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Tillerson’s Attempt to Mend Ties in Latin America

Tillerson’s Attempt to Mend Ties in Latin America

18:16 - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s five-country trip to Latin America and the Caribbean didn’t start well.

México

In his campaign and first year in office, President Trump has managed to hit all the regional nerves. He insulted Mexican immigrants and threatened to build a border wall — an affront not just to America’s second-largest trading partner but also to the rest of the hemisphere. He called the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement the “worst trade deal” in history — a pact that has helped bring increased wealth and stability to Mexico and beyond. And he suspended the temporary protected status of hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans, Haitians and Salvadorans, forcing them to return to their countries.

It was no surprise then that even before the suspension of T.P.S. for Salvadorans, a 2017 Gallup poll revealed that only 16 percent of the citizens in 20 countries in the region had a positive opinion of Mr. Trump.

The president dropped another surprise during Mr. Tillerson’s tour. At a televised round table in Virginia on Feb. 2, he called out countries that had accepted American anti-narcotics assistance — he didn’t name them but everyone knew he meant Colombia, Peru, Mexico and the countries of Central America. He claimed they are laughing at the United States as they continue to take American taxpayer dollars while still benefiting from the drug trade. The president threatened to cut off assistance to countries that weren’t doing enough to end the illegal production of drugs.

The comment was an insult to Washington’s partners in their decades-long war on drugs. All of the countries — three of which Mr. Tillerson would visit on his trip — have been solid allies in tackling the narcotics problem. Those governments and their people have borne the brunt of America’s appetite for drugs and its longstanding strategy of focusing on the “supply side” — until the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama increased the focus on demand.

Violence, economic upheaval, corruption, organized crime, civil war and the hollowing out of state authority in Latin America have been the results — hardly a laughing matter for any of these countries. As President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia said with Mr. Tillerson standing next to him, “We have lost our best leaders, our best journalists, our best judges, our best policemen in this war against drugs.”

Despite Mr. Trump’s latest insult and the clumsy curtain raiser in Austin, Mr. Tillerson tried to hit all the right notes on the trip. In Mexico he emphasized Nafta’s importance to the American economy, proudly declaring that the trade deal employed more than three million American workers and that it just needed to be “updated” (avoiding Mr. Trump’s threats to end it altogether). In Argentina, he and his counterpart, Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, talked about opening the United States market to Argentine fruits and vegetables — an important deal for the Argentines.

As the trip progressed it appeared as though Mr. Tillerson achieved his narrow goal. The governments that received him appeared willing to declare illegitimate the plan of the Maduro government of Venezuela to hold an early presidential election in April and refuse to recognize any government that resulted from the ballot.

And as the secretary hopscotched his way across the region, he also spoke more of the possibility of Washington’s applying sanctions on Venezuelan oil imports and the refinement of Venezuelan crude in the United States, an indication that his various hosts were willing to accept stronger efforts to close off Venezuela’s most important petroleum market. By the end, Mr. Tillerson quietly boasted that this was now on the table and that Mr. Trump would ultimately decide.

Was Mr. Tillerson’s trip a success?

While a tougher collective response to President Nicolás Maduro’s march to autocracy and the looming state collapse is necessary and long overdue, the United States has a diverse range of interests that go beyond mobilizing action against Venezuela. Battling narcotics trafficking with local partner governments, expanding markets for American businesses, promoting broad-based prosperity, and defending democracy and human rights — not just in Venezuela and Cuba but in other countries like Honduras — are equally important.

But the administration’s rhetoric on immigration, free trade and American allies’ commitment to battling the scourge of narcotics — not to mention Mr. Tillerson’s embrace of the Monroe Doctrine — have weakened Washington’s leverage throughout Latin America, as the declining popular approval of the Trump administration demonstrates.

Mr. Tillerson may have incrementally improved America’s standing in the region, but with all his baggage, he couldn’t fully restore it.

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