Pence to press hard line on Venezuela, promote US trade

Mike Pence
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Filling in for his boss, Vice President Mike Pence intends to promote the U.S. as a steady trading partner and press Latin American partners to further isolate Venezuela during his weekend trip to Peru.

Pence was departing for the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, on Friday, subbing for President Donald Trump after the president pulled out of his first planned visit to Latin America to manage the U.S. response to an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria.

In meetings with Latin American leaders, the vice president will promote good governance and democratic institutions and urge allies to maintain pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The U.S. has sanctioned Maduro and dozens of top officials, accusing the country of human rights abuses and sliding into a dictatorship.

With the White House’s encouragement, Maduro has been barred from the summit over his plans to hold a presidential election that the opposition is boycotting and many foreign governments consider a sham. Shortly after arriving in Lima, Pence plans to meet with Venezuelan opposition leaders.

The Trump administration is considering imposing an oil embargo on the OPEC nation, while Panama recently said it would pursue sanctions of its own — the first Latin American nation do so — by blacklisting dozens of Venezuelan officials from doing business in the Central American country.

Ana Quintana, a senior policy analyst on Latin America and the Western Hemisphere for the Heritage Foundation, said Pence would seek to “continue the momentum” of U.S. policy on Venezuela. She said the “vast majority of the region’s democratic leaders have been so united on addressing the crisis.”

Pence will also aim to counter China’s attempt to exert more economic influence in the Americas at a time when the Trump administration has been embroiled in a trade dispute with the Chinese. White House officials said the vice president would emphasize the U.S. as the “partner of choice” in Latin American trade, noting that nearly half of the U.S. trade agreements are based in the Western Hemisphere.

Yet the timing of the trade pitch will be delicate. Pence will land in Peru shortly after Trump signaled his interest in possibly rejoining negotiations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific Rim trade pact he frequently blasted during the 2016 campaign, injecting a dose of uncertainty among U.S. trading partners.

Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow in the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said it would be difficult for the U.S. to make case to become the “preferential trading partner” as Trump seeks to upend trade agreements.

“If it means reliable, predictable, Trump is the opposite,” Feinberg said. “If preferred means lowering trade barriers, Trump is the opposite of that, he’s talking about higher trade barriers and tariffs,” he said.

Trump, meanwhile, has long assailed impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on U.S. workers and has insisted on a new round of negotiations between the U.S., Canada and Mexico on NAFTA. Pence is planning to meet in Lima with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau but the White House said no meetings were scheduled with members of the Mexican delegation.

The U.S. president has been pushing a tougher line on immigration and seeking stronger protections along the U.S.-Mexican border in recent weeks. The president’s recent tweets called on Mexico to halt “caravans” of migrants, many from Honduras, a message that Pence may be asked about in his discussions.

The vice president will be sitting down with several Latin American leaders, including Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra and President Mauricio Macri of Argentina.

Pence is also expected to hold a multi-lateral meeting with a group of Caribbean leaders representing Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana and St. Lucia.

The vice president’s delegation is expected to include the president’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, along with several other senior U.S. officials.

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