RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Summit of the Americas begins today in Lima, Peru. And for the first time since the regional meetings began in 1994, the U.S. president will not be there. President Trump has opted to stay back in Washington, D.C., to monitor the unfolding events in Syria. So how will the American president's absence from the summit in Peru affect the conversations that happened there? Here's reporter John Otis.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Trump's cancellation is widely viewed among hemispheric leaders as a sign of his disinterest in Latin America, a region he has yet to visit. Instead, heads of state from around the Americas will meet with Vice President Mike Pence. And he's expected to get an earful. Many leaders are angry about Trump's harsh rhetoric against Latin American immigrants and his backtracking on trade agreements like NAFTA.
CINDY ARNSON: There are a number of very, very sharp differences between the United States and the rest of the region.
OTIS: Cindy Arnson heads the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
ARNSON: Not only the policies affecting Mexico - obviously, the border wall, NAFTA, immigration in general - but also protectionism, which is coming at a time when the rest of the region is reaffirming free trade.
OTIS: Last month, 11 countries, including Mexico, Chile and Peru, signed a landmark Asia-Pacific trade agreement. By contrast, Trump has threatened a trade war with China and has slammed Beijing's growing commercial ties to Latin America. At the summit, Pence will portray the U.S. as the region's trade partner of choice. Still, Venezuela may end up dominating the agenda. Hyperinflation and food shortages have prompted more than 1 million Venezuelans to flee over the past two years. Next month, Venezuela will hold a presidential election. Critics claim that President Nicolas Maduro, who is deeply unpopular, intends to steal the election to secure another six-year term. Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas think tank in Washington.
ERIC FARNSWORTH: The situation in Venezuela is unsustainable and has to be addressed.
OTIS: Still, he says it may be impossible for leaders at the summit to agree on a course of action because several of them support Maduro.
FARNSWORTH: For example, the president of Bolivia, the president of Nicaragua, the president of Cuba are allies of the regime in Venezuela and will be doing what they can to move the spotlight away from Caracas and put it onto Washington.
OTIS: Thanks to the Venezuela crisis, Trump will not be the only president missing from the summit. The Peruvian government has banned Maduro, citing his crackdown on democratic freedoms in Venezuela. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "BOGOTA BY BUS")