WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to cancel his first official trip to Latin America this week in order to focus on responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, the White House said on Tuesday.
Trump had been scheduled to travel to Lima, Peru, on Friday to attend the Summit of the Americas and then travel on to Bogota, Colombia. The trip had been expected to be tense and awkward because of Trump’s repeated disparagement of the region over immigration, narcotics and trade.
The announcement was met with mixed reactions in Latin America, with some expressing relief and others expressing criticism that the United States appeared to be giving the region short shrift.
Every Summit of the Americas, a gathering of heads of state organized by the Organization of American States (OAS), has been attended by a U.S. president since the first gathering in 1994.
The change in Trump’s travel plans came a day after the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the offices and home of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
It also followed a Saturday night attack on the Syrian town of Douma which killed at least 60 people and injured more than 1,000 others. Trump has vowed to make a swift decision to respond to what he called “atrocities.”
“At the president’s request, the vice president will travel in his stead. The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
This will be the second trip to the region for Vice President Mike Pence, who met with leaders in Colombia, Argentina and Panama in August.
Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Pence, said the vice president plans to promote policies aimed at strengthening the U.S. economy and would continue to work with regional allies to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to enact democratic reforms ahead of an election next month that has been slammed by the opposition and regional leaders as a sham.
However, Richard Feinberg of the University of California, San Diego, who led Latin America policy in the Clinton White House, called the change in plans a “shocking abandonment of U.S. leadership in our own hemisphere” and said it made Trump look like he was afraid of confronting the consequences of his rhetoric for the region.
Feinberg said the change in plans “leaves a leadership vacuum that others will rush to fill.”
A Peruvian diplomat said the cancellation will make it easier for Latin American leaders to discuss topics ranging from Venezuela to the fight against corruption.
“He’s a controversial figure. A lot of people on the streets in Latin America don’t like him … so you have the awkwardness out of the picture,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. “The downside is the U.S. president always has clout in media terms, so there may be less attention on the summit.”
Peru’s foreign ministry and the office of Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ana Quintana, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Trump made the right decision to focus on Syria, leaving the summit focus on the issues at hand.
Pence “will expand the regional coalition against Venezuela’s dictatorship and demonstrate why the U.S. should remain Latin America’s economic partner of choice,” Quintana said.
It was not yet clear what decision Trump would make in response to the latest attack in Syria. Syria and Russia have denied there was a chemical weapons attack and have proposed international inspections.
Last year, Washington bombed a Syrian government air base after a chemical weapons attack.