Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have stumbled out of the gate as he kicked off a trip to Latin America by praising a controversial 200-year-old foreign-policy doctrine, warning of “imperial” Chinese trade ambitions, and touting the United States as the region’s preferred trade partner.
During a question-and-answer session after a speech in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Tillerson praised the 1823 Monroe Doctrine as “clearly … a success.” The doctrine, and subsequent corollary to the doctrine issued in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, asserted U.S. authority in the Western Hemisphere over meddling European powers, and is still seen by many in the region as a form of U.S. imperialism.
“I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” Tillerson said of the doctrine.
The secretary’s remarks were a direct repudiation of the Barack Obama administration’s new-style approach to the region. In 2013, Tillerson’s predecessor John Kerry declared “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”
Tillerson’s remarks could ruffle the feathers of his hosts on an already fraught trip. Since President Donald Trump has taken office, U.S. standing in Latin America has plummeted, and Tillerson’s trip, which will cover cooperation on migration, trade, and energy, may have been meant to smooth things over.
But experts say it will be an uphill battle. “Thus far, all of Trump’s policy attention to Latin America has been highly negative,” said Cynthia Arnson of the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
During Tillerson’s speech in Austin, which fell on his one-year anniversary of becoming secretary of state, Tillerson also painted China as a foil to the United States. “Today China is getting a foothold in Latin America. It is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit. The question is: At what price?” he said.
Tillerson took particular aim at China’s economic approach to Latin America, which focused on gaining access to commodities from countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Peru, but which has left little lasting benefit for those countries.
“Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” said the top diplomat charged with implementing the Trump administration’s “America first” approach to the world. “China’s state-led model of development is reminiscent of the past,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be this hemisphere’s future.”
Tillerson’s trip comes as he fends off criticism back in Washington, and the State Department reels from the resignation of its top U.S. career diplomat, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, who played a crucial role in talks on Venezuela. Shannon’s resignation followed the departure last fall of William Brownfield, another longtime Latin America expert and point man on anti-narcotics efforts in the region.
Tillerson vowed Washington would remain the region’s “steadiest, strongest, and most enduring partner.”
But the offer of friendship may not be enough to sell Latin American countries on teaming up with Trump.
A recent poll by Gallup found Latin Americans’ approval ratings of U.S. leadership dropped from 49 percent in 2016 to 24 percent in 2017. Only 16 percent of the region approves of Trump’s job performance.
Since he first announced his bid for presidency in 2015 by promising a wall at the southern U.S. border and making incendiary remarks about Mexican immigrants, Trump has pushed forward a constellation of hard-line policies that have stoked anger and resentment across Latin America.
As president, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that included South American and Asian countries, cracked down on immigration, scuttled a temporary protected status program for Salvadorans living in the United States, and threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Tillerson, for his part, said the agreement needs to be “modernized,” not scrapped.)
But that doesn’t make Tillerson’s trip a lost cause. “It’s a good sign simply that he’s going,” said Earl Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
“He can do a lot to inject a sense that U.S. policy goes beyond the tweets of our current president,” said the Wilson Center’s Arnson. “Most of the democracies of the region still want a positive relationship with the United States.”
State Department officials say Venezuela is one of Tillerson’s top priorities on his six-day trip, which includes stops in Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica.
Venezuela, now in its fifth year of crisis, is teetering on the brink of collapse. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has violently quashed protests and worked to consolidate his power ahead of imminent presidential elections as the country’s economy goes into a tailspin, sparking concerns of a humanitarian disaster.
Tillerson also suggested that Venezuela under Maduro could face a military coup, though he stressed Washington was not advocating for regime change.
“I think there will be a change,” he said of Venezuela, noting that militaries “oftentimes” handle regime change in Latin America but saying that peaceful transitions are always preferred. “Whether that will be the case here or not, I do not know,” he said on Thursday, speaking at the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater.
Tillerson didn’t mince words on his views of Maduro. “The corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream and antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens,” he said.
Jason Marczak, a Latin America expert at the Atlantic Council, said despite its baggage, Trump’s team has the basis for a strong Venezuela policy, including sanctions against the Venezuelan government and close coordination with regional allies like Colombia. “On Venezuela, the administration has walked a fine line in playing a forward-leaning leadership role, but also a behind the scenes convening role,” he said.
Marczak said Tillerson should use the trip to corral Latin America around a unified stance on Venezuela before the country veers off a cliff. “There is no end in sight to the crisis in Venezuela, but there needs to be one,” he said.
Another area where Tillerson might get plenty of traction, and even win goodwill, is on energy partnerships with Latin America.
Amid an energy boom in recent years, U.S. exports of crude oil, gasoline, and natural gas have surged. Countries across Latin America are eager customers for U.S. exports — especially now that one of the region’s biggest suppliers, Venezuela, has fractured its own oil industry through chronic ineptitude and mismanagement. And Tillerson, former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, may be the perfect man to deliver that pitch.
The U.S. natural gas boom is also finding new customers in Latin America, with American shipments heading to at least five countries there in the second half of 2017, making it the biggest single market for U.S. liquefied gas exports. Smaller countries can now buy inexpensive gas import terminals and get modest amounts of cheap U.S. gas, which has given U.S. exporters new options.
Thirty-six percent of U.S. liquified natural gas exports now go to Latin America, Tillerson noted.
“We have the chance to develop an energy partnership that spans the Western Hemisphere, to the benefit of all of our citizens,” Tillerson said. “We cannot afford to squander this moment.”