Tillerson Tries to Soothe Troubled Allies in Latin America. It’s Not an Easy Sell.

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Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in Mexico City on Friday. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of our economic relationships,” he said after meeting with Mexican and Canadian officialsCreditHector Vivas/Getty Images
Tillerson Tries to Soothe Troubled Allies in Latin America. It’s Not an Easy Sell.
Tillerson Tries to Soothe Troubled Allies in Latin America. It’s Not an Easy Sell.

Feb. 2, 2018

MEXICO CITY — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Friday took on the daunting task of resetting relations with Latin America, a region where President Trump’s anti-immigrant invective and his disdain for trade ties are rattling allies of the United States.

Nowhere have the insults been felt more keenly than in Mexico, where Mr. Tillerson began a tour of the region by assuring his hosts that he was committed to preserving the North American Free Trade Agreement signed by Mexico, the United States and Canada.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of our economic relationships,” Mr. Tillerson said after meeting with the Mexican and Canadian foreign ministers, acknowledging that almost three million American jobs depend on trade with neighboring countries.

Like much of what Mr. Tillerson said on Friday, the statement seemed to contradict his boss. Mr. Trump has called Nafta “the worst trade deal ever made” and has repeatedly threatened to pull the United States out of the accord, which took effect in 1994.

Mr. Tillerson will also travel to Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica with a broad agenda, including an attempt to create a united front to apply more pressure on President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela as he grows increasingly authoritarian.

But hanging over all the efforts is Mr. Trump’s heated language, which undercuts Mr. Tillerson’s diplomacy on Venezuela and much of the United States agenda.

“This is a way for Tillerson to say, ‘We’re elevating our voice,’” said Rafael Fernández de Castro, the director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego. “I don’t think they are in a position to elevate their voice.”

“This is the ‘bad Uncle Sam’ of the past,” he said, referring to Trump administration policies. “The horrendous insults to Mexicans, to every single Latin American immigrant, are there. They cannot have it both ways.”

In Mexico, other policies have been subordinated to maintaining Nafta, which is being renegotiated in a process that seems likely to stretch into the summer.

But Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray has found himself in a difficult position, trying to placate the Americans to save Nafta but facing pressure at home to respond sharply to Mr. Trump’s positions, including his demand to build a wall along the two countries’ border.

“We didn’t talk about the wall,” Mr. Videgaray said curtly on Friday. “It is not a bilateral issue.”

Despite Mr. Trump’s claims that Mexico is sending drugs and criminal immigrants to the United States, Mexico has continued a close security relationship with Washington. That could change, said Raúl Benítez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“For the government of Mexico, it is getting more difficult to cooperate with the United States” as public hostility to the Trump administration rises, he said, especially with Mexico’s presidential election approaching in July.

While much of Latin America shares the Trump administration’s concern over the escalating humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela, few governments would want to be seen as acting at Washington’s initiative.

“The United States has mostly lost its opportunity to be the big influencer in Venezuela,” said Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican diplomat now based in Washington. “They never came up with a unified solution. I’m not sure what the United States brings to the equation.”

Washington has placed sanctions on more than 50 top Venezuelan officials, and Canada and the European Union have followed.

But Mr. Maduro shrugged off the international pressure last month, when the Constituent Assembly under his control pushed forward the date of the presidential election to April. With the most popular candidates either jailed, barred from running or in exile, there is little time for the opposition to organize around a new candidate to challenge Mr. Maduro.

Mr. Guajardo said that the United States had also lost credibility on another issue that Mr. Tillerson hopes to highlight: anti-corruption efforts around the hemisphere. That will be the main theme of the Summit of the Americas in Peru in April.

“He doesn’t realize how out of tune that sounds these days,” Mr. Guajardo said, pointing to the potential conflicts of interest raised by Mr. Trump’s business activities and those of his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

Mr. Tillerson has taken pains to sound a conciliatory note on drugs, acknowledging, as have his predecessors, that the United States shares responsibility in the drug trade as a source of demand.

But he will raise the issue of increased coca cultivation in Colombia when he meets with President Juan Manuel Santos, a complaint that may prove to be an irritant among Colombians.

As Mr. Tillerson travels throughout the region, his statements will be scrutinized at every stop, with the local press quick to point out slights. Already Latin Americans seized on his comments on Thursday about the 1823 Monroe Doctrine which asserted that the United States would not tolerate European intervention in the Americas.

But in Latin America, the doctrine has long been viewed as a pretext for American armed intervention in the region. Mr. Tillerson said that the doctrine “has been a success” because “what binds us together in this hemisphere are shared democratic values.”

He also seemed to suggest on Thursday that the Venezuelan military might choose to mount a coup against Mr. Maduro, scratching a barely-healed wound in a region with a long history of military dictatorships.

In the past, “when things are so bad that the military leadership realizes that they just — they can’t serve the citizens anymore, they will manage a peaceful transition,” Mr. Tillerson said. “Whether that will be the case here or not, I don’t know.”

On Friday, Mr. Tillerson stepped back from that suggestion. “What we would like to see happen there is a peaceful transition,” he said.

Nicholas Casey contributed from Medellín, Colombia.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Tillerson Tries to Soothe Allies in Latin America Left on Edge by Trump. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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