Latin America

During Trip to Latin American Countries, Pence Seeks to Soften ‘America First’ View

During a whirlwind trip to four Latin American countries this week, Vice President Mike Pence sought to soften the edges of the ‘America first’ worldview — the administration’s first major effort to mend fences with a region rattled by President Trump’s election.

“Under President Donald Trump, the United States will always put the security and prosperity of America first,” Mr. Pence said Wednesday in Chile during the third leg of a trip that began in Colombia and included stops in Argentina and Panama. “But as I hope my presence today demonstrates, ‘America first’ does not mean America alone.”

Yet Mr. Pence’s hopeful message of expanded economic and diplomatic cooperation did little to assuage fears among the region’s leaders, who have been furiously planning for an era of diminishing returns in Washington by deepening regional trade relations and pursuing expanded commercial ties with Europe and China.

Mr. Trump is widely loathed in Latin America, where his early moves have been interpreted as a return to an overbearing, security-obsessed American foreign policy. The contrast has been sharp with President Barack Obama’s administration, when Latin Americans felt they were treated with an unusual degree of deference and respect.

“We went from being recognized as a strategic ally to being regarded as part of their backyard,” said María Jimena Duzán, an influential Colombian columnist at the weekly magazine Semana, echoing a view several Latin American officials have shared privately.

The trip, which Mr. Pence cut short by a day to attend a national security meeting at home, was the latest example of the daunting task Mr. Trump’s surrogates face as they set out to modulate and interpret the president’s bellicose and impulsive remarks.

In stop after stop, Mr. Pence found himself in damage-control mode, fielding questions about Mr. Trump’s response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned violent, and about the president’s threat to use military force in Venezuela.

During joint appearances with Mr. Pence, Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile firmly opposed the prospect of an American military intervention in response to Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crisis. “Chile will not support coups or military interventions,” Ms. Bachelet said pointedly on Wednesday.

While the Obama administration built considerable good will in the region by restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and showing greater flexibility on counternarcotics policy, America’s standing and influence in the region have cratered under Mr. Trump.

“If I put myself in the shoes of an American citizen, I understand the appeal of trying to prioritize your national interests,” said Camila Capriglioni, 21, a medical student in Buenos Aires. “But I really dislike everything he represents,” she added, referring to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump’s insistence that he will find a way to get Mexico to pay for a border wall, his crackdown on unauthorized immigrants and his return to a confrontational stance with Cuba are among the main reasons the president is reviled in Latin America, analysts say.

“Latin America is in a situation where the United States has absolutely no interest in soft power,” said Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, an international relations professor at the Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires.

“The only thing he talks about are sticks,” Mr. Tokatlian said, “of being hard with Mexico, with Venezuela and that will only accelerate the process of countries moving away from Washington.”

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