Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

DC Water Cooler: Vacant Slots at State Reflect Policy Shortcomings

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The tweeting Georgetown academic, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, announced his departure in early May. Four months later, the United States still does not have a nominee. 

Of course, several well-qualified people have been bandied about as Valenzuela’s possible replacement. 

Here’s a brief rundown of who’s been mentioned:

First, there is Kristie Kenney, a highly regarded career Foreign Service officer, a former ambassador to Ecuador, and, as of January, ambassador to Thailand. She is well-known for her social media smarts. There is also William Brownfield who is Kenney’s husband and equally as charismatic and talented as his wife. He is a former ambassador to Colombia, Venezuela and Chile, and became assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs in January. And there is Anne Patterson, a career foreign service officer with extensive and varied experience in Latin America. She has proven herself adept at dealing with tough issues especially in her current post as the ambassador to Egypt.

But, none of them are expected to be officially tapped as the nominee for various rumored reasons. One candidate is eyeing another vacant spot at the State Department and another wants or needs to stay in the current position or may present too much of a confirmation fight with the Senate.

Instead of putting forth a nominee soon, I’m told far and wide that the administration will go with a “long-term placeholder” in attempt to circumvent a battle with Congress. In fact, career foreign service officer Roberta Jacobson is currently the acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.  Previously the deputy assistant secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA issues, Jacobson has served in various Latin America-related posts (including coordinator for Cuban affairs and director of the office of policy planning and coordination in the Western Hemisphere affairs bureau). She is a consummate professional who knows the workings of the U.S. government’s bureaucracy, deals with sticky budget matters and can handle tough media questions on the Mérida Initiative. Why not nominate her?  Because she seems to be precisely the right person for the job.

And making his way back to the nation’s capital is former assistant secretary of state and current Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon, who will serve as the acting undersecretary of state for political affairs while the State Department awaits the confirmation of Wendy Sherman. Word is that the administration may face a big fight for Sherman’s confirmation, causing concern in Brasilia that Shannon will get the post and not return. But, let’s not forget that Shannon faced his own political battle with the Senate for his confirmation to Brazil. Deputy Chief of Mission Todd Chapman will reportedly keep the seat warm for Shannon’s return.

Meanwhile, in addition to missing an assistant secretary of state, we are also missing ambassadors to serve in Uruguay, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Aside from Uruguay, these countries are all members of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA).  We have not had permanent ambassadors in Bolivia since 2008 or in Venezuela since 2010. In April, Ecuador asked Ambassador Heather Hodges to leave over comments revealed in a WikiLeaks cable about corruption “at higher levels of power.” With Nicaragua, Ambassador Robert Callahan recently announced his departure. The administration put forward Jonathan Farrar, chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, another ALBA country, but Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio late last month called to reject the administration’s nominee. On Venezuela, a certain State Department official is rumored to want to go to Caracas after Venezuela had rejected Ambassador Larry Palmer and the State Department dreadfully bungled Palmer’s nomination last winter.

While we cannot force a country to accept a U.S. ambassador, we do need our ambassadors working in-country. This is particularly true with most of the ALBA countries. If we’re not at the table, we can’t participate in—much less steer—the conversation.   

But that is precisely the problem: we don’t still know what that conversation should be. 

In other words, the absence of high-level people is symptomatic of policy shortcomings.  In order to have ambassadors in place, we ought to have a coherent strategy, unified message and a way forward from the administration—particularly with the ALBA countries. 

Valenzuela did a commendable job of communicating with the Americas—but what have we been saying and why?  We’ve demonstrated we can be agreeable even to a fault, but at times these friendly overtures have come at the expense of standing up for our democratic values, and asserting our economic interests and security concerns. 

At times we’ve needed to speak up, we have been too quiet and polite as basic freedoms are violated in the hemisphere and as democratic systems are being chipped away. It’s not enough to whisper our opposition, or deliver our protests only through private channels. 

Moving ahead, we also need to capitalize on the economic opportunities that Latin America offers. For one, U.S. exports have grown faster in the past 11 years than to any other region. And yet, the U.S. still does not have the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama signed, sealed and delivered. Now is the time when we need to be increasing our export opportunities—not limiting them. In his 2011 State of the Union, President Obama reaffirmed support for these agreements, but once again our friendly words need to be followed up by concrete action in September.

Meanwhile, as we’re losing market dominance, we are also losing political relevance—and losing out to other players. In South America, China has already replaced the U.S. as Brazil’s largest trading partner, and is projected to become Colombia’s top trade partner within 10 years. With China and regional pacts like MERCOSUR gaining market share, a broader political-economic change is underway. China does not share our economic values and vision. Further, China does not have a tradition of taking a stand on international democratic norms: there’s no incentive for them to do so. 

Perhaps our lack of direction stems from an antiquated view of the region as a monolithic entity, needing no more than a one-size-fits-all approach.  

“Latin America” is no longer that of yesteryear or even yesterday, or as Valenzuela wrote in the new Americas Quarterly, “it’s not your grandfather’s hemisphere.” It’s forward moving, with increasing complexity and variation. We need to be doing the same with our people and policies. And that will require leadership.

Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.


Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.

Tags: Arturo Valenzuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Rafael Correa, State Department
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter