Politics & Government

Rubio steps in to huddle with Latin American leaders at summit in Trump’s absence

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. AP

Few expect the vice president to fill the void left by President Donald Trump’s absence at the upcoming 8th Summit of the Americas in Peru. In steps Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl..

Rubio told McClatchy on Tuesday that he will attend the summit, where he is expected to help fill the vacuum of leadership at a critical juncture for an administration that is calling for the Western Hemisphere to take stronger action against Venezuela. Rubio, who planned to attend even before Trump bowed out, is expected to meet this week with Vice President Mike Pence who will act in Trump’s role at the summit.

“Trump declining to attend the summit opens the door for Rubio to rise up and be a preeminent voice at the summit,” said Jose Cardenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials.

No one can replace the president, but the other 30 or so Latin American leaders at the summit know that Rubio has Trump’s ear and is seen as the president’s principal adviser on Western Hemisphere issues, particularly those involving Venezuela and Cuba. Rubio also knows many heads of state in the region personally.

Trump gave Rubio a heads up before Tuesday’s announcement about the weekend summit. Rubio has been extraordinarily influential on Latin American issues in the Trump administration. Besides the president, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, also listens to Rubio’s advice on the region. As a member of Congress from Kansas, Pompeo endorsed Rubio over Trump in the 2016 presidential race.

This will be the first time that a U.S. president didn’t attend the Summit of the Americas. It’s a setback for the “Year of the Americas” that the administration is trying to promote.

“There is nothing that focuses the bureaucracy or the news cycle like the president of the United States,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas who testified before Congress about the summit Tuesday.

Rubio deflected his role at the summit saying the vice president will clearly have the greatest influence from the United States. But he said he’s been talking regularly with Trump and the National Security Council, including new National Security Adviser John Bolton, about opportunities at the Summit.

“It’s to obviously focus on the Venezuela situation, but also on some of the issues that other nations in the region are ready to work together and confront,” Rubio said.

Rubio said he’ll use his time in the corridors and meeting with heads of state in Lima to promote the United States’s goals to be more engaged in the region, whether working on security in Honduras, investment opportunities in Ecuador, maintaining close ties with Colombia and building support for stronger actions in Venezuela.

“The more economic engagement we have with these countries going both ways is mutually beneficial, the easier it will be to get policy makers in the United States to care about the Western Hemisphere because they’ll have economic constituencies in the United States who care about the future of the region,” Rubio said.

Trump will be the first U.S. president not to attend the Summit of the Americas, the only meeting in which the president has a chance to meet privately with all Latin American and Caribbean leaders. Many expected Trump’s presence at the summit would focus the hemispheric agenda on concerns about Venezuela.

Rubio shared the disappointment of the region that Trump won’t go to Lima. He said he understands why and agrees that the president must deal with the Syria situation, but he also noted that it was symbolic of the broader challenge the region has faced for the better part of decade that every time the U.S. government decides to focus on the western hemisphere something emerges in the Middle East that distracts our attention.

In some ways, President Trump's absence from the summit is beneficial consider his low popularity in the region.

"His presence would have highlighted the deteriorating U.S. relationship with Latin America, with Washington wildly out of sync on consequential issues such as climate change, trade, migration and Cuba," said said Benjamin Gedan, who served as Latin America director at the NSC under Obama. "That said, the absence of the U.S. president calls into question the summit's raison d'être. After all, Latin America operates an alphabet soup of multilateral organizations that provide other ways to convene regional leaders."

Last June, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson skipped a gathering in Mexico of the Organization of American States. Many, like Gedan, felt his absence contributed to the OAS’s failure to condemn Venezuela's repressive government.

Rubio, who planned to attend even before Trump bowed out, will meet with Pence on Wednesday to share his thoughts on the trip. He’ll is expected to discuss with Pence the importance of U.S. leadership and commitment to working with regional and international partners to provide more humanitarian aid through nongovernmental organizations to the suffering Venezuelan people.

On Cuba, Rubio will urge the administration to increase efforts to support the country’s movement on democracy and human rights, and stress the importance of meeting and engaging with Cuba’s pro-democracy civil society.

Since Trump took office, he’s been listening to Rubio, who has been described as the “Trump whisperer” on Latin America.

It was Rubio who gave the Trump administration a list of Venezuelan officials who were sanctioned last month and before.

Rubio also helped draft a revised Cuba policy that led to Trump’s first presidential visit to Miami to fulfill a campaign promise to the conservative Cubans who helped him win the White House.

Ambassador Roger Noriega, who served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush. said Rubio will be careful not to overstep Pence, but he said his role could be more significant. And Trump’s departure could actually be an opportunity for Pence and Rubio to work without all the added dynamics and distractions that come when a U.S. president or secretary of state attends a summit.

“A lot of the dynamic of the summit is the corridor conversations,” Noriega said. “The pull-asides that can be arranged among the leaders and one-on-one conversations that can get to the nub of these issues in a very candid exchange. This is another set of hands to take on those responsibilities on behalf of the U.S. point of view. ”