President Trump’s decision to skip the eighth Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, has forced a reckoning on the future of this crucial regional gathering. In scuttling his participation and sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place, Trump set aside the historic role of the United States as the catalyst and partner of the hemispheric community. Indeed, a U.S. president convened the first Summit and has attended every one of the past seven summits. The lack of U.S. presidential participation throws the entire enterprise into doubt. Latin American presidents already have plenty of opportunities to meet without the United States — and no one likes being stood up.
This Summit has been especially star-crossed. Former Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the first Latin American president to meet with Trump in the Oval Office, was the original host of the meeting on the theme of “Democratic Governance Against Corruption.” Instead, he resigned over corruption allegations on March 21, leaving newly sworn-in President Martin Vizcarra in charge.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was disinvited because of his violations of democracy, while Cuban President Raúl Castro will attend less than a week before handing over the reins of government to his hand-picked successor. Meanwhile, the leaders of Latin America’s three largest countries — Brazil, Mexico and Colombia — all leave office by the end of the year.
One can see why this trip fell from favor in the West Wing, especially since Trump’s controversial policy decisions and loaded language have made his brand of “America First” an especially hard sell in Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada.
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And yet, Trump’s absence will matter. When leaders and top officials from most of the 35 countries of the Americas gather in Lima on April 13 and 14, it will still be a historic event. But not for the right reasons. Ever since President Clinton hosted the first Summit in Miami, Florida, in 1994, these meetings have featured one constant: the engagement of the U.S. president, who would navigate the diverse range of regional leaders, composed of many friends, a few foes and a sizable group of fence-sitters, to advance a hemispheric agenda.
The first Summit set forth an ambitious agenda focused on a Free Trade Area of the Americas and advancing democracy and human rights in the Americas. This initial momentum carried the Summit through its next meeting in Santiago, Chile, in 1998, but by the third Summit in 2001 in Quebec City, Canada, the strains were starting to show. By the time President George W. Bush traveled to the fourth Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2005, the hemispheric free-trade agenda had split at the seams. More ominously, new fissures, driven in part by Venezuela, were emerging in the democratic consensus.
In 2009, President Obama offered of a new spirit of “equal partnership” between the United States and Latin America at the fifth Summit in Trinidad and Tobago, briefly resetting the terms of discussion. However, at the sixth Summit in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012, Obama faced sharp divisions over immigration, trade, counter-narcotics and Cuba policy. At the seventh Summit in Panama in 2015, Obama’s public rapprochement with Cuba’s Raúl Castro stole the headlines. But it masked the fact that the Summit itself, once fueled by economic integration and democratic consolidation, had become hollow at its core.
Trump’s last-minute decision to snub the Summit in Peru may not have been shaped by this history, but it will surely inform the future. Virtually unnoticed in the United States, his cancellation will be remembered in Latin America for many years to come. The full consequences are at this point unknowable, but it is hard to think of a single challenge in the region — migration from Central America, the collapse of Venezuela, the rise of China, the fight against corruption — where the absence of the U.S. president will leave the United States better positioned to advance its vital interests and preferred outcomes.
Vice President Pence, therefore, faces the challenge of demonstrating concerted U.S. engagement before an indifferent and wary audience. But he is able to carry the president’s views effectively and has done his own regional spade work over the past 15 months, hosting a variety of Latin American leaders in the West Wing and the Naval Observatory and undertaking an important trip last summer to Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama. He will engage effectively and diplomatically, and Latin Americans will mostly be polite. His boldest move could be to propose the United States as host for the next Summit of the Americas in 2021. Such an offer would underscore that the United States remains committed to full-scale hemispheric diplomacy, and it would provide new energy and leadership to a Summit process that is in desperate need of both.
The United States wants to be seen as “partner of choice” in Latin America. But first it needs to prove that it can be a partner at all. Offering to host the next Summit of the Americas would be a concrete and effective step to help heal the breach between the United States and our closest neighbors.
Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies, LLC, the Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory firm. He served as special adviser for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the Office of the Vice President from 2015 to 2017. He is a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department of State.