Arturo Valenzuela is finally settling in as assistant secretary for the western hemisphere on the 6th floor of the State Department. But, the distinguished diplomat who most recently served in that job—Tom Shannon—is still waiting for his next post due to another hold on his nomination to be ambassador to Brazil.
Back in early November, when Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) lifted his holds on Arturo Valenzuela as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere and Tom Shannon as ambassador to Brazil, newcomer Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) slapped a hold on Shannon’s nomination the very next day.
Senator DeMint’s hold was ostensibly due to concerns of how the U.S. handled Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Conspicuously absent was Cuba. Right then and there, that should have been a red flag of more complaints to come against Shannon, as Cuba is the ostensible focus for these new questions.
As soon as Sen. LeMieux lifts his hold, I’m told, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) will take his place, and after Sen. Vitter lifts his hold, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) will step up with his own hold. Like whack-a-mole. As soon as one goes down, another will pop up.
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Some analysts suggest that the trip should have been taken and heads banged earlier to get an agreement even before today. But that would not have allowed the Arias process—which the United States conceptualized and mid-wifed—to run its course. How ironic it would then have been for the
This isn’t another confirm Tom Shannon as Ambassador to Brazil or confirm Arturo Valenzuela as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs essay—though I support both of those positions, and understand that things may be moving. This is an expression of wonder at the inability of the U.S. government to walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to Latin America policy.
Let me be clear. I’m not one of those persistent whiners who always complain about the lack of attention paid to Latin America. The last administration of George W. Bush paid plenty of attention to the region, traveling there more frequently and receiving more Latin American heads of state in the White House than any past president, and launching a series of serious initiatives for the region: the free trade agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia, the Merida Initiative with Mexico, and a series of genuinely exciting efforts with Brazil, Uruguay and Chile—starting with, but not limited to, trade.
Sad thing is, despite a time during the campaign when it seemed that all a potential President Obama needed to do was show up to be more effective, his administration is at real risk of losing the gains of the last eight years.
I never thought I’d say that.
For months, the Senate has unnecessarily held up President Obama’s appointments for the U.S. ambassador to Brazil and the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. These actions have prevented the administration from assembling its Latin America team and have held hemispheric policy hostage to a few, lone voices.
We are stuck in gear. But if some conservative Republicans get their way, we risk being thrown into reverse, back to the Cold War. This time instead of communism, it’s through the prism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
A more conspicuous and tangible evidence of the Cold War revival has been the recent campaign by some conservative Republicans against the nomination of Tom Shannon as ambassador to Brazil. This is the same Tom Shannon who was appointed and served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush.
The closed-door briefings and talking points that circulated in Congress are narrow and hollow criticisms of the United States’ Latin America policy over the last four years and are specifically tailored against Shannon.
Because the talking points are dangerous without context, I want to share them in full as they arrived to me. A major part of their context is this underlying partisan intent:
“In Honduras, Shannon remained silent as Manuel Zelaya attempted to subvert democratic institutions and the Honduran Constitution. But as the Congress and Supreme Court worked to remove Zelaya legally from office, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa and Shannon worked diligently to dissuade the Honduran Congress and protect Zelaya (3 July Washington Post, columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner).”
“In Venezuela, Mr. Shannon constantly promoted narcotics cooperation with Chávez despite evidence—and objections from other U.S. agencies—that the Venezuelan government itself was facilitating narcotics trafficking. Mr. Shannon also denied support to Venezuela's civil society and sat by as Chavez dismantled the country's democratic institutions. Today, the Mayor of Caracas still cannot get into his office to perform his duties. In all this, Mr. Shannon’s rationale for shunning Venezuela's civil society has been that the U.S. and Venezuela have a strategic relationship based primarily on energy.”
Even in the best of times, under Democratic and Republican Administrations and Congresses alike, Washington’s appetite for things Latin American is limited. On occasion, a crisis breaks through the public consciousness and attracts top-level attention for a period of time, but the ability to sustain a policy that does more than just lurch from crisis to crisis really doesn’t exist. When such crisis does occur, however, Washington becomes fixated on the issue and almost completely neglects other issues in the hemisphere.
