U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last week visited South and Central America, where he sought to reassure the region following comments from President Donald Trump of a possible military intervention in Venezuela, as its government teeters on the brink of dictatorship. Pence also looked to strengthen diplomatic, economic and security ties with U.S. allies in the region, including Argentina and Colombia. Was Pence successful in his damage-control efforts following Trump’s threats of military intervention? What does Pence’s visit signal about U.S. foreign policy priorities in the region? How strong will Latin American ties with the United States be during Trump’s presidency?
Dan Erikson, managing director at Blue Star Strategies and special advisor to the U.S. vice president from 2015-2017: “Vice President Pence deserves credit for carrying out an important and substantive trip to Latin America, where he both reinforced and added additional nuance to this administration’s policies toward the region. Moreover, his visit built on the recent White House visits by three of the leaders—President Macri visited the Oval Office in April, followed by President Santos in May and President Varela in June—while reaching out to a fourth, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who had maintained greater distance during the early months of the Trump administration. Regarding Venezuela, Pence expressed deep concern about the situation there, while emphasizing the need for the countries of the hemisphere to work together to devise a ‘peaceable’ solution. During the trip, the vice president made two substantive policy speeches, which carried important messages that should be carefully studied throughout Latin America and in the United States. The first focused on the opportunities to expand trade and commerce—and was notably delivered in Argentina, the one country on the trip which is not yet a free-trade partner of the United States, where Pence gave high praise to Macri’s reform agenda. The second, in Chile, focused on similar themes and hailed the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement as a ‘model agreement’ that has resulted in a ‘dramatic expansion of trade, investment and opportunity’ for the people of both countries. Both speeches urged the countries of the region to deepen their ‘market-based reforms’ and were heavily tilted toward advancing an opportunity-based agenda in U.S.-Latin American relations. These speeches, coupled with the announcement of new agreements to expand U.S. pork exports to Argentina and rice exports to Colombia, suggest the emergence of a more sober-minded, pragmatic, and fundamentally optimistic approach to Latin America that, if nurtured, could help weather the inevitable conflicts that will continue to test the U.S. relationship with the region.”
Erich de la Fuente, partner and CEO for the United States at Llorente & Cuenca: “Latin America is not likely to be of strategic importance for President Trump, given the number of pressing foreign policy issues in other parts of the world. In the absence of specific initiatives, the administration’s foreign policy will likely be shaped by the positions it adopts on the main three pillars that have driven U.S. foreign policy in the region since the late 1980s: free trade, security and soft power, including democracy and good governance. This administration will scrutinize trade agreements that it does not consider ‘favorable’ to the United States. When dissecting the numbers, the United States shows an overall trade surplus with Latin America, when Mexico is excluded. NAFTA is likely to undergo changes, but other treaties in the region will continue without many or any modifications. Not coincidentally, Pence visited countries where he was able to promote trade and send a signal of collaboration to key allies in the region, reiterating his now often-used message that ‘America First does not mean America alone.’ Security will continue to be a top priority, with a stronger emphasis on enforcement and interdiction efforts to curtail narcotrafficking and criminal organizations. This was surely the focus of Pence’s conversations with Colombian President Santos, along with the security dangers of a possible failed state in neighboring Venezuela. Security has also been the main topic in past meetings between this administration’s cabinet members, including Latin American experts such as General John Kelly and Ambassador William Brownfield, and leaders from Central America and Mexico. Regarding Venezuela, Pence toned down President Trump’s statements about not ruling out a ‘military option,’ reassuring Latin American allies that the United States is interested in working with them to find a ‘peaceful’ solution. He also reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to ‘restoring democracy’ in the country. The latter deviates from this administration’s overall disinterest of actively promoting democracy and soft-power initiatives. Exceptions such as Venezuela occur when they are hot-button issues for U.S. Republican senators—in this case Marco Rubio—from whom Trump will need legislative support to carry out his domestic agenda.”
James Jay Carafano, vice president at the Heritage Foundation: “Vice President Pence’s recent trip was never about damage control, but rather was a continuation of the Trump administration’s Latin America engagement. The visits to key partners and friends during the trip were a follow-up to the Central America prosperity conference. President Trump’s comments in which he did not rule out a military option toward Venezuela should not be understood as a threat of invasion. Such a myopic view of the military’s functions serves to only fear monger. Clearly our partners in Latin America, who work alongside our military on a wide spectrum of issues, including humanitarian assistance, recognize that the statement was mischaracterized. There is no doubt that Latin America is a major priority for the Trump administration, and the timing of the vice president’s trip underscored as much. Venezuela, the world’s youngest dictatorship, is teetering near collapse. The historic spike in Colombia’s coca cultivation that is occurring in the midst of the FARC peace accord implementation could derail Colombia’s success story. Alongside these challenges, there are promising opportunities for the United States and the region. President Macri’s ambitious economic freedom agenda could undo the damage of the Kirchner era. The unprecedented rise of regional countries willing to take a principled stance in defense of Venezuela’s democracy should be commended as well. With every new administration, there are minor challenges to overcome, but overall, the United States’ relationship with friends in Latin America will be deepened under the Trump administration.”
Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, professor of political science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and former Colombian interior minister: “Vice President Pence gave his best effort, and the Latin American leaders did as well. They all contributed to damage control efforts. The theme of Venezuela’s crisis was placed into a real-life context, and options were examined and evaluated with good sense. For this reason, there were no confrontations or snubs. The leaders restarted on a path of diplomacy and solidarity. It’s difficult, and it’s a new scenario. It has not been easy to understand President Trump’s foreign policy strategy. We know that it’s not a ‘big stick’ policy…but neither is it a ‘good neighbor’ policy. Neither is it a policy of benign neglect, nor of total neglect. We are in a complex learning period that will require calm heads and patience and good will toward the United States, which we admire and which has been very generous, particularly to Colombia. Figuring out a way to help Venezuela restart its democracy is no easy task. How to rescue Venezuela’s democracy is a colossal task and a global issue. Russia, Iran and China are all playing a role there. And, of course, Cuba, a few islands in the Caribbean and other countries are also involved. It’s important to define what type of political regime has been installed in Venezuela. Is it reversible? Does it have the ability to sustain itself? And ahead of similar issues, what legitimate actions can the international community take?”