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Syria strikes hot topic at Summit of Americas

LIMA, PERU -- Vice President Mike Pence, meeting with a group of Western Hemisphere leaders Saturday, said the Trump administration's missile strikes against Syria had "degraded and crippled" the Bashar Assad regime's ability to produce chemical weapons and showed the world that the U.S. "will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against men, women and children."

Pence, who is representing the United States at the Summit of the Americas in place of President Donald Trump, said he hoped that the military action, which also involved France and Great Britain, would cause Syria "and their patrons in Russia and Iran" to abandon "the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians."

Several U.S. allies at the summit voiced support for the missile strikes and condemned the use of chemical weapons, but there were also calls against further escalation in the situation and outright opposition to the attack.

Leaders of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and other countries reiterated their opposition to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

"Canada stands with our friends in this necessary response, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons in last week's attack," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the gathering of regional leaders. "We will continue to work with our international partners to further investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria and those responsible must be brought to justice."

Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera, criticized the "inability of the international community" to find effective ways to "stop the use of chemical weapons against human beings," while Argentine President Mauricio Macri told the gathering that the international community should keep pursuing dialogue in an attempt to avoid "an escalation of tension."

Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, was a prominent exception. He said Cuba's government "energetically rejects the attack perpetrated by the United States," which he described as "unilateral, illegal and without evidence," and added that it "constitutes a flagrant violation of the principles of international law."

Rodriguez, who said Cuba also rejects the use of chemical weapons, used his speech to deliver a sustained criticism against the Trump administration.

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"They promote walls, militarization of borders, massive deportations, including children who were born in their own territory," Rodriguez said.

Cuba's president, Raul Castro, who is expected to step down later this month, did not attend the summit.

Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have regressed after a thaw during former President Barack Obama's administration. Part of the tension has come after reports of mysterious health problems among a group of U.S. diplomats in Cuba that some believe were the result of attacks.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, a longtime critic of the United States, joined Cuba in its criticism of U.S. policy in the region, including the pressure on Venezuela, an ally.

"It has to be said with complete clarity, the principal threat against democracy, against peace, against freedom, against Mother Earth, and against multilateralism, is the government of the United States," Morales said. "I don't have fear saying it out loud and publicly."

Apart from the conflict in Syria, a main focus of the gathering has been the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The Trump administration has been trying to rally support in Latin America to further isolate President Nicolas Maduro's regime and press for stricter penalties for Maduro's deepening authoritarian grip on power.

Pence spent the morning meeting with several leaders, including President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico. They both ignored reporters who shouted out questions about the border wall and who was going to pay for it. Pena Nieto has canceled two trips to Washington during Trump's tenure over disputes about the proposed border wall and how the two would talk about it.

Relations between the United States and Mexico have grown increasingly fraught due to Trump's accusations that Mexico hasn't done enough to prevent illegal immigration from Central America and his insistence that Mexico should pay for the wall, and his rhetoric that Mexico has taken advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

On Saturday morning, Pena Nieto said he was meeting Pence "not only to talk about NAFTA, but to talk about the bilateral relationship we want to have of cooperation and mutual respect."

As Pence met with Trudeau, he struck an optimistic tone on the possibility of an agreement an on updated NAFTA.

"We think we're close," Pence said. "We are encouraged with the progress of our negotiations, and we are hopeful that we can conclude a successful renegotiation."

A Section on 04/15/2018

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