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Tillerson leaves on mission to improve relations with Latin America

Tillerson leaves on mission to improve relations with Latin America
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray in Mexico City in in February 2017. (Carlos Tischler / NurPhoto / Sipa)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves Thursday on his first multi-nation trip to Latin America, a weeklong effort to ease tensions and improve relations across a continent that views the Trump administration with increasing suspicion and doubt.

As he marks his first year in office, Tillerson has defied foreign policy veterans who predicted he would be gone by now, a victim of his attempts to trim the budget and staff at the State Department, and of repeated differences with the White House over problems around the globe.

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With his trip to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica, Tillerson will try to convince nervous allies that U.S. foreign policy is deeper and more nuanced than the sometimes hostile rhetoric emerging from the White House.

It was widely noted in the region, for example, that when President Trump reportedly complained to several members of Congress of "shithole countries" sending immigrants to the U.S., he included El Salvador, thus putting Latin America in the mix.

Similarly, several Latin American governments have expressed concern over Trump's push to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has helped raise living standards in Mexico. Senior Mexican officials have hinted they would withdraw support on other issues, such as fighting drug trafficking and slowing the flow of Central American immigrants to the United States, if NAFTA is scuttled.

"There are so many ways that Latin American agendas and [Trump's] agenda are out of step with one another," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank in Washington.

What has kept the U.S.-Mexico relationship from imploding has been a string of lower-profile meetings that Tillerson has held with his Mexican counterpart, Luis Videgaray, and Mexico's equivalent of the homeland security chief, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.

The State Department, not surprisingly, is promoting Tillerson's trip as a chance to improve economic and diplomatic ties to a fast-growing region that has seen a consolidation of democratic reforms and the emergence of business-friendly governments eager to work with Washington.

"The secretary is engaging with regional partners on this trip to promote a safe, prosperous, energy-secure and democratic hemisphere," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. "We stand with the region as a steady, enduring partner."

It may be a hard sell.

New polling indicates that the popularity of the U.S. government, and Trump especially, has plummeted. A recent survey concerning Trump's first year in office by the Latinobarometro opinion researching firm, based in Chile, showed his approval rating in Latin America is similar to President George W. Bush's at the height of the Iraq war.

"The speed at which the popularity [of the U.S. government in Latin America] has declined is dizzying," said Benjamin Gedan, former South America director at the National Security Council under President Obama and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Not surprisingly, the most precipitous fall occurred in Mexico, which has received the brunt of Trump's wrath. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that favorable opinion of the United States has dropped to about 30%. Partly as a result, a leftist populist with strong anti-American views stands a good chance of winning Mexico's presidential election in July.

According to Latinobarometro, U.S. leaders are losing in popularity to senior officials from China and Europe. China has significantly increased investment and involvement in Latin America, stepping into what Beijing sees as a vacuum left by the United States.

China has said it will invest $250 billion, and double trade with Latin America, according to Sean Miner, a associate director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. "The relative lack of U.S. leadership in Latin America gives China ... an easier path to strengthen its relationships there," he said.

Still, the U.S. still clearly has friends — or carries a big stick — in the region. When the United Nations General Assembly voted 128 to 9 in December to condemn Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel, parts of Latin America stood on the sidelines.

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Honduras and Guatemala, who receive large amounts of U.S. aid, backed Washington in the vote. Mexico, Colombia and Argentina — all countries that Tillerson will visit in coming days — abstained.

Tillerson is likely to receive a warm welcome in Argentina, where he will visit Buenos Aires and the mountain resort of Bariloche. President Mauricio Macri had business dealings with Trump dating to the 1980s, and was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate the U.S. leader after the 2016 election.

But once in office, the Trump administration raised tariffs on biodiesel fuels, making it prohibitively costly for Argentine producers to export such fuels.

In Bogota, Tillerson is expected to hear pleas from Colombian officials who worry that Washington is again defining relations through the prism of security and narcotics. Coca production has surged following a peace agreement that ended Colombia's long civil war, and some U.S. lawmakers say former guerrilla fighters are now engaged in the country's drug trade.

As he travels, Tillerson also may get an earful about Trump's attempts to curtail legal immigration, including refugees, and his moves to shrink the diplomatic opening to Cuba begun by Obama. Tillerson will argue that the U.S. must protect its borders and that Cuba's communist-led government remains an outlier on human rights and political freedom.

"The upcoming undemocratic transition of political authority in Cuba is likely to be raised at multiple stops throughout the secretary's trip," the State Department official said, alluding to President Raul Castro's decision to step down later this year and be replaced by a handpicked successor.

The Trump administration has gained regional support for its ever-stricter sanctions on the leftist government of Venezuela, which is battling a humanitarian disaster and political chaos. The sanctions target more than 50 Venezuelan officials and businesses that Washington says are subverting the democratic process.

The White House is expected to seek more sanctions, possibly even a ban on Venezuelan oil exports, following President Nicolas Maduro's decision to call snap presidential elections by April 30, a process the U.S. has branded as dishonest.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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