WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump said Thursday that he intends to work closely with his Colombian counterpart to find a solution to spiraling violence in Venezuela.
Sitting side by side with President Juan Manuel Santos in the Oval Office, Trump said he will seek Colombia's help in pressuring neighboring Venezuela to address the near-daily protests and violence that have shaken President Nicolas Maduro's grip on power.
At least 40 people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests that erupted after Venezuela's supreme court issued a ruling in late March stripping the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its last remaining powers. The ruling was later partially reversed amid a storm of international criticism.
The meeting came as the Trump administration rolled out new sanctions Thursday on members of Venezuela's supreme court for alleged human rights violations.
"A stable and peaceful Venezuela is in the best interest of the entire hemisphere," Trump said at a joint news conference. "We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuela problem. It is a very, very horrible problem."
Driving the latest outrage is a decree by Maduro to begin the process of rewriting Venezuela's constitution. The opposition rejects that plan as another attempt by the president to tighten his grip on power, and opposition leaders are calling on Venezuelans to continue to take to the streets in protest.
Santos is the third Latin American leader to meet with Trump since he took office, after the leaders of Peru and Argentina. The president's bullish policies toward illegal immigration and his proposed border wall with Mexico have incensed many across Latin America who say they are being unfairly targeted. The dispute led Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel his trip to Washington weeks after Trump took office.
Santos has been among the critics of Trump's proposed wall, though he avoided outwardly criticizing the plan during their joint remarks.
Trump defended his proposed border wall Thursday, saying, "Walls work, just ask Israel."
Santos is looking for Trump's support on a number of domestic issues. His government signed a peace accord last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ending one of the world's bloodiest and longest-running armed conflicts. The rebel group agreed to turn over 30 percent of its arsenal of assault rifles, machine guns and explosives.
The agreement earned Santos the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
The Trump administration is also looking to work with Colombia to stem the flow of drugs into the U.S. from Latin America. "We have a problem with drugs, and you have a very big problem with drugs," Trump said to Santos at the start of their meeting.
Santos said he is committed to working with the United States and other countries in Latin America "to fight the other links in the chain," saying they will join forces to "seize cocaine in transit."
Santos is a graduate of the University of Kansas and holds a master's degree from Harvard University.