Even before Donald Trump began blasting the “bad hombres” to his south, he was not known for his love of Latin America.

“I didn’t particularly want to go,” he grumbled of a whistlestop 1989 trip to Rio de Janeiro during which he declined to spend even a single night at his destination. “But there are some wealthy people in Brazil.”

So Rex Tillerson’s awkward attempt to reconquer the region’s affections this week – and his warnings about China’s “predatory” advance – have puzzled many Latin American officials, irritated Beijing and set a new stage for the global jostle between the world’s top two economies.

“The US is doing everything it can to alienate the region … dissing you, criticising you, calling you a shithole,” complained Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China.

“Xi Jinping can just ignore the region and he’s already winning.”

Few in Washington believe Xi, a mojito-loving authoritarian considered China’s most powerful ruler since Mao, is doing the former, though.

Trump has yet to set foot in Latin America or the Caribbean and there are doubts over whether he will participate in April’s Summit of the Americas, in Peru.

Xi, on the other hand, has visited three times since 2012, hailing a “vibrant and promising region” that – with China’s help – was “embracing another golden period of development”.

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