LIMA, Peru – Here are some of the most interesting things I heard from the more than half-dozen Latin American presidents and foreign ministers I talked with at the April 13-14 Summit of the Americas, which was attended by Vice President Mike Pence and the leaders of nearly two dozen countries in the hemisphere.
While the summit’s official agenda centered on joint efforts to combat corruption, the most important talks took place in private meetings among the presidents, during which they discussed the crisis in Venezuela and plans to revamp regional trade.
On Venezuela, several foreign ministers lamented privately the absence of President Trump, who canceled his attendance shortly before the summit. Trump’s presence could have helped press more countries into joining the 14-nation Group of Lima, the bloc of Latin American countries that is pressing for a return to democracy in Venezuela.
As it happened, 16 countries – including the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Peru – signed a strong statement on Venezuela at the end of the summit. But only one country – the Bahamas – joined the list of Latin American and Caribbean countries that are members of the Group of Lima, and had issued similar statements in the past.
Uruguay and several Central American and Caribbean countries, whose votes are essential to pass more vigorous resolutions against Venezuela at the 34-country Organization of American States (OAS), did not sign the statement.
“Had Trump been there, the United States could have twisted a few more arms,” one foreign minister said, adding that a U.S. president has much more clout than his No. 2.
Peru’s president, Martin Vizcarra, the summit’s host, said he’s still optimistic that other countries will join the Group of Lima. “Based on what I talked (about with other presidents) and their opinion of the critical situation in Venezuela, I think that the number of countries that make up the Group of Lima will grow in coming weeks,” Vizcarra told me.
The statement on Venezuela signed by the United States and 15 countries says they won’t recognize the results of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s sham elections scheduled for May 20, and calls for participating countries to “continue pushing for, especially within the OAS, actions and initiatives that help restore democracy in Venezuela.”
A senior Mexican official told me that, while it’s not included in the formal statement, the agreement calls for participating countries to have a meeting of finance ministers in Mexico on May 14 – a week before Venezuela’s elections – to discuss concrete diplomatic pressures on Venezuela. It would be the first such meeting with the participation of finance ministers.
Among the issues to be discussed at the Mexico meeting will be an international corridor to provide humanitarian aid to Venezuelans – which Maduro opposes – and financial and travel sanctions against top officials of the Maduro regime, the official said. So far, only the United States, Canada and Panama have announced financial sanctions against top Maduro regime officials.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told me that Colombia has already been gradually imposing sanctions on Venezuelan officials, but added that the next regional steps on Venezuela will be “to continue putting pressure, to continue strengthening the sanctions.” He added, “The more international pressure, the more the Venezuelan regime’s base will be weakened. This (situation) won’t resist.”
Asked about how many Venezuelans have already fled to Colombia in recent years, Santos said, “Nobody knows, but it’s estimated that it’s 1 million.”
On other issues, one of the things that most surprised me was Peruvian President Vizcarra’s account of his private meeting with Pence, in which the U.S. vice president told him that the United States wants to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade investment agreement with Asian and Latin American nations. Trump withdrew from that 12-nation agreement shortly after taking office last year.
Summing up, the summit didn’t produce major agreements, and Trump’s absence diminished its status, to the point that some Latin American presidents left town ahead of schedule without waiting for a chance to meet with Pence. But if the summit’s private side meetings allowed some progress on coordinating diplomatic actions on Venezuela and paving the way for a U.S. return to the TPP, if wasn’t a total failure, either.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.