Lima (Peru) (AFP) – Ivanka Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are stepping in to fill US President Donald Trump’s absence at a summit of Latin American leaders taking place in Peru late this week.
But with the US leader a no-show because of a last-minute cancellation to oversee America’s response to an alleged poison gas attack in Syria, the blaze of international attention directed at the Friday-Saturday gathering has dimmed.
Instead of the sight of Trump at the center of a group of leaders from several countries he has disparaged or intimidated over perceived trade or migration threats, the once-every-three-year summit will be left to tackle festering regional issues.
Those include a joint response further isolating Venezuela over its moves seen trampling democracy, and whose President Nicolas Maduro has explicitly been not invited.
There is also the worsening relationship between the United States and Mexico over a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a wall to be built along their common border — and to where he has ordered US National Guard troops to deploy.
Mexico has announced it is reviewing its cooperation with the US over “blatant” tension with Trump’s administration.
And there is the issue of corruption, the persistence of which — and the moves to tackle it — have roiled Latin American politics, including in Brazil, where ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is now jailed, and Peru itself, which has seen its president step down just ahead of hosting the summit.
– Still ‘high-level’ –
At a Washington briefing to reporters Wednesday, Ivanka Trump and senior US administration officials insisted that President Trump’s absence was not a snub or sign of disinterest in Latin America.
The president had to cancel “given the atrocity that occurred in Syria,” which required him to be “engaged in on that topic and related topics,” one official said without elaborating.
However, a “very high-level delegation” would still be representing the US, the officials said.
They listed Ivanka Trump and Pence along with top US officials for trade, foreign aid and investment. Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner — who, like her, is a senior advisor to the president — was also to attend.
“I’m extremely excited for my visit,” Ivanka Trump said in the briefing, explaining that she would be promoting ways to economically empower women while at the summit.
“Women’s economic empowerment in the Americas is a key element of the president’s commitment to advance our shared goals and objectives in the hemisphere,” a senior administration official added.
One official said that nothing new should be expected at the Lima summit on the NAFTA negotiations.
“We don’t have anything to announce on NAFTA at this time. Negotiations continue to be ongoing,” the official said.
Prior to President Trump’s cancellation, the White House had said the US leader was going to focus on “pursuing fair and reciprocal trade throughout the region” and “push back against external economic aggression” at the summit.
Those comments appeared directed at both the NAFTA negotiations and China’s increasing investment in Latin America, which US policy-makers fear signals greater political influence too.
– China’s presence –
On Monday Trump said the NAFTA talks were “fairly close” to reaching a deal, but reiterated that “if we don’t make the right deal, we’ll terminate NAFTA and make the right deal after that.”
China’s growing investment in Latin America, once considered America’s backyard under the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine, appears to be the “external economic aggression” Trump’s administration is riled up against.
US-China tensions have spiked dramatically in recent weeks with Trump ratcheting up threats of harsh tariffs on Chinese goods and Beijing warning of reciprocal measures. But talk of a possible trade war has cooled somewhat with Chinese President Xi Jinping taking a more emollient tone since Tuesday.
Some Latin American analysts looked askance at Trump’s absence.
“For Trump, Latin America, with the possible exception of Mexico, is at the level of his vice president,” said Kevin Casas, a former Costa Rican vice president who is now director of the consulting firm Analitica Consultures.
“That’s a message everybody has more or less picked up and how the region will read it. Including China,” he said.