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Trump's canceled trip to summit seen as confirmation of 'his lack of interest in Latin America'

Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and protectionism is not well received by the region as well as by Latin American leaders.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on April 3, 2018, in Washington.Evan Vucci / AP file

MIAMI, Fla. — With negative reaction to Donald Trump’s cancelled trip to attend the Summit of the Americas in Peru and Trump's previous comments and actions regarding some Latin American countries, Vice President Mike Pence’s message that the region should turn to the U.S. as their main trading partner may fall on deaf ears.

The summit would have been Trump’s first foreign trip to Latin America. Now, it will mark the first time an American president has not attended the summit since it was first held in 1994.

Trump, who was supposed to attend the 8th summit of hemispheric leaders that starts Friday, cancelled the trip to “oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” White House spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Tuesday. Pence will go in his place but will skip a trip to Colombia that had been planned for Trump.

In a statement, Pence deputy chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, said the vice president is honored to attend the summit, stating he had gone to the region last year and worked on trade deals and on putting pressure on the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

But Latin America experts say it's not the same with Pence.

“The vice president in no way is a credible substitute,” said Richard Feinberg, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of California, San Diego. He is in Lima to attend what will be his seventh summit. “Coward,” he said, referring to Trump.

Although official delegations have yet to arrive, members of Peru's civil sector and average Peruvians are speculating Trump fears he would be poorly received by many Latin American delegations that dislike his “anti-immigrant, anti-trade, anti-democracy postures,” said Feinberg.

“The absence of Trump confirms his lack of interest in Latin America,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, professor emeritus of economics and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburg, who said he is not convinced Trump cancelled the trip in order to evaluate the ongoing crisis in Syria.

He said Trump would have had to confront criticism from Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua -which all have leftist governments - and their solidarity with Venezuela. The Trump administration has sanctioned numerous Venezuelan officials, banned U.S. citizens from using their new cryptocurrency, and are looking into oil sanctions

The message to regional leaders to view the U.S. as their main trading partner comes on the heels of Trump’s escalating confrontation over trade with Beijing. China is a top trade partner for Latin American countries ranging from Brazil, the region’s largest economy, to Uruguay. So far, the leaders have been mostly silent, but much of Trump’s tough rhetoric on illegal immigration, tariffs, and trade deals, may not bode well with leaders.

Recently, Trump said U.S. aid to Honduras’ is “in play” while a caravan of migrants were moving through Mexico to request asylum at the U.S. border. Last week, he announced sending National Guard troops along the southern border with Mexico.

He has been sparring with Mexico and Canada on an overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The administration is arguing with Argentina over biodiesel. Brazil, a top supplier of steel, was threatened as well by the administration with tariffs on its imports. The tariffs on steel and aluminum have also sparked criticism from many leaders that will be at he summit.

“The protectionist message will not resonate,” said Frank Mora, a former Pentagon official that heads Florida International University’s Latin America Center. He added that Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and protectionism is not well received by the region as well as Latin American leaders.Trump’s approval rating in Latin America was at 16 percent, according to a Gallup poll released in January.

Trump has also clashed with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over funding of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump has always insisted that Mexico pay for the wall. The disagreement escalated earlier this year, prompting Peña Nieto to cancel his plans to visit the White House.

The conflict Trump has created with Mexico is hurting trade, according to Mesa-Lago. Trade between the U.S. and Latin America benefits both, he said. “There is a favorable trade balance. It’s a relationship that’s mutually beneficial.” There are a series of advantages, including the proximity with Latin America, he said.

When Trump took office, he promised to take the U.S. out of NAFTA unless it could be reworked to better serve American interests. Trump argues that the 1994 agreement was a “disaster” that has shifted manufacturing jobs to Mexico at the expense of the U.S.

Talks have been underway with officials from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to renegotiate the agreement. With Trump’s conflict with China over tariffs, Trump administration officials had been pushing to announce a deal, at least in principle, in Peru, but Trump later said there is “no rush.”

Feinberg said he took Trump’s trip to Lima for the summit as pushing the negotiators to come to an interim accord. “But without Trump traveling, now the pressure is going to be diminished.”

“Here is a guy who has transformed the United States into an unreliable economic partner. Why should any country anywhere look to the U.S. as a preferential trading partner,” said Feinberg.