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Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech during a meet with members of the US Chamber of Commerce, the Association of North American Chambers of Commerce of Latin America (AACCLA) and the Chilean-North American Chamber (AmCham Chile) at Santiago, Chile. Photo by Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters

Analysis: Pence carries Trump’s baggage to Latin America summit

Earlier this week, Trump said he would not go to Lima, Peru and Colombia as planned to focus on a possible U.S. attack on Syria. Now, it’s Vice President Mike Pence who will be carrying America’s and President Donald Trump’s baggage to the Summit of the Americas in Peru.

Every three years, leaders from Canada to Argentina gather for regional summits. They have sometimes provided political trouble for U.S. presidents, whether it’s anti-American street demonstrations or whether to make a friendly gesture to Cuba’s Raul Castro.

Even before Trump canceled his trip, Latin American analysts grumbled that the region always ranks low on the U.S.’s priorities, especially when crises arise elsewhere in the world.

And without the coverage attached to any U.S. president, especially this one, the summit will receive far less attention.

Even so, the gathering does present the U.S. and its official delegation leader, Pence, with a bushel of tough or potentially embarrassing issues, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. For starters, Trump’s approval rating is only 16 percent in the region and that of the U.S. not much higher, according to a 2017 Gallup survey.

As U.S. news is dominated by Trump’s tangles with special counsel Robert Mueller, the corruption issue is front and center for voters across Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil. Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra, the official summit host, only recently took office following the resignation of his predecessor under threat of impeachment. Several leaders are under fire in corruption scandals across Latin America, after it was revealed that Odebrecht, a massive Brazilian construction company, spear-headed a continent-wide bribery operation in the region.

The Pence-led U.S. delegation will be arriving days after Trump announced the dispatch of U.S. National Guard troops to the Mexican border. Veteran analyst Peter Hakim said Latin Americans see the operation not only as the U.S. military on the Mexican border, but deployed against the region.

A whiff of “Yanqui imperialism” even touches the main summit issue: How to deal with the economic, social and political collapse of oil-producing Venezuela, once one of the region’s most dynamic economies. According to Shifter and other analysts, Trump’s comments about possible U.S. military intervention in Venezuela still rankle across the region.

Venezuela’s desperate situation has yet to hit bottom, said analyst Andrea Saldarriaga Jimenez of the Atlantic Council. As many as 2 million of its 30 million people could flee into neighboring Colombia and Brazil in search of basic necessities, from food to medicines, as the inflation rate hits 2,000 percent, and crime and violence deepen. The response of the Venezuelan government under President Nicolas Maduro has been more repression.

Maduro has been officially disinvited to the summit, but speculation remains whether he tries to make a grand gesture of showing up in Lima.

The Lima meeting will also be the last Latin summit with a Castro in attendance. Raul Castro is expected to step down as Cuba’s president next week. Cuba, which gets most of its oil from Venezuela, has been the regime’s last backer in the region, and fireworks could still erupt between the Cuban and American delegations.

In place of theatrical leaders, Latin countries are largely governed by more technocratic, business-oriented presidents focused on economic issues.

Jason Marczak of the Atlantic Council noted that many Latin American leaders are most worried now about whether their countries are running trade deficits or surpluses with the U.S. and “will they be the next trade target.”

One result of the economic tensions, according to Marczak and and Margaret Meyers of The Dialogue, is that Latin nations are looking to economically diversify away from U.S. dependence and become more reliant on agriculture exports to China and Chinese investment. Both analysts spoke at a joint briefing their think tanks held for U.S. and Latin American reporters.

Among other regional concerns for Latin American governments: Trump’s threats to revoke the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico; his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, which included Chile, Peru, Mexico and Canada (a decision he may now be rethinking); and the latest tariff fights with China. (But one possible “deliverable” from the summit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, is an announcement of a deal to renew NAFTA.)

The April summit was supposed to mark the first of what could be a “Year of the Americas” for Trump. In June, he is scheduled to attend the G7 industrial nations meeting in Canada and the G20 economic summit in Argentina five months later.

But Trump is hardly the first president to back out of major international travel because of pressures elsewhere. In 2013, President Barack Obama scrubbed a trip to Indonesia, where he spent part of his boyhood, to deal with a budget shutdown in Washington.

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