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By Robert Valencia
While the global press largely focused on Iran, China, and the Middle East during the lead-up to the appointment of John Kerry as the new secretary of state, Kerry's comments revealed the possibility of a revamped American diplomatic approach to Latin America. With Latin America in a transitional moment, stronger U.S engagement is critical. To reenergize the effort, Kerry will need a new, knowledgeable team in Washington as well as diplomats on the ground. Most importantly, the role of the U.S. assistant secretary must be given enough power that the person can be recognized and respected among Latin America’s diplomatic entourage.
Kerry will embark on, what is sure to be, a rugged road toward re-establishing friendlier relations with Latin America. He has already experienced a bit of an introduction to this struggle in the form of harsh criticism in Caracas after commenting that the situation in Venezuela was uncertain due to Hugo Chavez’s illness. A stated commitment toward Latin America will be refreshing to a waning U.S. presence in the region, but in order to accomplish anything there, Washington needs fresh faces associated with this region.
In the last three decades, many of the ambassadors have been mired in turbulent relationships. One clear example was Myles Frechette, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia in the mid-1990s, who strongly criticized then-Colombian President Ernesto Samper’s connections with the Cali Cartel, which financed his 1994 presidential campaign. Frechette’s position against Samper, as well as his disavowing of Colombia’s fight against narco-trafficking, earned him numerous rebukes from then-Interior Minister Horacio Serpa who called him a “gringo maluco (disagreeable)." WikiLeaks cables, for better or worse, revealed the adversity several U.S. ambassadors have faced in dealing with Latin American affairs. For instance, in 2011 U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, questioned the Mexican Army’s effectiveness in tackling drug cartels. Mexican President Felipe Calderon expressed his discomfort regarding these comments, which led to Pascual’s resignation in order to assuage U.S. Mexican relations.
In the last two years, hemispheric affairs have deteriorated because of a lack of an active, knowledgeable diplomatic corps. For example, Arturo Valenzuela, then U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, who resigned on July 15, 2011, was criticized in several countries—most notably in Argentina when the late Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner rebuked Valenzuela for criticizing Argentina’s judicial powers.
It took several months to fill Valenzuela’s position. The Obama administration appointed Roberta S. Jacobson as the new assistant secretary state for western hemisphere affairs on March 30, 2012 for her expertise in budget matters and her role in laying out the Free Trade Agreements with Mexico and Canada. However, her role in recent developments in the region has been questioned. Several pundits criticized Jacobson’s lack contact with Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolás Maduro during Chávez’s prolonged absence in power.
Another example of the dismissal of key Latin American experts in Washington came in August 2012, when President Barack Obama relieved Dan Restrepo, senior director for the western hemisphere on the National Security Council, after a string of problems during last year’s Summit of Americas, including the Secret Service scandal and the verbal attacks by heads of state against Washington. Ricardo Zúniga, an expert in Cuban affairs, took Restrepo’s place and will have the responsibility of advising the White House on Latin American policy. His expertise on Cuba’s human rights and work with Havana activists may bring further changes to U.S. Cuba affairs. The Obama administration has already lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to the island.
The replacement of Restrepo with Zúniga could be helpful in another one of Kerry’s plans. While Kerry is known for supporting the Cuban embargo, his overall position regarding the country is more relaxed. He has criticized U.S. pro-democracy programs like Radio/TV Martí for perpetuating an “anachronistic Cold War standoff” between the U.S. and the island, and supported the 2009 Freedom to Travel Back to Cuba Act, a bill that would have allowed citizens to travel without restrictions. This suggests that Kerry could reverse U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba from the Organization of American States—a goal that may be accomplished now that he has an expert in Cuban affairs as senior director for the western hemisphere. Another U.S.-backed scenario where Cuba has been ostracized was the Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA), a failed initiative that sought to eliminate or reduce trade barriers across all countries in the Americas but Cuba. The U.S. opposition to integrate Cuba into the FTAA led to the creation of the left-leaning Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), led by Venezuela.
Any attempt to reach out to Cuba would likely strengthen U.S. relations with Latin America, as Washington’s unrelenting stance toward Cuba led Latin American countries to refuse to sign a final declaration at Cartagena’s Summit of the Americas. Some experts believe Kerry’s friendlier position over Cuba will also be reinforced by a possible nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, since he favors lifting the U.S. embargo entirely. However, U.S. nonprofit organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, find Cuba’s regime at odds with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States’ (CELAC, in Spanish) stated aims—the promotion of democracy and freedom of press, just to name a few.
Of course, even with a renewed focus on Latin America, other pressing issues await him as well. The rise of al-Qaida in North Africa, Middle East instability, China’s mounting influence, nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014, are all likely to push Latin America to the back seat during Obama’s second term. This makes it even more imperative that Kerry’s approach is accompanied with the White House’s recruiting of a strong team that has in-depth expertise. It cannot be the same old faces or merely wealthy donors to Obama's re-election campaign. A strong, well-liked assistant secretary could effectively address bilateral issues in the region—relations that have been static for much too long.
Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices.
[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]