When Vice President Mike Pence toured Latin America last week – Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama – it was the Trump administration’s first visit to a region that's wondering if Trump has any interest in it besides building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Unfortunately, say analysts, Pence forgot to pack a Latin America policy.
Pence’s first stop was Colombia. But while there, he seemed to talk more about Colombia’s next door neighbor Venezuela and its rising socialist dictatorship.
The Venezuelan crisis dominates U.S.-Latin American relations right now, especially after President Trump made his controversial remark this month that he’s considering military action against Venezuela. Pence ended up spending much of his trip downplaying that possibility.
“It was really interesting watching Pence do this tightrope walk through the region,” said Jim Wyss, the Miami Herald’s South America correspondent based in Bogotá, Colombia. “He had to play this role of not contradicting his boss and yet calming the region.”
Wyss said it was a shame Trump’s Venezuela remark overshadowed Pence’s tour. But he and other observers added the real problem may have been this: Pence didn’t seem to have much else to say to Colombia or the rest of Latin America anyway.
Pence offered some gestures like helping Colombia join economic development organizations such as the OECD, “but there were not big announcements,” Wyss said.
“There was this attempt to underscore Colombia’s role as the U.S.’s best ally in the region. But the only other kind of offer on the table was that Colombian avocados will enter the U.S. market. Of course, it’s a very big deal for avocado growers.”
But not if you’re looking for a Latin America policy vision.
“I don’t get the sense that anybody thinks the U.S. is coming here with an articulated Latin America policy yet,” Wyss said.
Observers in the other countries Pence visited all agreed. Perhaps Pence’s biggest challenge, they said, was to overcome the uneasy feeling most Latin Americans have about Trump based on his anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric.
But Pence could do little to change that because Trump seemed to defend white supremacists last week after their deadly mayhem in Charlottesville, Virginia. Pence arrived in Argentina last Tuesday – the day of Trump’s notorious press conference on Charlottesville.
“The people here in Argentina really don’t like Mr. Trump because of that attitude,” says Silvia Naishtat, who writes for the Buenos Aires daily Clarín.
Naishtat said the government of President Mauricio Macri kept the fanfare about Pence’s visit low to avoid offending Argentine voters. They, after all, remember Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, dancing the tango in Argentina last year.
“When Obama came, well, it was like an Obamania here,” Naishtat said, “a strong and positive feeling.”
Pence was received politely in Argentina – and in Chile next door. But people there too are troubled by what they see as Trump’s tolerance of fascist groups.
It reminds many Chileans of the rise of the fascist Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s. Many of them, in fact, hoped President Michelle Bachelet would raise that point with Pence in private.
“The optics were not great for Bachelet to receive the vice president in the aftermath of Charlottesville,” said Robert Funk, a political analyst at the University of Chile in Santiago.
“The United States seems to be looking more and more like Latin America,” Funk said. “If you throw the institutional norms of political discourse out the window as Trump has done – in Chile our experience is that that doesn’t end well.”
Besides the Venezuela emergency, said Funk, Pence’s engagement with Chile and the region “seemed fairly one-dimensional: trade and business, issues like U.S. intellectual property.”
Still, Funk said that was also a positive signal because Trump has so often slammed free trade agreements (FTAs) with Latin American countries, especially NAFTA, as unfair to the U.S. Pence called the U.S.-Chile FTA "a model" and said the U.S. does not want to abandon its deep economic ties with the region.
Said Naishtat in Buenos Aires: “On the business front it was a positive visit, actually.”
And in some moments Pence did put a friendlier and more diplomatic face on the Trump brand – like his visit to the Panama Canal’s recently expanded locks.
“He started taking selfies with the students who had gone to hear his speech,” said Alfonso Grimaldo, co-founder of Nueva Nación, a digital news platform in Panama. “Our first impression here was that he was sort of severe, so that was surprising.”
But Grimaldo said those snapshots couldn’t change this key reality:
“Panamanian analysts are confused as to what the U.S. policy is toward Latin America,” he said. “It’s very hard to determine considering the lack of predictability your president has.”
And that was made even harder when the Charlottesville crisis forced Pence to cut his Latin America tour short by a day – and fly quickly back to Washington.
Pence now plans to visit South Florida on Wednesday. He'll go to the Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Doral that afternoon to talk about...the Venezuela crisis.