We should be glad that the first stop of Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Latin America was in Colombia. There he could get an unvarnished message from Juan Manuel Santos, an important regional ally. Referring to Donald Trump’s inflammatory statement about keeping the “military option” open, Santos told Pence he should never even consider such an idea.
Because of Trump’s intemperance, the vice president finds himself in a role held by numerous White House officials in recent months, which is to carry a message to leaders abroad that they should ignore his boss’ bluster. When the cameras are absent, one can assume there is a certain amount of eye rolling on both sides. For example, Pence tried to convince an Argentine audience that Trump’s “America first” slogan should be viewed as inclusive.
Indeed, at least to this point the “Trump Doctrine” in Latin America has two essential elements: first, strong and sometimes bellicose rhetorical opposition to the Obama Administration’s policies; second, significant substantive continuity with Obama Administration policies combined with threats to change that fact. Combined, the disjuncture between rhetoric and action fosters uncertainty as U.S. administration officials policy makers walk back Tweets and offhand remarks on a regular basis. That’s one thing for domestic policy, but overseas it weakens the administration’s diplomatic position, especially in Latin America.
For Venezuela, before his current comments President Trump published a thumbs-up photo with Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Leopoldo López, prompted by Senator Marco Rubio, who had been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s policy. He then announced targeted sanctions against some Maduro government officials, which is exactly what President Obama had done before him. Trump just imposed more of them. Meanwhile, the administration is working with the Organization of American States to marshal a collective response to the situation in Venezuela, just as Obama had, though his mention of possible armed intervention will set that back.
Mexico is another high profile case. President Trump had famously campaigned on building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. After taking office, he put out bids for a wall, committed only a fraction of what a wall would cost, and admitted Mexico would not pay. He shifted to say in effect that the sun would pay for it. Rhetoric was even starker for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which during the campaign Trump said needed “total renegotiation” or the U.S. would “walk away.” The administration starts talks this month, promising to wrap them up by the end of the year but no one knows what the talks will actually involve and whether the end of the year deadline is possible.
With Cuba, President Trump built suspense for months, asserting endlessly that he would get a “better deal” for the U.S. and human rights in Cuba. Ultimately, the president scaled back travel rights and prohibited financial transactions with military-owned businesses. These measures will make it more difficult (but by no means impossible, since cruise ships are still fine) for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba, but do not cut diplomatic relations, affect remittances, trade rules, or immigration policy. Nor have they wrung any concessions on human rights from the Cuban government. Yet when unveiling the policy, the president said that “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” In fact, Obama’s policy is almost entirely intact.
In Colombia, President Trump did not talk about the peace agreement much and seemed ambivalent. After his inauguration he would not indicate whether he would provide aid to support it. In April 2017 he met with two former Colombian presidents, including Alvaro Uribe, who is a vociferous and ardent opponent of the peace deal. Remember that in May, Vice President Pence was with President Santos and stated that the United States would support implementation. In particular, that entailed confirming the Obama administration’s $450 million aid package for 2017 and ensuring it was signed into law.
The core problem with the Trump Doctrine is that its mixed signals leave the strong impression that support for even positive initiatives is weak and perhaps temporary. The president’s proposed 2018 budget is loaded with cuts that would affect all Latin American countries. Strong rhetoric against free trade leaves lingering doubts about long-term commitment to current agreements. This is why we see unusual scenes like German Chancellor Angela Merkel reassuring Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto about Germany’s leadership. In Latin America there’s already too much of a mess for Mike Pence to clean up, even if the change isn’t even all that real.