At the Summit of the Americas, government officials and presidents may be tempted to walk past US Vice-President Mike Pence and make a beeline for another person who has Donald Trump’s ear on Latin America: Senator for Florida, Marco Rubio.
In Trump’s absence from the meeting, the Florida Republican is playing an even more prominent role. He began the week presiding over a Senate hearing on the summit, lunched Thursday with Pence at the White House to discuss the trip and after arriving in Lima yesterday, he began meeting one-onone with about a half-dozen heads of state – around the same number as Pence himself.
Rubio, in a phone interview from Washington, called Trump’s absence understandable but a nonetheless disappointing example of how Latin America often takes a backseat to more pressing national security challenges. In his absence, he said he and Pence would work with leaders to take tougher action on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who at the US administration’s urging was the only Western Hemisphere leader barred from the gathering.
For the region’s leaders, many of whom were dreading shaking hands with the US president as he pushes forward with plans to build a wall on the Mexican border and renegotiate trade deals, there couldn’t be a better stand-in.
Since Trump’s election, Rubio has exerted outside influence over US policy toward Latin America.
He drafted a list of Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses that became the basis for US sanctions. He also urged Trump to roll back the US opening to Cuba that led to President Raúl Castro’s historic handshake with then-US president Obama at the last Summit of the Americas three years ago.
In addition, several friend and political allies occupy key positions inside the administration. Among them are CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, who endorsed him in the 2015 presidential race, and former Miami Representative Carlos Trujillo, who is the new US ambassador to the Organisation of American States and whose kids study at the same school as Rubio’s.
Now as Trump threatens crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela in retaliation for Maduro’s plowing ahead with what is widely seen as a sham presidential election, his insight is once against being sought. Rubio said that while the White House shouldn’t rule out such a dramatic escalation, he’s yet to conclude himself that’s the right course of action.
“There are no sanctions off the table but I’m certainly not going to telegraph what’s coming,” he said.
Rubio, 46, downplays his pull on Trump but says the two are “instinctively aligned” on the need to promote democracy in the Western Hemisphere. In Rubio’s case, he credits his Cuban heritage — he considers his parents exiles even though they migrated to the US before Fidel Castro took power — in teaching him to combat Venezuela’s “dictatorship” with strength. Growing up in Miami, he had many close Venezuelan friends.
More recently, though, Rubio has seen his hard-line stance challenged.
Last week Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, and Republican Representative Pete Sessions made separate trips to Caracas, where they met with Maduro in what observers saw as an attempt to ease hostilities between the two countries.
“Lots of people in Congress oftentimes want to play the role of special envoy,” Rubio said, while urging fellow lawmakers to avoid getting burned trying to open a backchannel to Maduro. “They think they are going to travel abroad, meet some leader, cut a deal and come back. But the bottom line is that US policy toward Venezuela is directed by the administration and there’s no member of Congress who can cut a deal on its behalf, myself included.”
Even critics on the left, however, acknowledge his importance for shaping policy on Latin America.
“Though Trump hasn’t always gone as far as Rubio would like, the president clearly listens to him,” said Matt Clausen, head of the Washington Office on Latin America.