February 16, 2018 / 12:02 PM / 9 months ago

RPT-EXCLUSIVE-Mexico foreign minister heads to Caribbean to win over Venezuelan allies -official

(Repeats story that ran on Thursday with no change to headline or text)

By Gabriel Stargardter

MEXICO CITY, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Mexico’s foreign minister will travel to Jamaica, Grenada and Saint Lucia in March, a Mexican official said on Thursday, as part of efforts to erode Venezuela’s oil-based influence in the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, Cuban diplomats will visit Mexico in March to discuss the regional impact of the crisis in Venezuela, the official said. The Cuban embassy in Mexico City said the trip was not yet confirmed but that the two countries have regular bilateral meetings. Still, there are no signs that Cuba, a steadfast ally of Caracas, is ready to turn its back on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray’s planned trip follows a visit to Latin America and the Caribbean earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who announced plans to study how possible oil sanctions against Venezuela could be mitigated in the Caribbean.

The Mexican foreign minister’s trip represents the latest development in U.S.-led pressure on Maduro, who retains loyalty from some Caribbean nations that have long benefited from Caracas’ oil largess and have been unwilling to shun the country in regional diplomatic efforts.

“The message is: Venezuela is not the only country that can help (Caribbean nations), that if there’s a crisis in Venezuela, they have more friends,” said the Mexican official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the as-yet undisclosed trip.

The Mexican foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The foreign ministries of Jamaica, Grenada and Saint Lucia could not be reached for comment.

Videgaray has led Mexico’s efforts to try and improve cooperation with its top trade partner on security, immigration, and foreign policy, hoping to convince the United States to take a softer stance on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that underpins the majority of Mexican exports.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to quit the pact if it cannot be improved to benefit U.S. workers.

On his way to Jamaica, Tillerson said the United States was closer to deciding whether to impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil, adding that Canada, Mexico and the United States were studying how to mitigate the impact of such a move.

Restrictions on Venezuela’s oil industry would represent an escalation of financial pressure on the OPEC member, which is gripped by severe shortages of food and medicine. Such sanctions could also hurt U.S. refineries that process Venezuelan oil.

Sanctions have so far focused on individual members of Maduro’s government and a ban on buying new Venezuelan debt.

CARIBBEAN BLOC

In a June meeting in Cancun, foreign ministers from the 34-nation Organization of American States (OAS) failed to reach agreement on a resolution criticizing Venezuela, with only 20 countries backing the proposal, shy of the 23-nation threshold.

Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica voted against the resolution, while Grenada, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda abstained.

Jamaica and Saint Lucia backed the proposal.

Officials from other Caribbean nations will be present at Videgaray’s Jamaican stop, the Mexican official said, adding that the Caribbean trip represents an attempt to end the stalemate in the June OAS meeting.

“It’s a result of Cancun,” the official said. “There was a bloc in the Caribbean that wasn’t pulling in the same direction as the OAS.”

Reuters reported last year that Mexico was looking at the possibility of replacing Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program that provided cheap loans for oil to Caribbean nations - and has helped Maduro retain diplomatic support in the region.

However, the Mexican official said it was still not clear how Mexico could furnish Caribbean nations with cheap energy, given the country’s struggling domestic fuel production, and that Mexico relies on oil income for about a fifth of the government budget.

The energy ministry remains unconvinced by the oil diplomacy plan, led by Videgaray, but there are signs it is becoming more flexible, the official said. (Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Diane Craft)

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