LIMA, Peru – When presidents gather this week in Peru at the Summit of the Americas, they may be tempted to walk past Vice President Mike Pence and make a beeline for the person who has President Donald Trump's ear on Latin America: Sen. 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 Wednesday at the White House to brief Pence for the trip and starting Friday, when he arrives in Lima, will meet one-on-one with a half-dozen heads of state — about the same number as Pence himself.
The American president cancelled what would've been his first presidential visit to Latin America as he weighs a possible U.S. military strike in Syria in retaliation for an apparent chemical attack on civilians.
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, who visited Latin America in August, would work with leaders to take tougher action on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who at the U.S. 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 American 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 U.S. policy toward Latin America. He drafted a list of Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses that became the basis for U.S. sanctions. He also urged Trump to roll back the U.S.' opening to communist Cuba that led to President Raul Castro's historic handshake with Obama at the last Summit of the Americas three years ago. Castro is again expected to attend this year, a farewell tour as he prepares to step down later this month.
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 Rep. Carlos Trujillo, who is the new U.S. ambassador to the Organization 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 U.S. 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, he's seen his hard-line stance challenged.
Last week Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, and Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, 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 U.S. 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."
Rubio's reputation as a Trump whisperer hasn't gone unnoticed in Caracas, where he' regularly mocked as "Narco Rubio," for his obsession with exposing drug running by top Chavista officials. Much of the venom is spewed by the socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, whom Rubio has dubbed the "Pablo Escobar of Venezuela." While Cabello is not among the many Venezuelan officials charged with crimes in the U.S., "we've got something special for him," Rubio said.
Last year, Rubio took on extra security after reportedly receiving death threat originating from Venezuela.
As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, he's taken a deep interest in Venezuela's vast criminal underworld and its potential links to Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Venezuelans who fear taking public explosive information about corruption in their own country often turn to Rubio instead, communicating sometimes through secret channels.
"I doubt anyone in Washington has more accurate information on Venezuelan than him," said Martin Rodil, head of the Venezuelan-American Leadership Council, who has introduced Rubio's office to several Venezuelan defectors looking to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement.
Even critics on the left acknowledge his importance.
"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.
But the president's anti-immigrant bluster is an obstacle, said Clausen.
Rubio said while the president's rhetoric doesn't advance the U.S.' policy goals, beyond the headlines real progress is being made on critical issues like trade and migration.
"If I'm the president of a country and the United States is bashing me, I have to respond in kind just to save face domestically," Rubio said. "So what I encourage people to do in the administration, and when I talk to the president, is to put yourself in their position and understand that they have an interest as well in dealing with this migration problem and not to back them in a corner."
Associated Press writer Christine Armario reported this story in Lima and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman