By Roberta Rampton and Mitra Taj
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump canceled his first official trip to Latin America, the White House announced on Tuesday, triggering a mix of relief and criticism from a region he has repeatedly disparaged over immigration, narcotics and trade.
Trump wants to focus on his response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, and will send his Vice President Mike Pence to the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, in his place, the White House said. The announcement comes as Trump rails against a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid on the offices and home of his personal lawyer.
Trump’s participation in a gathering of heads of state from across the Western Hemisphere had been expected to be tense because of his divisive rhetoric and fraught relationships with leaders such as Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
“We’re going to miss him,” said Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo, who is expected to talk about efforts to update the North American Free Trade Agreement with his counterparts from the United States and Canada.
The cancellation prompted at least once regional leader, Bolivian President Evo Morales, to reconsider attending.
“I wanted to meet the U.S. president face to face to debate economic and social policies,” Morales, a critic of Trump, said in a televised comments at a public event.
The cancellation marked a new first for the United States under Trump, who has relished bucking White House traditions since taking office in January 2017. Every Summit of the Americas has been attended by a U.S. president since the first in 1994.
Richard Feinberg of the University of California, San Diego, who led Latin America policy in the Clinton White House, called the change in plans a “shocking abandonment of U.S. leadership in our own hemisphere” and said it “leaves a leadership vacuum that others will rush to fill.”
Trump had planned to use the summit to urge Latin American leaders to work with the United States and not China on trade, and to adopt a tough stance on Venezuela, according to a U.S. official last week.
A Peruvian diplomat who asked not to be named said it might be easier for regional leaders to tackle tough issues ranging from corruption to Venezuela without Trump looming over the talks. “You have the awkwardness out of the picture,” said the diplomat, who cited Trump’s unpopularity across Latin America.
For many in Latin America, however, Trump’s decision to skip the summit deepened the view that he does not care about the region. “Predictable,” Juan Jimenez, a former Organization of American States official who is also a former Peruvian prime minister, said on Twitter.
Ana Quintana, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Trump made the right decision to focus on the more pressing issue of Syria.
Trump has vowed to take strong action after a suspected chemical weapons attack Saturday night on the Syrian town of Douma that killed at least 60 people and injured more than 1,000 others. Syria and its ally Russia have said there was no evidence that a chemical weapons attack took place and proposed that international inspectors visit Douma to see for themselves.
Last year, Washington bombed a Syrian government air base after a chemical weapons attack.
Democrats slammed Trump’s decision to skip the summit as a sign he was not up to the challenge of heading U.S. foreign policy.
“If the President of the United States is indeed the leader of the free world, that person should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Eliot Engel, a ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.
MORE CONSTRUCTIVE SUMMIT
Trump had planned to stop in Bogota, Colombia, but that visit was canceled altogether.
This will be the second trip to the region for Pence, who met with leaders in Colombia, Argentina and Panama in August.
Mark Feierstein, who led Latin American policy for former Democratic President Barack Obama, said Pence’s attendance could make the summit more constructive.
“With Trump, there is always the risk of the stray comment about the FBI or other domestic matter which detracts from the issue at hand. Pence is a more disciplined and serious figure,” Feierstein said.
Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Pence, said the vice president would work with regional allies to increase pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ahead of the country’s election next month, which has been dismissed by the opposition and regional leaders as a sham.
Argentine President Mauricio Macri also said Venezuela would top the agenda in Peru. “We’re not going to accept the result of the May 20 election,” Macri told a press conference.
Peru uninvited Maduro from the summit earlier this year as it condemned the election. Maduro’s main rivals are barred from standing against him as he seeks re-election despite a crushing economic crisis and foreign sanctions.
Maduro had initially vowed to gatecrash the summit, saying he would travel to Lima by “air, land or sea,” but on Tuesday announced he too was pulling out.
“Last night I decided that I’m not going to the Americas summit in Lima and that I’ll stay here with the Venezuelan people,” Maduro told a cheering crowd. “This summit is a real waste of time.”
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Mitra Taj in Lima, Additional Reporting By Marco Aquino in Lima, Luc Cohen in Buenos Aires, Adriana Barrera in Mexico City, Danny Ramos in La Paz and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)