President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel his first trip to Latin America is another blow to a region feeling slighted by its powerful and increasingly erratic neighbor to the north, analysts said.
The White House announcement Tuesday that Vice President Mike Pence will be taking Trump’s place at the eighth Summit of the Americas — a once every three years event that brings together the leaders from more than 30 nations from across the hemisphere — marks the first time a U.S president has skipped the event since it began in Miami in 1994.
The administration said Trump was staying stateside to deal with the Syria crisis. But analysts said the president was wasting a golden opportunity.
“This is a shocking abandonment of U.S. leadership in our own hemisphere,” said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who has attended every summit. “He’s clearly afraid of being in the room with people he’s continually insulted for the last three years and he shirks from confrontation.”
While the Trump administration insists that it values its Latin American allies, the region has been on the receiving end of some of the president’s most heated rhetoric.
Members of the Cuban opposition who came to Lima to attend the civil summit noted that with Trump skipping the official summit, at least there was no opportunity for Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who is expected to attend, to appear in a photo with a U.S. president.
“Of course it was important that Trump meet with leaders of the region but to accept the presence of Raúl Castro at the summit, and his army of agents and agitators, that would have lowered the seriousness of the event,” said Cuban opposition member Antonio Rodiles.
Previously, the White House had already said that a handshake or a bilateral meeting with Castro was off the table.
And there were other mixed reactions. "The cancellation has two sides. The first is negative because it lowers the expectations created by the summit,” said Martin Hidalgo, a political writer for the influential newspaper El Comercio. “The second one is that it takes away that tense and uncomfortable moment that was expected due to Trump's repeated comments on the region regarding immigration, narcotics and trade.
"And in the end, it shows that Latin America is not a priority on Trump's agenda," he added.
Trump’s push to renegotiate free trade agreements, impose import tariffs on aluminum and steel, build a wall on the border with Mexico and use the National Guard to keep Central American migrants out have left many allies in the region unnerved.
That unease is reflected in polls that show Trump has rock-bottom approval ratings of 16 percent in Latin America, according to Gallup.
“The most visible initiatives of the Trump administration vis-à-vis Latin America have not been well received in the region,” said Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program in Washington, D.C. “But there’s also no regional democracy that wants to antagonize the U.S. government.”
Added Daniel Erikson, a former White House and State Department adviser on Latin America during the Obama administration: "Every U.S. president since the 1990s has had to grapple with these summits, and they can be challenging, but they also allow the president to advance key issues and messages with a wide range of leaders."
There are likely to be plenty of leaders eager to goad Trump officials during the summit, which provides a powerful microphone for Washington’s critics.
Leaders like Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Bolivia’s Evo Morales will undoubtedly use the platform of plenary interventions to blast U.S. “imperialism” and take Trump to task for ratcheting up sanctions on Venezuela and reversing Obama-era policies toward Cuba.
"President Trump’s decision to skip the Summit of the Americas sends the wrong message to our many Latin American friends. This was to be his opportunity to personally meet with leaders and alleviate some of their concern on the trajectory of U.S. commercial policy,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. “Vice President Pence is a great representative of the president and has traveled to the region previously, but it’s not the same as having Trump there."
This year’s Summit of the Americas is ostensibly focused on anti-corruption efforts, but Washington was hoping to use it as a venue to discuss Venezuela and the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a Democrat from New York and ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that Trump is "ceding U.S. leadership in the Americas" with his action.
“The hemisphere is facing serious challenges, including the crisis in Venezuela, and the U.S. void will be deeply felt. Unfortunately, today’s announcement should come as no surprise from an administration whose policy toward the region begins with building a wall between our country and our southern neighbors. I urge the president to reconsider his shortsighted decision.”
Also in Washington on Tuesday during a Senate hearing on the summit, Miami Republican Sen. Marco Rubio urged the vice president to call on the members of the OAS “to expel the undemocratic Maduro regime” from the organization.
He pressed for Pence to publicly announce that the U.S. is prepared to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Venezuela and “make a substantial contribution to a regional and international effort to help rebuild Venezuela once it has conducted free and fair elections for president, has abolished the illegitimate Constituent Assembly and has restored the legitimate elected National Assembly.”
The Cuban-American senator was supposed to deliver the message in person to Trump in a scheduled meeting Wednesday. Instead, Rubio will meet with Pence.
The senator is expected to ask Pence to impose more financial and economic sanctions against the Maduro regime.
On Cuba, he is likely to urge Pence to increase efforts to support the democracy and human rights movement on the island, and stress the importance of meeting and engaging with Cuba’s pro-democracy civil society, according to a source with knowledge of the details of the meeting.
On Monday, Brian Hook, senior policy adviser to the secretary of state, said one of the administration’s primary goals at the summit is to “galvanize further regional support to address the Venezuelan crisis.”
At the same time, the administration will likely be taken to task over concerns that U.S. financial sanctions on Venezuela might be exacerbating the country’s hunger crisis.
Hook dismissed that idea, saying it was Venezuela’s government that was keeping humanitarian aid from entering the country — not Washington.
“This is a man-made crisis, this is a dictator-made crisis, this is not a natural disaster,” he said.
Maduro's invitation to the event was rescinded but he has threatened to go anyway.
Whatever plans Washington might have had to organize a regional response to Venezuela will likely be put on hold by Trump’s absence.
Asked if the U.S. delegation would be able to accomplish anything at the summit without Trump, Feinberg said, “Of course not.”