President Clinton opened his first trip to South America on Sunday, praising the “quiet revolution” of democracy and free markets after decades of military dictatorships and coups.
“We can see a new world in the making,” Clinton declared.
Venezuela, the United States’ biggest oil supplier, was the first stop on a week-long tour that also includes visits to Brazil and Argentina.
On a mild day with rain-threatening clouds, Clinton was warmly greeted by President Rafael Caldera and a 21-gun salute at La Carlota Air Base. Caldera hailed Clinton as “the president of the most important country of the world” and said his visit would put Caracas in the global spotlight.
After reviewing a military honor guard, Clinton made a beeline to dozens of flag-waving children, stopping to shake hands. Reflecting the visit’s emphasis on oil and trade, the president was accompanied here by Energy Secretary Federico Pena, Commerce Secretary William Daley and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as well as U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the drug policy adviser.
Venezuela is a major drug-smuggling route from Colombia, handling perhaps 100 metric tons of cocaine and 10 metric tons of heroin a year, McCaffrey said. Albright and Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Burelli signed customs and legal assistance agreements to bolster the battle against narcotics and money laundering. On Monday, Clinton and Caldera will witness the signing of a declaration of alliance against drugs.
With no major diplomatic initiatives on hand, the trip was largely intended to showcase the dramatic political and economic changes throughout the region. For Clinton, it was a welcome break from Washington’s drumbeat about Democratic campaign finance irregularities and embarrassing questions raised by a sexual harassment suit against him.
Arriving here with his wife Hillary, Clinton said that the Americas, north and south, stand “united by shared values from Alaska to Patagonia, a place the rest of the world can look to and say, ‘This is where the future lives.’