BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that the U.S. is still considering restricting the sale of oil from crisis-torn Venezuela.
Tillerson said in Argentina's capital that the U.S. wants "free, fair, and verifiable elections" in Venezuela, and wants to apply enough pressure to end the crisis in the South American country. The government there has faced widespread criticism over its decision to push up presidential elections under conditions that opponents say overwhelmingly favor President Nicolas Maduro.
But Tillerson also said that he wants to find ways to mitigate the negative effect sanctions would have on U.S. oil companies, Venezuelans and other regional countries that rely on Venezuelan oil.
"The situation is becoming quite dire in Venezuela, so one of the aspects of considering sanctioning oil is what effect would it have on the Venezuelan people, and is it a step that might bring this to an end, to a more rapid end," Tillerson said. "Not doing anything to bring this to an end is also asking the Venezuelan people to suffer for a much longer time."
Venezuela sits atop the world's largest oil reserves and is the third-largest supplier to the U.S. The U.S. oil industry says that a ban on petroleum imports from Venezuela would hurt U.S. jobs and drive up gasoline costs.
But such sanctions also pose a great threat to Maduro. For all of his anti-capitalist rhetoric, Venezuela remains highly dependent on U.S. oil exports, especially for importing food and medicine, which are in short supply as crude prices have plunged and spiraling inflation erodes its economy.
"This is under study, it's under consideration," Tillerson said about the potential sanctions.
"We've had exchanges in Mexico City, we've had exchanges today about it, and I think the point being that all of us in the region want to see Venezuela return to its constitution," said Tillerson, who is on a six-day trip to Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Mexico and Jamaica.
Venezuela's pro-government constitutional assembly last month ordered the presidential election to be held by the end of April — months ahead of when the country's presidential voting has traditionally taken place.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Tillerson, Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said that Argentina does not recognize "the political process and authoritarian deviation of Venezuela," nor the assembly. He also said Argentina is against the restrictions on freedoms and bans imposed on opposition leaders under Maduro's government.
"We're always closely following the situation in Venezuela, which has now drifted toward a health and humanitarian crisis of extraordinary proportions," Faurie said.
Tillerson and Faurie also said that they had agreed to work together to stop the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah from raising money in Argentina and other countries of Latin America.
Argentine prosecutors believe Hezbollah and Iran were responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people in Argentina's worst terrorist attack.
"We did specifically discuss the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah in this hemisphere, which is raining funds obviously, to support its terrorist activities," Tillerson said. "So it's something that we jointly agree we need to attack and eliminate."
Last week, the Trump administration accused Syrian President Bashar Assad's government of producing and using "new kinds of weapons" to deliver deadly chemicals despite committing to abolish its program in 2013. Administration officials say that the U.S. is seeking a new way to hold chemical-weapons-users accountable and wanted cooperation from Russia, Assad's patron, in pressuring him to end the attacks.
Tillerson said that the U.S. is concerned "with reports of weaponizing chlorine in particular," and other potential uses of chemical weapons on civilians, including children.
"We're examining the situation carefully," he said.
"We also have called upon Russia to fulfill its role as the guarantor of eliminating chemical weapons from the Syrian regime" and said the U.S. has called on Russia to stop vetoing U.N. resolutions needed for international investigation of such cases.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.