LIMA, Peru (AP) — The first Latin American president to visit Donald Trump at the White House told the U.S. leader Friday he prefers "bridges to walls," sending him a gentle rebuke of his controversial proposal to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a U.S.-educated former Wall Street banker, has emerged as an unlikely leader in Latin America, taking a strong stand against Trump's "America First" agenda while many in the region remain silent.
Kuczynski, 78, characterized his meeting with Trump as "cordial and constructive" and said he told Trump he was interested in the free movement of people — "legally," he emphasized —and also spoke about trade and economic development.
Kuczynski harshly criticized Trump during the U.S. presidential campaign, joking he would cut diplomatic relations with the U.S. "with a saw" if Trump followed through on his pledge to build a wall with Mexico, which he compared to the Berlin Wall. On Friday, he made a point of saying "we prefer bridges to walls."
Leaders in the region, even staunch critics of the U.S. like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, have largely avoided rallying to Mexico's side for fear of jeopardizing their own relations with the Trump administration.
Despite such past criticism, it will be hard for Trump to dismiss Kuczynski's advice, said Brian Winter, vice president of the regional group Council of the Americas.
Kuczynski, who renounced U.S. citizenship to run for Peru's presidency, speaks Trump's language, not just flawless English but that of a successful businessman with deep influence in the power circles of New York, where he lived and worked for years.
He is also bolstered by Peru's standout performance creating jobs and growth. Buoyed by high metal prices, Peru's economy has boomed an average 5 percent each year since 2000 — almost twice the regional average.
"This is the positive side of the Latin American story that Trump may be unaware of," said Winter. "Because of his biography, but also the success of Peru, Kuczynski may have more credibility than any other president in Latin America to talk straight to Trump."
In brief remarks in the Oval Office before their meeting, Trump said the two men have known each for some time and that it was an honor to welcome him to Washington.
"Peru has been a fantastic neighbor," Trump said. "We've had great relationships, better now than ever before."
Trump also announced that he would authorize the sale of U.S. military vehicles to Peru — though Kuczynski later downplayed the purchases, saying his government's priority is not acquiring military equipment but providing clean water to all Peruvians.
Peru is among a handful of South American nations with a free trade agreement with the U.S. and Kuczynski has not hid his admiration for the United States. But despite being ridiculed at home as a "gringo," Kuczynski has said he worries the U.S. has been taking Latin America for granted. Not for nothing, his first trip abroad after taking office last July was to China.
One area where the two men likely see eye-to-eye is Venezuela — though Kuczynski said the topic only came up tangentially in their conversation.
Kuczynski has been outspoken criticizing Venezuela's socialist government, calling for humanitarian aid to the country and giving visas to exiles.
Within 30 days of taking office, Trump has already slapped sanctions on Venezuela's vice president for his alleged role in facilitating large cocaine shipments to the U.S., and met with the wife of the country's most-prominent political prisoner.
If Kuczynski manages to earn Trump's respect, it could pay bilateral dividends. Earlier this month, Kuczysnki telephoned Trump to ask him to deport former President Alejandro Toledo, who is believed to be in the San Francisco area. Toledo faces an arrest order for allegedly taking $20 million in bribes from a Brazilian construction firm.
Kuczynski said Friday the two men briefly discussed the case and that it will have to work its way through the both nations' judicial systems.
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.