QUITO, ECUADOR - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday turned the focus of his Latin America trip to Ecuador, a country emerging from 10 years of leftist rule with a newfound interest in patching up relations with the United States.
Winning back trade privileges that Ecuador's former president, Rafael Correa, rejected were expected to be a central part of the talks for current President Lenin Moreno. Pence, meanwhile, is looking to court Ecuador's support in pressuring Venezuela's socialist government.
"You deserve credit for reversing years of failed policy ... rooting out corruption," Pence told Moreno on Thursday ahead of their closed-door meeting.
Pence arrived in Quito on Wednesday evening from Manaus, Brazil, where he visited a shelter that houses Venezuelans who have fled their homeland's economic and political turmoil.
Moreno was elected last year with Correa's backing but has since broken with his mentor in adopting a more business- and press-friendly stance that has earned him bipartisan praise in Washington as something of a bridge builder in ideologically polarized Latin America.
Under Moreno, Ecuador has distanced itself from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, for example pulling funding for the Caracas-based Telesur TV network.
But his government nonetheless disappointed Washington by abstaining from a recent vote in the Organization of American States on a resolution that could trigger the country's suspension from that regional group.
The United States has already imposed sanctions on Venezuela, but the Trump administration hopes to persuade more countries in the region to increase pressure on Maduro.
Maduro won a second six-year term in May in an election boycotted by the main opposition parties and widely criticized by the United States and other governments as a sham. The country's crisis has sent more than a million Venezuelans fleeing to Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.
Maduro late Wednesday called Pence a "poisonous viper," saying the United States and Europe publicly attack Venezuela's democratic shortfalls, but really seek riches from a country with the world's largest oil reserves.
The road "is not what Mike Pence tells us," Maduro said. "We have defeated you and we are going to defeat you, Mike Pence, wherever you are and wherever you travel."
Pence began his Latin American trip in Brazil, announcing $10 million in aid to assist in the absorption of Venezuelan refugees, bringing the sum of U.S. support to partners in the region since 2017 to nearly $31 million.
Speaking with Moreno, Pence raised the issue of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who Ecuador has granted asylum while he is wanted by U.S. officials, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Assange is a further sticking point between the two nations, living under asylum inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012.
The conversation about Assange was constructive, and the two leaders agreed to keep in closely in touch about the case, the senior administration official said.
Ten U.S. senators from the Democratic Party sent Pence a letter Wednesday urging him to press Moreno on Assange.
Assange and WikiLeaks tried to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by releasing hacked information, the letter says. It says this year WikiLeaks interfered in the French presidential election and the Catalan independence referendum in Spain.
"It is imperative that you raise U.S. concerns with President Moreno," the letter says. "WikiLeaks continues its efforts to undermine democratic processes globally."
After his talks in Ecuador, Pence is scheduled to fly to Guatemala for a meeting Thursday evening with the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.