US seeks to outshine China at Latin American summit in Peru, without Donald Trump

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Washington had no intention of ceding leadership in Latin America to ‘authoritarian states’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 2:41am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 6:23am

Washington hopes to use the gathering of Latin American leaders in Lima to counter China’s rising influence in the region - despite the absence of US President Donald Trump.

Corruption is the official theme of this year’s Summit of the Americas in the Peruvian capital, where heads of state from across the Western Hemisphere are meeting until Saturday. 

Several countries in attendance also plan to condemn Venezuela’s planned presidential election, which is expected next month, with America offering nearly US$16m in humanitarian aid for Venezuelans who have fled current President Nicolas Maduro.

But a heated trade dispute between the United States and China looms over the event.

Late on Thursday, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross took aim at Beijing’s growing trade ties with the region, saying Latin America benefited more from value-added exports to the United States than rising sales of raw materials to China.

Ross told leaders at the summit that Washington had no intention of ceding leadership in Latin America to “authoritarian states”.

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But leaders from Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and other countries are meeting in Peru without Trump, after the White House said he decided to skip his first visit as president to Latin America to focus instead on the crisis in Syria.

In the opening speech, Bolivia’s left-leaning president, Evo Morales, said the days when foreign powers could dictate terms to Latin America were over.

“Many developing countries and transnational companies think the only thing that matters is making money,” Morales said, calling instead for action on climate change. “The structural crisis of capitalism is threatening the survival of humanity itself.”

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Morales was the sole leftist Latin American president at the summit. 

Cuban President Raul Castro did not show up, and Peru uninvited Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro last month to pressure him to enact democratic reforms.

But even in the largely US-friendly and pro-business crowd in Lima, many criticised Trump’s approach to foreign policy and trade.

“Trump’s plan seems to be to ensure the US is no longer the world’s leader,” said Gustavo Grobocopatel, chief executive of Argentine agricultural group Grupo Los Grobo S.A.

Ross said on Thursday that it was too early to write off Trump. “This is an administration you should judge by its end results, not by theories about what may be the results,” he told reporters.

In his speech, Ross urged Latin American countries to do more to reduce tariffs and red tape, saying regional economies would benefit by exporting more manufactured goods to the United States.

In the past week, Trump has threatened to impose more tariffs on Chinese goods, said he was in no hurry to reach a deal on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and ordered his advisers to study rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

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Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP in one of his first acts as president. 

Former President Barack Obama had pitched the agreement as a way to give the United States an edge over China in a fast-growing region that includes large portions of Latin America.

So far, it has been unclear what might replace it.

On Thursday, Trump’s top trade official, Robert Lighthizer, also cancelled his trip to Peru. US Vice-President Mike Pence, who will stand in for Trump at the summit, scheduled meetings that did not include a one-on-one with Mexico’s president, dimming hopes progress might be made on Nafta.

“No one wants to do bilateral trade deals with the United States, and Trump had no Plan B,” said Robert Manning, an Asia expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

After arriving in Lima for the summit, Pence announced that nearly US$16 million would be given to Venezuelans who have fled Maduro’s adminstration. 

He told reporters that the aid will help Venezuelans in Colombia and Brazil access safe drinking water, shelters, and work and educational opportunities. 

He said Maduro had turned Venezuela into a dictatorship and that “We want one message to be clear: We are with the people of Venezuela.” 

The funds are through the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. 

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Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra was scheduled to meet privately with Pence on Friday.

In a diplomatic blunder for the Trump administration, the White House initially said Pence would be dining with Peru’s disgraced former leader, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, instead of current President Vizcarra.

The White House corrected the error on Friday.