US President Donald Trump’s decision not to attend the Summit of the Americas this weekend marked the first time a US President hasn’t attended the event since its creation in 1994.
It is also the latest illustration of the little importance Trump seems to give to the region, with his ‘America First’ policies a clear indicator of where his priorities lie.
Although US Vice-President Michael Pence travelled to Lima, Peru – where the summit is taking place – in his stead, with Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner in tow, experts believe the US president’s absence is evidence of a wider trend.
“In recent years, Latin America has lost a lot of importance in terms of US foreign policy and economic strategy. Trump’s decision to not attend is just one more chapter [of this story],” Brazil’s former secretary of foreign trade Daniel Godinho said in a conference call with the Atlantic Council last Thursday, illustrating how some government officials in the region feel about the snub.
The event in Peru already was going to be an awkward summit to begin with, especially due to its timely theme of “Democratic Governance against Corruption” coming in a period when much of the region’s political establishment is engulfed in corruption scandals.
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio de Lula was arrested and jailed last weekend, ex-Peruvian president Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign last month, while Argentina’s own former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been indicted on corruption charges.
Trump’s decision to skip the event has also prompted some of his other regional counterparts to follow his lead. At least four other presidents – the leaders El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Ecuador – decided not to attend for one reason or another. A fifth, Cuban President Raúl Castro, pulled out hours before press time and Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega may still follow suit.
There is no doubt, however, that Trump’s absence drew the most headlines. While Trump is facing record low approval ratings in Latin America for a US president – one poll found only 16 percent of the region approve of him – the Summit was a golden opportunity for the US president to improve relations.
“Trump had an opportunity to reposition himself and the US in the region. Now with Mike Pence, this changes, with a vice-president that is more low profile, making the US involvement much less significant,” University of Buenos Aires historian Leandro Morgenfeld, an expert on US-Latin American relations, told the Times.
Also helping to fill the void is US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has become a key player in forming the Trump administration’s Western Hemisphere policy. The Florida Senator has good relations with many Latin America’s presidents and is one of the Trump administration’s principal advisors on policy toward Venezuela. Last month, he gave Trump administration a list of Venezuelan officials who were later sanctioned.
“Trump declining to attend the summit opens the door for Rubio to rise up and be a preeminent voice at the summit,” said José Cárdenas, a ex-US Agency for International Development official under former US president George W. Bush who has frequent contact with the current administration, told McClathy news website in an interview.
In a statement released by the VicePresident’s office last Tuesday, Pence highlighted how they would work with “our close allies in Latin America to collectively hold undemocratic actors in the region accountable for their actions” – a clear message. So far, Panama has been the first one to follow behind the US, after having recently cut commercial ties, airline flights, and diplomatic relations with Venezuela.
Argentina is also one of the US’s steadfast allies in the region on the Venezuela issue, a fact underlined by recent rhetoric. When the United States decided to suspend implementing aluminium and steel tariffs against Argentine imports to the US, a statement emphasised the importance of their “national security” relationship.
Although President Mauricio Macri will no longer talk with Trump on the sidelines of the summit, given the US president’s absence, it is anticipated he will heavily criticise the Maduro administration in a keynote speech.
Macri has meetings scheduled with US Vice-president Pence and Senator Rubio, in addition to one-on-ones with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Others may follow.
In the one on one discussion with Pence, the two will go over the Venezuela crisis, investments in the region, and recent trade issues between the United States and Argentina. The US and Argentine leaders will also announce that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), an inter-governmental fund, will invest millions of dollars in Argentine infrastructure and Energy, according to reports on the Infobae news website.
Meanwhile, as the Venezuelan crisis continues to deepen – an estimated two million people in Venezuela could immigrate in the future as hyperinflation and shortages worsen - US and Argentine lawmakers are encouraging Latin American governments to accept Venezuelans who seek refuge in new nations. Both the Argentina Caucus in the US Congress and its counterpart in Argentina, have signed a letter asking Peruvian President Martín Viscarra to address the Venezuelan migrant crisis during the summit.
Looming large in the background but increasingly becoming more prominent is China’s growing presence in Latin America, and Trump’s absence from the summit may symbolically open the door for Beijing to gain greater sway in the region. This isn’t a new fact, of course, but the actions of the two leaders speak volumes. Chinese Prime minister Xi Jinping has visited Latin America three times already in the past year, while the US President has yet to visit the region.
Before cancelling his trip, Trump had been planning to pitch that the United States should remain the “partner of choice” for Latin America, in the midst of an impending trade war with the world’s largest economy. Instead, China is continuing to invest more time and money in what has traditionally been the United States’ ‘backyard.’ Since 2005, China has loaned Latin America more than US$150 billion in loans. The primary beneficiary of these loans is Venezuela, with China having loaned US$62 billion to a country to stay afloat.
“The US is proving an extremely useful foil for China in the region. It has quite a lot going on in terms of aid-related, security initiatives and private sector engagement with Latin America, but China is increasingly adept at statecraft in the Americas,” Margaret Myers, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Director for its Latin America and World Program told the Times.
Speaking prior to the Summit, China’s Ambassador to Peru Jia Guide told the Reuters news agency that China had now become the biggest, or the second-largest, trade partner for the majority of Latin American countries. The ambassador also argued that a trade dispute between the United States and China would only bolster exports from Latin America to China. If China’s proposed 25-percent retaliatory tariffs on US soy exports were approved, for example, such a move could potentially boost exports from Brazil and Argentina to China.
For what it’s worth, US officials at the Summit are expected to continue holding to the line that nothing has changed between the US and Latin America. Speaking in Lima on Thursday, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross vowed that the US would not cede leadership in Latin America to “authoritarian countries.” But with the United States increasingly ignoring Latin America, or at the very least giving the region little priority, Washington may have not much of choice in the matter.
Which is why maybe it is perhaps fitting that the first time a US president has chosen to withdraw from a Summit of the Americas coincides with another fact – this year’s incarnation is the first time that China will attend, even if it is just in an “observer role.”
In the long run, that fact may be as symbolically important as Trump’s decision to skip the summit.