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‘Nods and Smiles’ Await Trump on First Major South America Trip

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The president wants the focus of an upcoming summit to be on the crisis in Venezuela.

US President Donald Trump will take his first major trip to South America later this week to advocate for stronger economic ties in the region. However, the leaders he meets are are likely to just “smile and nod” with the massively unpopular US leader and achieve little in the way of new policies.

The president will attend the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, on 13 and 14 April where he will face some of the countries he has derided repeatedly over immigration and drug policies. The president is “profoundly unpopular”, making it difficult for other leaders to work with him, said Mark Feierstein, who worked on hemispheric issues for President Barack Obama’s White House. However, as one diplomat said, “no leaders are losing sleep over” Mr Trump, adding: “We all know how to smile and nod along, so we’re not too worried.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has made clear that President Trump sees the trip as one aimed at unity. “This travel demonstrates the president’s resolve to deepen our historical ties with our partners in the region and to strengthen our joint commitment to improve security and prosperity for the people of the Americas”. But there may be some tough talk from Mr Trump. The White House statement stressed “that the promise of a safe and prosperous future rests in strong democracies”, alluding to the crisis in Venezuela.

Governments around the world have criticised Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro for not allowing a democratic transition to a new administration amid a crumbling economy that has led to skyrocketing inflation and shortages of food and medicine. There have been some economic measures from the EU and neighbouring countries, but they have done little to force Mr Maduro’s hand.

The US has also threatened to sanction or banVenezuelan oil imports, possibly further crippling the country’s economy. The US is currently imposing harsh sanctions on Venezuela – the third-largest oil supplier to the US –  including its state-owned oil company PDVSA.

Beyond economic sanctions, there will also likely be a push to condemn Mr Maduro, who has been disinvited from the summit, for calling an election in May that the US and his opposition consider a sham. There will also de discussion about what can be done to help Venezuela’s citizens, with hundreds of thousands having fled across the border to Colombia.

Having mused about the possibility of a “military option” to push for change in Venezuela, Mr Trump had been described as “insane” by several Latin American leaders at a dinner on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year, according to Politico.

“By the time the dinner was over, the leaders were in shock, and not just over the idle talk of armed conflict. No matter how prepared they were, eight months into an American presidency like no other, this was somehow not what they expected,” Politicoreported.

While the administration appears to want the focus of the summit to be on the crisis in Venezuela, the leaders at the Summit of the Americas are also expected to talk about the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) after the US called for reworking the more than $1 trillion trade deal. Mr Trump has repeatedly called Nafta a “horrible deal” but experts do not expect any real progress to be made on the negotiations during this particular summit.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said he expected a “win-win-win” renegotiation and it was expected a new deal will be announced at the summit “in principle”. Mr Trump had said during a speech in West Virginia last week that though some expected a new Nafta deal to be done by the summit he did not want to rush the process – “take it nice and easy, there’s no rush, we get it done right or we’ll terminate it”.

Mr Trump has openly criticised Mexico for taking jobs away from the US as a result of Nafta, while also continuing to push for the roughly 2,000-mile border wall, for which he still insists publicly to his supporters that the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto will provide funding.

Mr Trump has already said he will look to send up to 4,000 National Guard troops to the border to stem what he sees as a possible influx of migrants and refugees from Central America through Mexico. Mr Trump has said Latin American and African countries are “not putting their good ones” forward for migrating to the US, echoing his old campaign rhetoric and further stoking xenophobic rhetoric among some of his supporters.

He has also hit out at Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador about migrants from those countries entering the US illegally as they flee gang violence and drug cartels. He had also threatened to cut off aid to Colombia and Peru over drug trade issues. If Mr Trump is as confrontational during the summit, he will likely run into issues.

Adding to the tensions of the multilateral meeting, Luis Almagro, the Organisation of American States secretary general and one of the summit’s organisers, told the Miami Herald that a meeting between Mr Trump and Cuban leader Raul Castro is “inevitable”. The pair will be in the same room multiple times during the summit of 34 countries but, a senior US official told McClatchy newspapers that the US president has been advised to avoid shaking hands with Mr Castro.

Three years ago, Mr Obama took a picture with Mr Castro and it dominated headlines of the summit. However, Mr Trump has sought to cool relations with Cuba, with Mr Obama having made a big push for a thaw.

Travel restrictions were lifted and opportunities to do business also opened up – much of it done through executive orders signed by Mr Obama that avoided the need for Congressional approval. However, Congress voted not to lift the US economic embargo. Despite a fiery speech to Cuban-Americans in south Florida last year about cutting ties, Mr Trump has not officially downgraded relations or halted flights between the two countries.

After the two-day summit, President Trump is scheduled to meet with Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and then head to Colombia to meet with President Juan Manuel Santos.

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