By Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2020

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday wrapped up a tour of four South American countries - three of them neighbors of Venezuela, whose socialist government is under intense U.S. pressure.

After a meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque on Saturday, the two vowed to deepen ties - including U.S. investment in the country’s struggling economy - and Pompeo praised Colombia’s tough stance against Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

Pompeo said Colombia’s backing of opposition leader Juan Guaido “and the democratic transition for a sovereign Venezuela free of malign influence from Cuba, from Russia, from Iran, is incredibly valued.

“You are a true leader for the region and the dignity of all of its people,” he said at a news conference.

In a separate statement, Pompeo announced an additional $348 million in aid for Venezuelans, including the some 5 million who have left the crisis-wracked nation. His office said that new funding now brings the total amount of U.S. humanitarian and development assistance toward the Venezuela crisis to more than $1.2 billion since 2017.

Pompeo’s three-day trip to the region comes as the U.S. presidential election nears, with Florida - which has hosted an expanding Venezuelan diaspora - a key battleground.

Duque highlighted a report by the U.N.’s top human rights body accusing Maduro’s government of crimes against humanity, including torture and killings carried by security forces.

“The situation there is unsustainable,” he said.

Shoring up support for the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy was a key focus of the trip, which including stops in Guyana and Brazil, where he emphasized U.S. calls for a presidential election to replace Maduro. He also stopped in Suriname, like Guyana a budding oil exporter.

Colombia has been flooded with migrants fleeing Venezuela’s increasing economic crisis while accusing its neighbor of backing armed groups on Colombian soil.

The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has left millions in Colombia out of work, with unemployment recently soaring to 20% during the nation’s long lockdown. Though virus cases were initially slow to rise, Colombia now has the world’s sixth highest total number caseload.

Duque said he is hoping to attract more U.S. investment to Colombia and he hailed a U.S. government initiative aimed at enhanging private sector investment in infrastructure.

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