Andres Oppenheimer

After Miami visit, Tillerson should stop being the ‘invisible man’ in Latin America

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, Thursday, June 15, 2017, in Miami.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, Thursday, June 15, 2017, in Miami. AP

Hurrah! U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has come to Miami to meet with Central American and Mexican authorities in a rare moment of Trump administration attention to Latin America. Now there are several things he could do to dispel the widespread notion that the administration has nothing but contempt for the region.

But Tillerson won’t have an easy job changing that perception, considering Trump’s repeated insults to Latin Americans.

In February, Trump called Mexican undocumented immigrants “bad hombres,” according to a transcript of his conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. During the campaign, Trump said that most of the 5.7 million Mexican undocumented immigrants are “rapists” and “criminals.”

As soon as he took office, Trump vowed to go ahead with plans to build a wall along the U.S. southern border, and he scrapped the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that included Mexico, Peru, Chile and several Asian countries.

The first thing Tillerson should do in Latin America is simply to become visible. So far, he has been the invisible man. He rarely gives interviews, much less to Latin American journalists, and he has been virtually absent from Latin America.

He’s made 14 foreign trips as secretary of state so far — including to Italy, Saudi Arabia, Israel, United Kingdom, Turkey, Belgium, Japan, Korea, China and Germany — but only one to a Latin American country, Mexico.

Also, there is a generalized belief in foreign capitals that Tillerson has little power in Washington. Many foreign leaders get in touch with Trump through the president’s children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, rather than the State Department.

What’s worse, Tillerson has been absent from key hemispheric meetings, such as the Organization of American States May 31 gathering of foreign ministers to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. That meeting failed to produce a strong resolution against Venezuela’s regime because of resistance from several Caribbean islands.

“Venezuela is the most serious crisis confronting the region, and there really needs to be a lot of high level U.S. diplomatic pressure there,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think that it has been happening.”

Many diplomats believe that if the U.S. secretary of state had attended that meeting, he may have been able to sway Caribbean nations into supporting the resolution. The State Department said late Friday that Tillerson has cancelled his previously announced plan to attend another key OAS foreign ministers meeting on Venezuela in Cancun, Mexico, on June 19-20.

Second, Tillerson should appoint the top diplomats in charge of Latin American affairs, whose jobs are still being held by interim officials. It’s hard to get a bureaucracy to do things if they don’t have any concrete guidelines.

Whether it’s because of disorganization or ineptness, the Trump administration has not yet filled the top diplomatic posts of most regions. In Latin America, it has yet to name an assistant secretary of state for regional affairs, an ambassador to the OAS and ambassadors to several countries, including Argentina and Canada.

Third, Tillerson should roll out a positive agenda for Latin America to show that he’s not just thinking about building a wall, chasing after undocumented immigrants and scrapping trade agreements. Granted, he has been asked by Trump to slash the State Department and USAID budgets by about 32 percent, but there are still things he could do.

He could lobby within the Trump administration to maintain key funds for training judges and help fund anti-corruption programs in Latin America. In many countries, these programs — which Trump wants to slash — make a difference.

And Tillerson could promote education and cultural exchange programs — like the 100,000 Strong in the Americas college students exchange plan — that require mostly private funding. It’s Tillerson’s job to tell Trump, “Mr. President, if you don’t want to be seen as keeping this Obama program, change its name, but please go out and raise corporate donations for it.”

My opinion: Although no recent U.S. administration has paid much attention to Latin America, the Trump administration has done more than neglect the region. The president has repeatedly insulted it. It’s time for Tillerson to tell his boss to do something constructive with Latin America.

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 9 p.m. Sundays on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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