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With Trump ‘Locked and Loaded,’ Pence off to Latin America

But can he show American allies significant support?

pence latam

While much of Washington (and, one would think, the wider world) ponders what to wear for Armageddon Day, at least one man’s thoughts are elsewhere.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, previously dispatched on damage-control missions to Europe to reassure jittery allies, is set to take off to Latin America on Sunday — specifically, to Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Panama.

While Latin America doesn’t get much attention from Trump’s Twitter fingers, other than the wall, the region is going through a critical moment — and not just because Venezuela is imploding in slow motion. Pence’s visit offers the White House a chance to show that it is keeping hemispheric issues squarely in sight even as it deals with a host of security challenges from Asia to the Middle East.

It won’t be an easy crowd: Latin American countries, including some on Pence’s trip, are among the places that have most soured on the United States since Trump was elected. And notably, some vice-presidential trips to the region — like Richard Nixon’s — have gone south disastrously.

Pence’s trip is meant to give “a sign of the high importance [Trump] places on this region,” according to a White House statement. “I will build on the good work that has been done throughout President Trump’s Administration to bolster our shared economic and security goals,” it continues.

Some of that good work: Freeing several Latin American countries that had signed on to the Trans Pacific Partnership (nixed by Trump) to kickstart their own trade negotiations with Asia. More good work: Proposed budget cuts that would cut security assistance funding for close U.S. partners like Colombia, which is trying to cement a peace accord with FARC rebels and beat back resurgent cocaine production.

But looming over it all is Venezuela, which has been rocked by months of protests and violent government crackdowns, battered by an economic death spiral, and topped off with a dose of rigged elections and a descent to dictatorship.

“Venezuela is far and away the most important issue in Latin America for the White House,” said Benjamin Gedan, who handled Latin American issues on President Obama’s National Security Council and is now a fellow at the Wilson Center and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The region, like the Trump administration, is split on how to deal with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s power grab and increasingly repressive regime. Washington has slapped sanctions on some top Venezuelan leaders, and is reportedly mulling tougher steps, but is leery about taking measures (like blocking imports of Venezuelan crude oil) that could further derail the economy.

On Friday, Trump raised the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela. “We have many options for Venezuela including a military option, if necessary,” he told reporters at his New Jersey golf club.

Barring a U.S. invasion, Gedan said that one of the “actual deliverables” of Pence’s visit could be to increase pressure some of the key players in the region — in particular, Colombia and Argentina — to lean on Venezuela.

There are storm clouds at the other end of South America, too. In Argentina, the free-market reforms pushed by President Mauricio Macri are under threat — in part from from former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is running for senate in October’s midterm elections. If the elections don’t go Macri’s way, Gedan notes, he’s likely to be seen as a lame duck. That would be bad news for the United States: Macri is still trying to nurse Argentina back to health after Kirchner’s ham-fisted economic policies cost it dearly.

Gedan worries the Trump administration may not appreciate just how fragile the political progress that’s been made in Argentina really is. It’s important for Pence to demonstrate that the United States is “serious in helping them succeed in this important transformation,” he said.

This article was updated Friday afternoon.

Photo credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin