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Trump’s first trip to Latin America was never going to be easy. Calling it off could deepen region’s distrust

President Trump comments on Syria and the FBI raid of his personal attorney's office and residence ahead of his Monday evening meeting with military leaders.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Shutterstock)

President Trump was never going to be met with rose petals for his first official Latin America visit, which had been set for this weekend. By abruptly canceling his two-day trip on Tuesday, amid an international crisis over Syria and a political one after the FBI raid against his personal attorney, the president likely increased resentment in the region.

As it is, Trump’s approval rating sat at 16% in a Gallup poll conducted in 20 Latin American countries last year and released in January. And that was before the president in recent days ordered National Guard troops to patrol the border with Mexico and escalated his rhetorical attacks against Central American migrants.

“President Trump’s decision to skip the Summit of the Americas sends the wrong message to our many Latin American friends,” said Jason Marczak, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, an offshoot of the Atlantic Council think tank.

“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.”

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Trump had planned to leave Washington on Friday, first for Lima, Peru, to attend the annual Summit of the Americas gathering of leaders from the hemisphere, and then to visit Bogota, Colombia. In his place, the president is sending Vice President Mike Pence.

The White House, in a statement, attributed Trump’s cancellation to the need to respond to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed dozens of civilians there on Saturday.

“The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Trump said on Monday that within 48 hours, he would “forcefully” respond to the apparent toxic gas attack, which he and U.S. officials have blamed on the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran.

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A year ago, Trump was absent from the White House when the United States launched missiles at Syria following another chemical weapons attack, meeting at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The fact that he decided he needs to remain in the country could suggest that the response to this latest incident in Syria will be more intensive and prolonged than last year’s quick strike on a Syrian airfield.

The Syria crisis isn’t the only thing preoccupying Trump. He has been fuming over Monday’s FBI raid of the office, residence and hotel room of Michael Cohen, his personal attorney. After an angry tirade to reporters Monday night, the president followed up with terse tweets on Tuesday morning.

“Attorney-client privilege is dead!” he wrote, following a minute later with a second tweet: “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”

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Two hours later, the White House officially scrapped the Latin America visit. This year’s theme for the Summit of the Americas is transparency and anti-corruption efforts, issues that would have surely evoked thoughts of the unspooling special counsel investigation embroiling Trump and his circle in the United States.

In something of a parallel, President Clinton skipped an Asia summit at the last minute in 1998, sending Vice President Al Gore to Japan. Clinton was also facing both a Middle East crisis, weighing a military strike in Iraq and an investigation of his personal behavior that led to his impeachment by the House.

Trump’s unpopularity in Latin America has by extension diminished the United States’ stature in the region, reducing it more than in any other part of the world, according to analysts and polling data. Yet America remains the hemisphere’s dominant player, and Trump would have had a critical voice, in one-on-one meetings and in a speech he had planned to deliver at the summit.

“Vice President Pence is a great representative of the president and has traveled to the region previously, but it’s not the same the same as having Trump there,” Marczak said.

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White House advisors expect Pence to pursue Trump’s goals, emphasizing efforts to reduce terrorism threats, combat gangs and drug trafficking, insist on more favorable trade deals and promote regional security.

Pence “looks forward to promoting policy that will lead to an even stronger U.S. economy and working with our close allies in Latin America to collectively hold undemocratic actors in the region accountable for their actions,” Jarrod Agen, Pence’s communications advisor, said in a statement.

Trump says summit with North Korea is on for May or early June as aides scramble to prepare »

To date, Trump has been largely successful in mobilizing pressure from regional leaders, including sanctions, against the authoritarian regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Yet American officials suggest the administration won’t promise additional help in stemming the refugee crisis sparked by Venezuela’s upheaval.

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Last month, the United States announced $2.5 million in humanitarian assistance to help Colombia handle an estimated 1 million migrants. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as regional leaders, had been hoping for a much larger commitment.

Trump’s no-show further lowers expectations for the summit, including the chance to allay bad feelings. Those have built since he announced his presidential campaign in 2015 with a speech denouncing Mexican immigrants as rapists, drug smugglers and criminals. The ill will was exacerbated in January when he was said to disparage immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and Africa as coming from “shithole countries,” and more recently by his order of troops to the southern border.

Administration officials nonetheless insist that he is committed to engaging the region and promoting trade.

“The president is a very straight speaker. He speaks what’s on his mind,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

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Trump’s call for 2,000 to 4,000 National Guard troops along the border with Mexico dredged up dark memories of the United States’ history of military engagement in the region, including support of repressive regimes.

Last week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto delivered a prime time televised address calling Trump’s attacks on the country “offensive and unfounded.” The Mexican Senate passed a resolution aimed at suspending cooperation in stemming drug trafficking and illegal immigration.

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush also deployed thousands of reservists to help with border enforcement and Obama employed an aggressive deportation policy. The context is much different for Trump, however, given his harsh rhetoric on immigration, drug-trafficking and trade with Latin America, and his demand that Mexico pay for a border wall.

Even as Obama faced criticism for indifference to the region, he won accolades at the end of his tenure for opening ties with Cuba after decades. Trump has fought to reverse that opening and didn’t plan to meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro at the summit.

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“Immigration, drug policy, reversals on Cuba, the tweets, the use of the military — all in the context of inflammatory rhetoric — has raised a lot of concern,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that specializes in Latin America. “And Latin America is bewildered, confused and worried.”

Some Trump allies say the administration has not gotten credit for its engagement efforts, including high-profile tours from Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

James Jay Carafano, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank who has advised Trump on foreign policy, said the administration has worked behind the scenes to disrupt criminal cartels that have terrorized local populations, and publicly to counter the threat of regional destabilization posed by Venezuela’s upheaval.

Administration officials emphasize that the United States is the top trading partner for more than half the countries in the hemisphere “and we sell more goods to the Western Hemisphere than we do to all of Asia combined,” said one senior official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

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Another administration official said Trump, who often views himself as an international salesman, had planned to promote “the idea that we want to be the partner of choice for Latin American countries to work with.”

But the trade relationship has also been complicated. Trump’s early action pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multination trade pact that included Chile, Mexico and Peru, limited the United States’ ability to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

Trump has said he is eager to pursue one-on-one deals instead, but aides said he wouldn’t have announced any new negotiations. The other nations that are parties to the TPP trade agreement are proceeding under its terms, yet the absence of the United States has cleared the way for China to make significant inroads in the region.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

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tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com


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