This is not an article about how Vice President Mike Pence had to travel to Colombia, Argentina, and Chile (and intended to make it to Panama) to clean up the backlash created by President Donald J. Trump’s destructive comments over a “military option” in Venezuela. That story has already been well covered in multiple media outlets—and frankly it’s getting a little old. This article is about what Pence’s Latin America tour says about the changing region, even when he cuts it short to high-tail it back to Washington DC.
Even at a glance, the roster of countries included in the trip demonstrates the broadening group of governments that have been speaking out on the appalling situation in Venezuela. A mere two years ago, Argentina—then under Peronist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner—not only wouldn’t have dared to raise a peep, it was an ideological ally and enabler of the Chavez/Maduro regime. Then Foreign Minister, the intemperate and odd Hector Timerman, worked with Venezuela against the United States and—along with the ALBA countries—attempted to gut the inter-American human rights system. Today, though, a pro-market, technocratic government led by President Mauricio Macri has openly cast its lot with the defense of human rights of democracy. And despite concerns that its austerity measures had failed to deliver economic growth quickly enough to satisfy popular concerns, Macri’s candidates fared well in the August 13 primaries for the October legislative elections, especially in the cities of Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Mendoza. The primaries also boosted the fortunes of Macri’s education minister, Esteban Bullrich, who competed for a senate seat in the all-important Buenos Aires province. He squeaked past former president Fernandez de Kirchner in their respective party ballots. On his visit to Buenos Aires this week, Pence praised Argentina as a model for the rest of Latin America. (Though frankly, Argentinians have always thought that about themselves.)
In short, Macri took a stand on human rights in Venezuela and markets in his own country and lived to tell about it. The same can be said of the vice president’s third host on this tour: Chile. Governed by a social democratic party under Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s willingness to host Pence and, on August 8th in Lima, to sign onto a declaration condemning Venezuelan President Maduro’s unconstitutional plan to rewrite the constitution demonstrate Chile’s moderation and its growing diplomatic role in the region. It’s not unthinkable that only a few years ago, the Socialist government would have been roundly criticized by its neighbors for doing both of those things.
At the beginning of Pence’s trip, in his appearance with President Juan Manual Santos in Colombia, the vice president spoke of partnership, in tones that sounded positively Obama-like. But even beyond the rhetoric, Pence stood next to the Colombia President as Santos lectured that military intervention was a thing of the past in a region of peace, demonstrating a remarkably balanced, “partner-y” model of how to behave in the region. (It did earn Santos, though, the “Pence squint.”) What makes it all the more remarkable is that Pence was standing side by side with a president that many in his party had criticized for his controversial peace plan, which they saw as caving in to the guerrilla group FARC. (Some of those in Pence’s party, like Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Carlos Curbelo less than a year ago, have campaigned with the peace plan’s arch enemy and Santos’ predecessor, former president Alvaro Uribe.) In other words, the Trump administration—despite dissension within the Republican Party, stoked in part by Uribe and U.S. Cuban-American legislators who could not tolerate a peace deal signed in Cuba—implicitly embraced the right of a president to negotiate a peace deal as an ally. The subtle sign of progress continues more than 17 years of bi-partisan U.S. policy toward Colombia.
Third, there were the plans—now suspended—of Pence traveling to Panama. Barring the final Manuel Noriega years, the canal-bearing isthmus nation has largely been a stalwart U.S. ally (after all, the United States did help create it in 1903). But before current President Juan Carlos Varela, the country had been shrouded in corruption controversies, which, in modern times, peaked under Varela’s predecessor and former boss, the notoriously corrupt president Ricardo Martinelli. The former president is now fighting extradition from Miami back to his home country for—among several things—diverting $13.4 million meant for social programs for the poor to pay for software that allowed him to spy on associates and his former mistress. Today, though—as our research monitoring the foreign policies of governments regarding human rights and democracy has shown—Panama has become a strong advocate for the liberal world order and trade partner of the United States with its own free trade agreement with the giant to the north.
As Vice President Pence visits Latin America, we at Global Americans have also been engaged in a mini-tour of the region in preparation for a Ford Foundation-funded working group on inter-American relations—though without all the fanfare and squintiness of Pence’s visit. A colleague was in Colombia last week meeting with Colombian business leaders, former high-level policymakers and scholars. And this week another colleague is in Mexico doing the same, all with the plan to produce a series of regional consensus papers on how to deepen and improve inter-American relations on issues such as cooperation on anti-corruption, commercial relations, educational exchanges, and rebuilding social peace, institutions and democracy in Venezuela. What we’ve found is a willingness to collaborate and a surprising reserve of goodwill and optimism—yes, even on the issue of Venezuela. The reaction and cooperation demonstrates that the U.S.’s influence and partnerships in the hemisphere remain, and are in fact complex and multifaceted, extending beyond the misguided, clumsy rhetoric coming out of a golf resort in New Jersey.
So yeah, Vice President Pence had some cleaning up to do after President Trump’s remarks. But let’s not lose sight of the countries the vice president is visiting (or intended to visit), his bipartisan rhetoric of partnership and willingness to listen, and the very subtle recognition of his boss’s stumble. In this era, that counts as progress, or at least enduring stability despite the noise.