Updated August 17, 2017 — In his first trip to Latin America as vice president, Mike Pence visits Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Panama, in that order. The trip, which he cut short by one day to return to Washington to discuss South Asia strategy at Camp David, focuses on trade. The United States currently has bilateral free-trade agreements with all countries on Pence’s trip except Argentina. But the ongoing crisis in Venezuela—and President Donald Trump’s recent remarks—are a topic as well. On Friday, August 11, Trump caught many in the region off guard when he said, “And by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option,” on the escalating situation in Caracas.
Stop 1: Colombia
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received Pence in Cartagena. In his remarks on Sunday evening, Santos emphasized Colombia as being the first country in Latin America both to receive a call from the Trump White House and the first stop on Pence’s current tour, as well as the historically bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for both Plan and Peace Colombia. Santos also highlighted the agricultural reforms at the heart of Colombia’s FARC peace deal to the former governor of Indiana, as well as the anti-narcotics efforts, in which he said the two countries have a “shared responsibility.” He took a moment also to state that the possibility of U.S. military intervention would be “unacceptable” and “shouldn’t even be considered” in Venezuela or anywhere in Latin America. During Q&A, Santos said that he showed Pence data about how aerial fumigation of coca crops was ineffective, and that the Colombian strategy to reduce cultivation would focus in equal parts on forced eradications and alternative development crop substitutions.
While saying the Trump administration would continue to take “decisive action” to lower demand for illegal drugs, Pence, in turn, called the rise in coca cultivation in Colombia “dramatic” and said of related violence and corruption: “This must end soon.” In discussing Venezuela, he avoided mentioning military intervention specifically, but said the administration had “many options” and “resolve and determination … not to stand idly by” when it came to dealing with the Maduro government. Pence also thanked Santos for his leadership in speaking up on the issue, and called on Colombia and the rest of Latin America “to do more.”
Pence also announced that the two countries had reached a deal to allow exports of Colombian Hass avocados to the United States and U.S. rough rice to Colombia. Americans imported $2 billion worth of avocados in 2016, 90 percent of which came from Mexico, the world’s top producer and origin of the fruit. Colombia, meanwhile, exported $25 million the same year, all of which went to Europe; it’s expected to double its export capacity through the new deal with the United States to meet that country’s growing demand for avocados.
Stop 2: Argentina
Pence arrived in Buenos Aires on Monday evening, the day after congressional primaries gave a boost to Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Although White House officials said in a briefing before the trip that Pence would deliver a “major policy address” on trade and regional engagement in conjunction with the U.S. Commerce Department and U.S. Trade Representative, his remarks before the Buenos Aires stock exchange focused largely on Venezuela.
Earlier in the day at a joint press conference with Macri, Pence credited Trump’s influence in a summit that took place the prior week in Peru and convened foreign ministers of 12 Latin American countries. “I think you can see the result of the [U.S.] president’s strong leadership in the 12-to-0 vote last week embracing the Lima Declaration, further isolating Venezuela as its nation collapses into dictatorship,” Pence said on Tuesday. “In a very real sense, I believe President Trump has restored the credibility of American power.” In both Colombia and Argentina, Pence stated that, while the United States will always put American interests at the forefront, “‘America first’ does not mean America alone.”
The U.S. vice president also highlighted Macri’s long-standing business ties and friendship with Trump, praised the Argentine president for his market-friendly economic reform agenda, and called the country an “inspiration” for the region and the world. Argentina is set to host both the World Trade Organization ministerial meetings in December 2017, as well as the 2018 G20 Summit. This will be the first time the G20 comes to South America; Mexico hosted in 2012.
Stop 3: Chile
When Pence landed in Santiago on August 16, it was the first time Chilean President Michelle Bachelet met with the new U.S. administration. Unlike Macri, Santos, and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, she has yet to visit the White House since Trump’s inauguration in January. At a joint news conference with Bachelet, Pence introduced another topic to his trip, North Korea, as he asked Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru to cut ties with the rogue nation a week after Trump got into a war of words with Pyongyang. Trade between North Korea and Latin America is estimated to be in the seven-figure range. Pence also addressed the American Chamber of Commerce in Chile, one of the region’s oldest chapters, which celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year.
Stop 4: Panama
Along with talking about trade and security, Pence will tour new Panama Canal expansion on his stop to the Central American country. Although not on any official agenda, former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli was arrested in Florida in June on wiretapping charges and is fighting extradition to his home country. A U.S. federal judge will rule on the extradition request on August 22. Panama is one of the few countries in Latin America Trump is known to have visited: he inaugurated a Trump Ocean Club Hotel in Panama City there in 2011, alongside then-President Martinelli.
Pence is scheduled to head back to Washington on August 17.