Trump's threat makes Pence's South America trip more daunting

Trump's threat makes Pence's South America trip more daunting

President Trump’s intemperate remark last Friday warning of a possible “military option” in Venezuela could not have provided a more inauspicious beginning to Vice President Mike Pence’s trip this week to four Latin American countries.

08/14/17 06:20 PM EDT

President Trump’s intemperate remark last Friday warning of a possible “military option” in Venezuela could not have provided a more inauspicious beginning to Vice President Mike Pence’s trip this week to four Latin American countries.

At a time when the region’s democracies are united in condemning the dictatorial regime of President Nicolás Maduro, Pence will be forced to spend much of his visit to Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama reassuring U.S. allies that the United States does not intend to intervene. 

The squandering of a significant opportunity to build constructive relationships in the hemisphere is all the more regrettable given that many Latin American leaders are eager to find common ground with the United States. Four Latin American presidents have visited President Trump in the White House since January, more than from any other region. 

President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru and Juan Carlos Varela of Panama have all adopted pragmatic approaches to Washington, emphasizing areas of agreement — combatting international organized crime and expanding markets for U.S. exports — in order to advance their country’s specific interests. 

There is no doubt that many of the Trump administration’s Latin American policy initiatives, from the confrontations with Mexico over the border wall to the partial rollback of the Obama-era opening toward Cuba, have evoked strong disapproval in the region. According to a June 2017 Pew Research Center study on global attitudes and trends, the U.S. image has fallen by double digits in all of the region’s largest democracies. 

Equally disheartening for countries already experiencing the dramatic effects of climate change has been the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. In addition, Trump’s swift abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even as Latin American countries deepen their trade ties among themselves and the countries of Asia, stands as another self-inflicted wound.

Yet, for many of the region’s presidents, maintaining correct if not cordial relations with the United States is critical to achieving domestic and foreign policy goals.  Take Argentina, for example. Improving economic performance is vital to the political future of President Macri’s coalition, especially as midterm elections approach in October. 

Following Macri’s visit to the White House in April, the Trump administration lifted a ban on the importation of Argentine lemons, a symbolic victory for Macri taken over the objections of U.S. lemon producers and evidence that personal diplomacy can overcome the impulses of “America First.” Now, Argentine officials are investigating whether Venezuelans recently sanctioned by the United States have accessed the Argentine banking system, a first step in supporting U.S. sanctions against close to two dozen top figures of the Venezuelan government.

Similarly, in Colombia, the first country on Pence’s itinerary, President Santos will seek to garner political and economic support to implement the peace agreement signed last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid are at stake, especially now that coca cultivation is at an all-time high. 

To maintain support for U.S. assistance to Colombia — a bipartisan priority since the advent of Plan Colombia in 1999-2000 — the Santos administration will have to demonstrate that the peace accord’s strategy for manual eradication of coca, subsidies for coca farmers and support for alternative development and rural infrastructure will bear fruit. 

Thus far, implementation of the alternative approach, which in the past relied heavily on aerial fumigation, has failed to make a dent in the burgeoning drug business. As much as Santos wants to emphasize the needs of consolidating peace — or partnering with the United States on security cooperation in Central America and Mexico — he will need to address U.S. concern about illegal drugs, the main driver of U.S. policy toward Colombia for more than three decades. 

The possibility that the Trump administration is contemplating military intervention in Venezuela will draw valuable time away from forging deeper consensus over how to respond to the drastic deterioration of political, economic and humanitarian conditions there. The crisis has potential spillover effects that alarm many of Venezuela’s neighbors, who have already witnessed a dramatic increase in refugee flows. 

On Aug. 8, the foreign ministers and representatives of 12 Latin American countries — including all of those on Pence’s itinerary — issued a strong condemnation of “the rupture of the democratic order” in Venezuela, offering support for “believable” efforts of negotiation that might develop.

Pence and his team should strive to carefully gauge regional reactions not just to the sanctioning of Venezuelan officials for their involvement in corruption, drug trafficking and repression, but to the more drastic option of imposing U.S. economic or financial sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, source of about 95 percent of the country’s foreign exchange. 

Ultimately, the success of Pence’s trip, and of Trump policy in Latin America overall, will not be measured in sound bites about Venezuela or the common struggle against transnational crime. It will be seen in the U.S. ability to accommodate and even extend the region’s embrace of multilateral cooperation, open markets, free trade, democracy and human rights as the core values upon which a sustainable future is based. 

So far, Pence has more palatably and diplomatically represented Trump foreign policy abroad. The real question, however, is how style and substance might merge to modify the deepest instincts of a tempestuous White House.

Cynthia Arnson is director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.