(Adds Pompeo quote, background)
WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday accused Cuba and Venezuela of attempting to hijack democratic protests in Latin America, vowing that Washington would support countries trying to prevent unrest in the region from turning into riots.
Amid recent demonstrations in a number of countries in the region, Pompeo stepped up allegations that Cuba and Venezuela had helped stir up unrest but offered few specifics to back his comments.
Pompeo cited recent political protests in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador and said that Colombia had closed its border to Venezuela out of concern that protesters from the neighboring country would enter.
“We in the Trump administration will continue to support countries trying to prevent Cuba and Venezuela from hijacking those protests and we’ll work with legitimate (governments) to prevent protests from morphing into riots and violence that don’t reflect the democratic will of the people,” Pompeo told an audience at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.
U.S. relations with communist-ruled Havana have deteriorated since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. His administration has steadily rolled back parts of the historic opening under Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.
The tension has focused especially on Havana’s support for Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse and stands accused by the United States of corruption and human rights violations.
The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president. Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival presidency in January, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham.
But Maduro retains the support of the military, runs the government’s day-to-day operations and is backed by Russia, China and Cuba.
In his speech on Monday, Pompeo said Maduro was “hanging on” and would continue to work to suppress the Venezuelan people, but that he was confident the Venezuelan president’s leadership would end.
“The end will come for Maduro as well. We just don’t know what day,” Pompeo said.
Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Daphne Psaledakis Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Matt Spetalnick and Dan Grebler