Such is the case right now. Since June 28, Washington’s primary focus on the region has been on Honduras. Even the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador-designate for Brazil, Tom Shannon, has been held up by the Senate over dissatisfaction of U.S. policy actions to sanction the government of de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti. The Senate hold on Tom Shannon, a highly-regarded career diplomat who has served both Democratic and Republican administrations with distinction, was placed back in the summer, even before the September 3 State Department announcement that pre-emptively sought to delegitimize Honduras’ scheduled November 29 elections. Since then, Washington has become even more polarized, so it’s unclear why a hold that was placed before the September 3 announcement would be lifted after the announcement without some compromise on the issues. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Tom for over 15 years and worked with him in the White House, and I consider him to be a personal friend.)
But the practical implications of this stalemate mean that the United States has no ambassador in the largest Latin American country, and may not for some time—even though the issues surrounding Brazil's emergence on the global scene are compelling—all because we continue to wrap ourselves around the axle on Honduras. It’s all so depressingly familiar, particularly for those who went through the 1980s. In fact, some of the Washington players are exactly the same ones who were involved in the 1980s disputes, from both sides. But 2009 is not 1982; and the shape of the hemisphere has changed dramatically. The longer we focus on Honduras, the longer we unilaterally decrease our footprint even further in the rest of Latin America, creating even more of a vacuum for others to fill.
Summer is sticky but not so sweet here in the nation’s capital, as Honduras is yet again butting into U.S. politics and policymaking.
Even as Congress readies to run out of town, it never came around to confirming what really are no-brainers: nominees Arturo Valenzuela as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere and Tom Shannon as ambassador to Brazil! Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation as the newest Supreme Court Justice would ideally open the gates to more confirmations but the possibilities look bleak that these two positions will be filled anytime soon.
Instead, certain Republican Senators—led by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC)—are determined to voice their dissatisfaction to the Obama administration over its Honduras policy. DeMint asked Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry to hold over the nominations of Valenzuela and Shannon, which he did. And when the committee approved their nominations and their nominations went to the floor in late July, DeMint’s office told me their nominations would again be held over.
Why? To again express dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of Honduras.
Arturo Valenzuela, Tom Shannon, Carlos Pascual, and Kenneth Merten all went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week for their “job interviews” for Latin America policy (aka, confirmation hearing).
As I’ve written here before, Valenzuela is up for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Shannon, ambassador to Brazil; Pascual, ambassador to Mexico; and Merten, ambassador to Haiti.
The senators and nominees primarily focused on alternative energy, the Merida initiative, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and, of course, Honduras. It’s important to note that a frequent topic of the day—the presence and nefarious influence of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda in the hemisphere—didn’t get so much time. Perhaps that comes up only when administration officials are stumping Congress for more funding on Latin America initiatives.
The headline out of this hearing, however, is not about the accomplishments, or policies, of these sharp and savvy diplomats. It was an opportunity for certain Republicans to raise legitimate complaints about the Obama administration’s policies on Honduras and Cuba. At the same time, it was hardly contentious—fortunate for those going through the confirmation process!
Thomas Shannon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs arrived in Bolivia yesterday to meet with President Evo Morales and his foreign minister, David Choquehuanca. This visit follows an agreement made at the Summit of the Americas between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr. Choquehuanca to reduce tensions and increase dialogue between the two nations.
The Bolivian foreign minister said that he hoped the visit would “correct the injustices of the past,” and Shannon expressed the need to “improve our cooperation in a way that benefits both countries” and to “take a new direction in our bilateral relations." President Morales has said that he is optimistic that relations would improve under the new Obama administration.
Under the Bush administration, trade preferences to Bolivia were suspended, and the U.S. has frequently stated its concern over coca leaf production in Bolivia. Last year, amid escalating tensions, Bolivia expelled the U.S. diplomatic envoy and suspended its cooperation with U.S. drug enforcement agents.