moreno.
“We respectfully urge Ecuador and all of our allies across the region to take steps to further isolate the Maduro regime.”
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro slammed Pence in response, accusing him of currying favor with conservative Latino voters in Florida.
“The sick and obsessive Mike Pence is going around Latin America, he’s campaigning,” Maduro said in a televised broadcast. “He has failed on this mini-tour of South America.”
On Wednesday, Maduro called Pence a “poisonous viper” and vowed to defeat what he called Washington’s attempts to force him from power.
Pence said the United States offered to provide $2 million in assistance to Ecuador to handle the growing influx of migrants from Venezuela, whose numbers are overwhelming social services agencies in countries all over Latin America.
Washington has already levied sanctions against Venezuela, including barring American citizens from working with a group of high-ranking Venezuelan officials and blocking U.S. investors from acquiring newly issued bonds.
Moreno stopped short of agreeing to isolate Caracas, instead urging involvement by the secretary-general of the United Nations.
“We believe that the solution for Venezuela can only be provided by Venezuelans,” he said.
Moreno said Ecuador had taken in nearly 150,000 Venezuelan citizens and was concerned about the “humanitarian crisis” there.
The United Nations has estimated that close to 1 million Venezuelans left their country from 2015 to 2017, driven by hunger, joblessness and the rising incidence of preventable disease.
Maduro has said the country’s situation is the result of an “economic war” being waged against it by opposition politicians with the help of Washington.
The OPEC country’s oil production has dropped sharply. State oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.’s (PDVSA) oil exports fell 32 percent in the first half of June compared with May.
Moreno also said that Ecuador was seeking to improve relations with the United States, which were tense during the decade-long government of Moreno’s predecessor, Rafael Correa, a socialist ally of Maduro.
The two countries agreed to exchange information regarding drug trafficking and international organized crime, cooperation that Correa halted while in office.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Peter Cooney)