Secretary of State Tillerson Stops by UT Ahead of Latin America Tour

On the morning of Jan. 29, the UT community received an unexpected email blast. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, BS ’75, Distinguished Alumnus, would be returning to campus. The timeline was quick. Secretary Tillerson would be stopping by his alma mater in just three days. The event reached capacity—around 450 RSVPs—at breakneck speed. It sold out in just over an hour.

His visit on Feb. 1 marked the one-year anniversary of his swearing in as America’s chief diplomat. “It’s been a very busy, whirlwind year,” Tillerson said, “but it’s really nice to share [the anniversary] with friends.” His respite from the jet-setting diplomat lifestyle would be brief. The next day, he would decamp for a seven-day trip to Mexico City, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica. His talk, “U.S. Engagement in the Western Hemisphere,” served as a touchstone for the trip.

Tillerson began his remarks by discussing opportunities for the U.S. to further economic partnerships and prosperity of the people in the Western hemisphere. On his trip, the secretary of state said he will tout economic growth, security, and democratic governance. “In many ways, 2018 marks the year of the Americas,” he said.

Tillerson made his name in the energy sector as an engineer, oilman, and eventually head of the oil behemoth Exxon Mobil. With the domestic shale gas revolution and the U.S. poised to become the largest exporter of natural gas, “America is leading an energy renaissance,” Tillerson said. “The rest of the hemisphere can use North America as a model.”

Tillerson cited Lyndon B. Johnson, who “bemoaned an east coast elitist approach to foreign policy.” Like LBJ, the secretary’s southern roots, along with his engineering background and extensive private sector experience, set him apart from many who have previously held his title.

At points in his conversation, Tillerson delved into the history of the Americas. He spoke approvingly of the Monroe Doctrine, lauded the inception of the Organization of American States (OAS), and recounted Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to Panama in 1906, the first diplomatic trip of a president outside the continental United States.

Tillerson spoke at length about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): “I’m a Texan, a former energy executive, and also a rancher. I understand how important NAFTA is for our economy and that of the continent.” But he said it should come as no surprise that a 30-year-old agreement is due for modernization.

For the Trump administration, priorities in the Americas go hand-in-hand. “We must address security and development issues side by side,” Tillerson said. He went on to cite a litany of security concerns on the two continents: illegal immigration, drug cartels, human trafficking, and drug and weapon smuggling. Along with regional partners, Tillerson said, the U.S. hopes to also crack down on corruption.

Tillerson hailed the monumental peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC. Much work in Colombia remains to be done, he added, as cocaine production continues to skyrocket in the country.

The secretary of state trained his sights on the “corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolas Maduro,” which clings to power as the country is ravaged by self-inflicted dismal economic performance and mounting internal dissent. Tillerson opined that regime change was possible in Venezuela at the hands of the military or the people. The U.S. would play no part in it, he qualified. Nonetheless, these comments drew a rebuke from Venezuela’s foreign minister.

“President Maduro could choose to just leave,” Tillerson said. “I am sure that he’s got some friends over in Cuba that could give him a nice hacienda on the beach.”

After the planned remarks, Tillerson fielded a few questions from Will Inboden, a professor at the LBJ School and executive director of the Clements Center. The conversation was then opened to students. Topics ran the gamut from science diplomacy in the Americas to the flow of U.S. weapons crossing the southern border that end up in the hands of cartels.  

As the event wrapped up, Tillerson and his security detail readied to depart the Forty Acres. UT had one more surprise up its sleeve: “The Eyes of Texas,” played by the Longhorn band. It was a personal moment for Tillerson, since he had joined the band his freshman year and played in it throughout his undergraduate years. Over 40 years ago, Tillerson played “The Eyes of Texas” for Peruvians as a college student on a relief trip after Peru had experienced a devastating earthquake. It was his first trip outside the U.S. “The first country I ever visited was with the Longhorn band,” he said.

“What really pleased me was the fact that he came to UT and launched his Latin American trip from The University of Texas,” said Virginia Garrard, a UT history professor and director of the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. “Latin America has really slid off the U.S. foreign policy radar since the end of the Cold War. Maybe this is the beginning of a new day.”

Will Inboden echoed this sentiment, saying that U.S. administrations since WWII have struggled to give Latin America the priority it deserves in American foreign policy. “I think the fact that Secretary Tillerson is devoting so much time to this trip … shows that he’s trying to remedy this past neglect,” he said.


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