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Aug 15, 6:24 PM EDT

Pence praises Argentina as model for Latin America


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AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Vice President Mike Pence praised Argentine President Mauricio Macri's "bold reform agenda" Tuesday, hailing the country as a model for the region, in contrast to the downward spiral of Venezuela.

Speaking at the old stock exchange building in Buenos Aires during a week-long trip to Latin America, Pence delivered a message of reassurance that President Donald Trump's "America first" policy does not mean "America alone."

He argued that a secure Latin America is crucial to the security of the United States, and that a more prosperous Latin America will lead to a more prosperous U.S.

"When Latin America embraces economic reforms, Latin America succeeds and so does the United States," he said.

Pence's comments came at the end of a packed day that included meetings with Macri and other local officials, a joint press conference and a visit to the city's grand cathedral.

During the press conference, Pence praised Macri's pro-business reforms, which include cutting government spending, reducing taxes on exports and ending economic distortions that led to years of high consumer prices under his left-leaning, protectionist predecessor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

"Argentina in many ways is an inspiration across this hemisphere and across the wider world," Pence said.

Pence's visit came two days after the surprising success of Macri's political coalition in key Argentine provinces in a primary election. The results strengthened the coalition's position heading into October's midterm legislative vote and gave a boost to its pro-business economic reforms.

The vote was closely watched to gauge Macri's popularity and the strength of former President Fernandez, who is expected to run for a Senate seat in October.

During her presidency, Fernandez kept prices for things like bread, bus rides and energy low. But her free-spending policies led to soaring consumer prices, limits on exports and currency controls that created a black market for dollars.

Macri was elected by promising to clean up corruption and jumpstart the economy with a pro-business government that would roll back some of Fernandez's policies and cut back government spending. But he has struggled to rein in double-digit inflation while job cuts and diminished utility subsidies have stoked unrest in a nation with a long tradition of providing generous state jobs and benefits.

Macri has also struggled to lure in the foreign investments, as promised while campaigning. Pence's visit underscored the challenges. Pence and Macri both spoke at length Tuesday about their desire to deepen trade relations. Pence said the countries were "very close" on a deal to expand American pork exports to Argentina, but no new agreements were announced.

Pence also praised recent investments by U.S. companies in Argentina, including Viacom's recent acquisition of broadcaster Telefe and Exxon and Chevron's involvement in Vaca Muerta, one of the largest shale oil and gas deposits in the world.

The comments also highlight the balancing act Pence must play as he tries to stay true to Trump's protectionist trade rhetoric while at the same time praising U.S. investments in Argentina and elsewhere. On Wednesday, the U.S. will begin renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico - a deal Trump says in unfair to the U.S.

The United States is Argentina's third largest trade partner after Brazil and China. Argentina's chamber of commerce says exports to the U.S. totaled $2.5 billion in the first half of 2017 - an 11 percent increase over the same period last year.

Pence and Macri also discussed the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, with Pence warning the country was spiraling toward dictatorship at the hands of President Nicolás Maduro, and making the case that a failed state in Venezuela will drive illegal drug trafficking and migration, and "endanger the security, prosperity, and well-being of all who call the Western Hemisphere home."

Macri echoed the alarm - but also made clear that he rejected Trump's surprise suggestion last week that a "military option" might be on the table.

"The way to go," said Macri, "is not the use of force."

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Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.

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