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Pompeo praises Paraguay's return to democracy in rare visit

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is welcomed by Paraguay's Military Cabinet Chief General Roque Alberto Sotelo (L) and Ambassador Federico Gonzalez (R) at the presidential palace in Asuncion

Asuncion (AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks Saturday with Paraguay's President Mario Abdo Benitez as part of a four-nation tour of Latin American allies focusing heavily on Venezuela and countering China's economic reach.

Pompeo -- the first US secretary of state to visit the former dictatorship since 1965 -- paid tribute to the country's transition to democracy as an inspiration to the region.

Pompeo arrived in Asuncion late Friday after talks with Chile's President Sebastian Pinera in Santiago that focused heavily on his country's developing trade relationship with China.

The tour will also take in stops in Peru and Colombia.

In Asuncion, Pompeo praised Paraguay's support for US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido in Venezuela, and its role in the Lima Group of mostly Latin American nations seeking a solution to the Venezuela crisis.

"Paraguay is a leader in defending democracy and calling Maduro as he is, a tyrant who has ruined his country," Pompeo said.

Foreign Minister Luis Castiglioni said Paraguay's position on Venezuela remained strongly aligned with that of the United States.

"We have always said: with dictators, with tyrants, there is no dialogue. You fight them. We must fight them until liberties are restored so that the Venezuelan people can return to live with dignity," he told reporters.

Asked by a US journalist if Paraguay would back a military intervention in Venezuela, he said: "We are convinced that all the diplomatic efforts that are being made to isolate this regime will have results in a short time."

Paraguay was ruled by dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989.

- Transnational crime -

The two officials also discussed Paraguay's commitments on combatting threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and transnational crime in what is known as the tri-border area, the border region Paraguay shares with Argentina and Brazil.

"Paraguay has declared all-out war against transnational crime," said Castiglioni.

"This battle that we are fighting is a battle of no return until we win. We have assured the Secretary of State that Paraguay wants to cooperate very closely with the US government, since we are on the same path."

Pompeo flew out of Asuncion bound for Lima, Peru after meeting officials at the US embassy.

He was to hold talks in Lima with Peru's President Martin Vizcarra and Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio.

The highlight of Pompeo's trip will be a brief visit Sunday to the Colombian city of Cucuta on the Venezuelan border, where he will meet refugees.

All four countries on his itinerary are led by right wing or center-right leaders favorable to Washington's uncompromising approach to Maduro.

The US official said before his arrival in Chile on Friday that the current US administration had "spent a lot of time" in Latin America seeking to improve trade in a region which has turned its back in recent years on a slew of leftist governments.

"This is an historic opportunity," he told reporters, referring to "a handful of countries that are truly market driven, democratic in ways that we haven?t had in South America for decades. And we think it creates real opportunity."

Asked about China's influence at a press conference following a working lunch with his Chilean counterpart Roberto Ampuero, Pompeo said: "I think the Chilean government and the United States government both share the same concerns."

"China's trade activities often are deeply connected to their national security mission, their technological goals, their desire to steal intellectual property, to have forced technology transfer, to engage in activity that is not economic," he said.

Pompeo also blasted China's continuing support of Maduro's regime in Venezuela, which he said is prolonging the crisis.

Pinera is due to embark on a visit to China next week.

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