President Donald Trump's cancellation of his first visit to Latin America was met with a shrug Tuesday from regional counterparts, many of whom dreaded shaking hands with the American leader as he pushes forward with plans to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and renegotiate trade deals.
Trump canceled his plans to travel to South America later this week, choosing to stay in Washington to manage the U.S. response to an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence will lead the U.S. delegation to the Summit of the Americas that kicks off Friday in Lima, Peru, with leaders from around the hemisphere, including a soon-to-step down Raul Castro from Cuba.
The decision marks the first time a U.S. president has not attended the summit, which President Bill Clinton started in 1994 as a way to assert American trade influence in the region. A stop in Colombia — long Washington's staunchest ally in the region — was scrapped altogether.
The region seemed to be taking the decision in stride, reflecting some of the unease generated by Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and growing economic self-confidence in a region long resentful of Washington's dominance.
The summit's host, Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra, played down Trump's cancellation, saying he was disappointed but adding that Pence's substitution was a sign the U.S. takes the meetings seriously. Argentina President Mauricio Macri, a longtime business acquaintance of Trump, didn't comment on the decision at a joint news conference with visiting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
"The truth is, given the level of discourse on trade, immigrants and intervention coming from this administration, not paying much attention to the region may be welcome by a number of governments as they search for their own alternatives," said Christopher Sabatini, executive director of Global Americans, a group promoting better engagement in the region. "The question though is what it means for U.S. leadership, not just now but over the long term."
Even some Republicans expressed frustration.
"I am disappointed that the president won't make it to Lima," Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said at a hearing to discuss the summit. "It's rather symbolic of the broader challenge we face in the region for the better part of the decade. Every time we say we want to focus on the Western Hemisphere, something emerges in the Middle East or somewhere else that distracts our attention."
Like Trump, Pence is expected to use the summit to push for a stronger response to what the U.S. considers the rise of dictatorship in Venezuela. With the White House's support, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been barred from the meeting over his plans to hold a presidential election that the opposition is boycotting and many foreign governments consider a sham.
Maduro, who had been vowing to attend the summit anyway, celebrated Trump's cancellation, calling it further proof that the U.S. still views Latin America as Washington's backyard.
"Donald Trump said he isn't going to Lima because he said he doesn't have time," Maduro told supporters at a rally in Caracas.
The Trump administration is considering imposing an oil embargo on the OPEC nation, while Panama recently became the first Latin American nation to pursue sanctions of its own by blacklisting dozens of Venezuelan officials from doing business in the Central American country. Several other governments are contemplating similar moves.
But despite a shared commitment to getting tough on Venezuela, most leaders weren't looking forward to welcoming Trump, Sabatini said.
A regional survey by respected Chilean pollster Latinobarometro said Latin Americans last year viewed Trump even more unfavorable than they did George W. Bush or Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the year of his death. Whereas President Barack Obama had an average rating of 7 out of 10 after his first year in office, Trump ended his with less than half that rating.
Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, strained relationships with leaders like Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto and the rolling back of the Obama administration's opening to Cuba have all hurt U.S. outreach at a time China, Russia and other nations are gaining influence, U.S. diplomats across the region quietly acknowledge. The decision to deploy U.S. troops on the border with Mexico and accusations that Central American migrants were carrying out rape have also aggravated feelings.
Meanwhile, recent comments by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson vindicating the 19th century Monroe Doctrine, coupled with Trump's threat of a military solution to Venezuela's crisis, have spread fears of a return to U.S. unilateralism.
While Trump has vowed to scrap NAFTA and pull out of trade agreements as part of his America First policy, most of the region has been moving in the opposite direction. Three major nations — Mexico, Chile and Peru — have all signed up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump has scuttled, while China's decision to slap tariffs on U.S. soybeans in retaliation for U.S. trade measures stands to benefit major farm producers like Argentina and Brazil.
"In some sense, all of the fuss that he has been raising on trade operates to Latin America's advantage," said Albert Fishlow, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state. "The region is trying to separate itself from the U.S. as much as possible."