A long-sought visit by President Donald Trump to Latin America this week comes as an annual meeting of the world’s top economies shines a spotlight on the rise of several right-wing leaders and the economic woes and corruption across the region.
After skipping several opportunities to visit the region, President Donald Trump will set foot in Buenos Aires — his much-anticipated first visit to Latin America — for talks on the global economy with the leaders of the world’s 20 major economies. But the timing of the visit has left some diplomats nervous about how Argentina’s worsening economy, corruption around the continent and uncertainty about new leaders in Brazil and Mexico will reflect on the rest of the region.
“The fact is Latin America is weak and we don’t know when Latin America will return to be a strong participant in the global economy and in the global geopolitical landscape,” said Fernando Carrera, Guatemala’s foreign minister in 2013 and 2014. “There is no dynamism and the three stronger economies seem to be in more trouble than solving problems.”
Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are the only three Latin American members of the G20.
The president’s stop in Buenos Aires was supposed to be the culmination of the administration’s ambitious “Year of the America’s” tour, including the Summit of the Americas in Peru and the meeting of the globe’s top seven economies in Canada. But Trump scrapped his a trip that included both the Summit of Americas and a visit to Colombia, citing a need to remain in the United States to monitor the U.S. response to a suspected chemical attack in Syria.
The bruised feelings around the region have yet to completely heal. Even though the G20 is taking place in South America, some diplomats say it doesn’t count as a U.S. visit to the region because the location is coincidental.
Trump also cut short the trip this week, canceling a more traditional visit to Colombia to meet President-elect Ivan Duque.
The diplomats said attention on Latin America is likely to be overshadowed by more weighty issues of international consequence, such as talks between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping over trade and Trump’s scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That’s not to say Latin America won’t be an important topic on the sidelines where most of the substantive work between aides and staff so often takes place at international summits.
Venezuela is often at the top of Trump’s mind when it comes to Latin America, and the administration is expected to continue pressing for a stronger regional approach against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The administration is also pushing regional leaders to hold the Cuban government responsible for helping Maduro hold onto power.
While Trump is in Argentina, national security adviser John Bolton will travel to Brazil to meet with president-elect Jair Bolsonaro to hammer out a regional strategy to confront Cuba and Venezuela, two of the three nations — along with Nicaragua — that Bolton recently dubbed the “Troika of Tyranny.”
Bolsonaro is the “new kid in town,” as one diplomat described it. While he won’t be at the summit because he has yet to take office, Bolsonaro will be the talk in regional circles, given his budding relationship with Trump, who has dubbed him a “like-minded” leader.
Bolton told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that his visit with Bolsonaro was the result of “a really outstanding phone call,” between Trump and Bolsonaro, and emphasized that Trump was the first head of state to call the Brazilian president-elect.
“We see this as a historic opportunity for Brazil and the United States to work together on a whole host of areas, economics, security, a range of others,” Bolton said of the leader dubbed “the Trump of the Tropics.”
Supporters say a closer relationship between the United States and Brazil could pay dividends across the region. Brazil is a top trading partner with many other countries in the region.
The ultra-conservative leader is seen as another sign of the end of the so-called pink tide of socialism that was largely centered on fighting American imperialism.
Leaders will be looking to see if Trump continues his rhetoric against specific trade deals and multilateralism. They’ll watch how friendly he is with other Latin American leaders and compare it to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s charm offensive. Xi has not hid his country’s interest in strengthening regional ties and “never goes anywhere with an empty basket,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now a vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C..
Many will be watching how Trump handles sideline meetings with Mexican outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto and Canada’s Justin Trudeau where they or their representatives are supposed to sign the newly revised NAFTA trade agreement, now known as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
But the signing “will hardly produce a celebratory mood, as friction among the parties persists” and it’s unclear whether the three countries’ legislatures will ratify the accord, said Michael Shifter, who as president of the Inter-American Dialogue has deep ties with many leaders across Latin America.
In some ways, Trump’s first Latin America trip is well-timed. Following elections in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, the region has new leaders with political capital and big ambitions. Latin American voters largely chose conservatives giving the Trump White House natural allies in the hemisphere, said Benjamin Gedan, who was National Security Council director for South America during the Obama administration.
But he said Trump’s presence at any international gathering creates anxiety, increasing the possibility of diplomatic flare-ups as has been seen before when Trump aimed barrages at British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“President Trump has difficulty playing nicely with democratically elected leaders,” Gedan said.
Fernando Cutz, a former senior director at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, largely sees opportunity in the region, pointing specifically to the prospects of a positive relationship with Brazil’s Bolsonaro.
Brazil has the largest economy in the region and one of the top two or three trading partners for many of its neighbors. But it has kind of reneged a leadership role of the better part of a decade, Cutz said.
“It’s been this kind of a sleeping giant in the region for quite a while now,” Cutz said. “But if that we’re to change and I think it will, it will have a significant impact on the region.”
Latin Americans have a “love/hate” relationship with Trump, said José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials. They don’t like the insults against immigrants that “reinforce the negative stereotyes that the Americans look down on Latin Americans.” But they can relate to him.
Pointing to the similar style of Bolsonaro, Cárdenas said many Latinos, like many Americans, have become frustrated with the status quo and ways of the “polished elite” that have led to harrowing corruption scandals and shaken confidence in traditional political parties.
“Donald Trump is something that Latins intuitively understand,” Cárdenas said. “To them, he’s the man on the horse. He’s the ‘caudillo,’” - or strongman - “who has played obviously an extremely seminal role in the politics of Latin American over the decades.”
Stuart Leavenworth contributed to this report.