In Latin America, Pence Aims to Soften ‘America First’ Message
During a whirlwind trip to four Latin American countries this week, Vice President Mike Pence sought to soften the edges of the ‘America first’ worldview — the administration’s first major effort to mend fences with a region rattled by President Trump’s election.
“Under President Donald Trump, the United States will always put the security and prosperity of America first,” Mr. Pence said Wednesday in Chile during the third leg of a trip that began in Colombia and included stops in Argentina and Panama. “But as I hope my presence today demonstrates, ‘America first’ does not mean America alone.”
Yet Mr. Pence’s hopeful message of expanded economic and diplomatic cooperation did little to assuage fears among the region’s leaders, who have been furiously planning for an era of diminishing returns in Washington by deepening regional trade relations and pursuing expanded commercial ties with Europe and China.
Mr. Trump is widely loathed in Latin America, where his early moves have been interpreted as a return to an overbearing, security-obsessed American foreign policy. The contrast has been sharp with President Barack Obama’s administration, when Latin Americans felt they were treated with an unusual degree of deference and respect.
“We went from being recognized as a strategic ally to being regarded as part of their backyard,” said María Jimena Duzán, an influential Colombian columnist at the weekly magazine Semana, echoing a view several Latin American officials have shared privately.
The trip, which Mr. Pence cut short by a day to attend a national security meeting at home, was the latest example of the daunting task Mr. Trump’s surrogates face as they set out to modulate and interpret the president’s bellicose and impulsive remarks.
In stop after stop, Mr. Pence found himself in damage-control mode, fielding questions about Mr. Trump’s response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned violent, and about the president’s threat to use military force in Venezuela.
During joint appearances with Mr. Pence, Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile firmly opposed the prospect of an American military intervention in response to Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crisis. “Chile will not support coups or military interventions,” Ms. Bachelet said pointedly on Wednesday.
While the Obama administration built considerable good will in the region by restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and showing greater flexibility on counternarcotics policy, America’s standing and influence in the region have cratered under Mr. Trump.
“If I put myself in the shoes of an American citizen, I understand the appeal of trying to prioritize your national interests,” said Camila Capriglioni, 21, a medical student in Buenos Aires. “But I really dislike everything he represents,” she added, referring to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump’s insistence that he will find a way to get Mexico to pay for a border wall, his crackdown on unauthorized immigrants and his return to a confrontational stance with Cuba are among the main reasons the president is reviled in Latin America, analysts say.
“Latin America is in a situation where the United States has absolutely no interest in soft power,” said Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, an international relations professor at the Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires.
“The only thing he talks about are sticks,” Mr. Tokatlian said, “of being hard with Mexico, with Venezuela and that will only accelerate the process of countries moving away from Washington.”
During his stop in Chile, Mr. Pence proclaimed that “this is a new era in the new world” as he vowed to find ways to build on strong commercial relations in the region. Yet he had little in the way of concrete measures to announce, except for deals to open the American market to Colombian avocados and for the United States to export rice to Colombia.
As they warily watch the chaos in Washington, several governments in Latin America are hedging their bets.
Brazil and Mexico, which have the region’s largest economies, are aiming to expand trade to wean their dependence on American consumers. The Mercosur trade bloc in South America jump-started long-stalled negotiations for a free trade deal with the European Union. Latin American parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal championed by the Obama administration, are considering ways to refashion it without the United States.
Earlier this year, Argentina and Chile joined China’s development bank, and Chile said it intended to serve as a “bridge” for increased Chinese investment in the region.
Mr. Trump “has put the commercial ties to the region in doubt by questioning trade deals and promoting ‘America first,’ ” said Raúl Sorh, an international relations analyst in Santiago. “That raises huge questions regarding how commerce with the United States could be affected.”
Members of Congress who have worked to build robust partnerships in the region say the new administration has done severe damage in a short time.
“While President Obama worked over eight years to build partnerships based on respect and common interests, in a mere six months, President Trump has jammed the policy into reverse,” Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said in an emailed statement.
“The Latin countries, like many of our other friends and allies, are unsure of what the White House’s intentions are and fear either a return to the days of U.S. arrogance and bullying or, at best, benign neglect,” the statement said.
Mari Carmen Aponte, who was Mr. Obama’s top diplomat for Latin America, told her counterparts in the region to brace for change.
“I told them that they had to be realistic, that things were about to become more transactional,” Ms. Aponte recalled. If they wanted to get on Washington’s good side, she advised, “they had to emphasize not only what they could do with the United States, but what they could do for the United States.”
Several have followed that advice. Mr. Santos and Mr. Macri were among the first world leaders to travel to Washington after Mr. Trump’s election. Mr. Santos, seeking continued foreign aid for Colombia’s peace process, praised Mr. Trump as a leader who “knows a good deal when he sees one.”
Other governments, including Brazil’s, have opted to lie low, said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo.
“I think there’s a notion among some of South America’s elites that the best thing to do these four, eight years is not to raise your head much and stay off the radar,” he said.
Sergio Riveros, 35, a computer scientist in Santiago, Chile, said that a low profile might not help. “What we worry about the most is the conflicts he has, like with North Korea,” Mr. Riveros said of Mr. Trump. A rash decision “could spark a war that affects us all.”