Vice President Joe Biden, in the midst of a six-day trip to Colombia, Brazil and the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, is emphasizing the United States' partnership role in the region and working to build on existing relationships in areas such as energy and economic growth.
The three countries each represent important regional alliances, and Biden's visit both strengthens ties and lays groundwork for future relations, experts say, particularly in Brazil where relations have improved in recent years after souring during a previous Brazilian administration.
"The relationship needed a reset because it was pretty poisoned," says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center.
Sotero says actions by then-Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in befriending Iran and ending up on the opposite side of the United States following a coup d'état in Honduras left a distance between the two countries. But following the 2011 election of a new Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, and a visit soon after by President Barack Obama, things have improved, Sotero says.
"The challenge now is to add substance because the relationship is pretty good in its form," he says. "This is what Vice President Biden's visit to Brazil is about, part of that effort to expand the dialogue. And because Biden's personal style is that of a very accessible and unpretentious man, I think this will work very well in Brazil."
Rousseff is also scheduled to have a state visit later this year so Biden's trip allows officials from both countries to work out details of key announcements they could make in coordination with that trip, Sotero says.
Biden is scheduled to visit two cities in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro beginning Tuesday night and Brasilia late Thursday. In Rio de Janeiro, one of the places Biden will stop by is a deep-water oil exploration research facility, Sotero says.
"It shows you the interests of the U.S. in the energy sector in Brazil," he says, noting Brazil has deep oil reserves. Sotero adds that new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will provide another bridge between the two countries.
"He is Portuguese in origin and he's married to a Brazilian and, as director of the Energy Institute at MIT, Moniz was very much interested and involved with Brazil's effort to grow the relationship between universities and energy companies," Sotero says. "Energy cooperation is probably a key driver in this relationship as the United States seeks to rely less on Middle East oil."
Earlier in his trip, the vice president, who previously served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and told reporters he was impressed with the improved security of the region.
"It's a remarkable milestone that today when we meet the main topic is not security, it is economic prosperity," he said during a press conference. Speaking specifically to a recent agreement struck between Colombian government officials and the top guerrilla opposition, FARC, Biden said the United States continues to offer support for the peace negotiations.
"Just as we supported Colombia's leaders on the battlefield, we fully support you at the negotiating table," he said.
Both Biden and Santos also discussed the importance of a more balanced relationship between the two countries. The two met for more than two hours, discussing energy, education, environment, trade and security.
"That is the focus that the United States and Colombia have worked on to further our relations during my administration, as partners on equal footing," Santos said.
Adam Isacson, senior associate for security policy at the Washington Office of Latin America, says Biden's support for the peace process is notable, because the effort is "under a lot of attack from the right inside Colombia."
In Trinidad and Tobago, Biden is expected to focus on increased drug trafficking and violent crime, particularly in the Eastern Caribbean, Isacson says.