Trump and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto at the G20 summit last year. Photo: Saul Loeb /AFP via Getty Images

The Summit of the Americas this Friday and Saturday in Peru was to be the centerpiece of President Trump's first visit to Latin America, and the first time he met many of the region's leaders. Now, Trump has suddenly announced he won't be attending after all — he's staying in D.C. to focus on Syria and sending Vice President Pence in his stead.

Why it matters: Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council's Latin America Center, says Trump's decision is a "significant blow" to the chances of improving relations with the region and with those leaders, many of whom are wondering what "America first" means for them.

"He's missing an opportunity to establish a rapport" with key strategic and economic partners, while "ceding an opportunity to the Chinese," Marczak says.

Context:

  • This is the 8th Summit of the Americas, and the first time the U.S. president has declined to attend. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all attended multiple summits.
  • Trump is deeply unpopular in Latin America. A Gallup poll sticks his approval across the region at 16%, and views of the U.S. have slumped more in South America than on any other continent since he took office.
  • China is making massive investments in the region, passing the U.S. as the top trading partner for several countries, including Brazil, in recent years. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also visited multiple times, Marczak says.

Between the lines: Latin America hasn't been a top U.S. priority for years, and that hasn't gone unnoticed in the region. But under Trump things seem to be reaching a new low, at a time when the U.S. can no longer take its influence in the region for granted.

Worth noting: Trump's excuse is not an unreasonable one. Things in Syria could escalate quickly.

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