Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

New State Department Team Ready to Roll, as Republicans Challenge Obama Policy

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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! 

Senator Jim DeMint, the Republican from South Carolina, shot some pointed questions at Valenzuela about how the U.S. is dealing with Honduras and that the U.S. should not have labeled the developments as an illegal coup.


Valenzuela’s response, however, did not satisfy Sen. DeMint’s concerns that the U.S. siding “against the freedom of the Honduran people, and instead siding with the likes of Chávez, Castro, and [Daniel] Ortega against democratic institutions,” said Sen. DeMint’s spokesman, Wesley Clark.

The Senator’s big concern, I’m told, is that Honduras illustrates just how great a threat Chávez is to democracy in the region—and what he is capable of doing. The fear revolves around how Chávez not only talks the game, but how he’s actively seeking to implement his Bolivarian-style of governance (read: literally, make up the rules and the constitution as you need).

While Cuba hasn’t been the usual media darling as of late, rumors spread that there could be some fiery exchanges on U.S. policy—particularly directed toward Pascual.

No fires. One noteworthy comment, however, came out when Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) questioned Pascual and Shannon about advocating for human rights in Cuba as ambassadors to Mexico and Brazil. Pascual sought to emphasize he wasn’t going to Mexico to work on Cuba, saying how his primary responsibility is to focus on U.S.-Mexico relations and that anything he would do on Cuba would be based on guidance from the State Department.

“I believe Carlos will find himself a way to get involved in Cuba policymaking,” said Adolfo Franco, former assistant administrator for Latin America and Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who knows Pascual, Shannon and Valenzuela very well. That said, Franco added, Pascual wanting this ambassador post has nothing to do with trying to build a bridge between the U.S. and Cuba, as some have speculated.

The confirmation vote will likely take place next Tuesday, with all four expected to go through. Which means that soon we’ll finally have Obama’s Latin America team in place.

State has struck a more moderate and cautious tone than the White House on Honduras and other developments in Latin America. Perhaps this is the beginning of a turf tussle between State and the White House (where Dan Restrepo is the right-hand man on all things Latin America)? I raised this tension back in February , when we saw more Obama loyalists going to the National Security Council and Clinton loyalists going to State.

“Right now, we are in the need of seasoned leadership and experience on Latin America in this administration…I believe the White House will take more direction from the State Department as opposed to the National Security Council once these new officials are in place,” as Franco—who is a conservative Republican and was an adviser to the McCain campaign—told me.  

Of course, he, like many other Republicans, would like to see the more moderate voice have the bigger megaphone.

Some final cliff-hangers: How will Pascual play a role on U.S. policymaking on Cuba?

Will State or the National Security Council take the lead in guiding Latin America policy?

Will the Obama administration heed the calls of Sens. Mel Martinez (R-FL), Jim DeMint (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) to meet with the “other side” in Honduras and distance itself more from Zelaya?

We’ll see once the new Latin America team officially—and finally—begins its work at State.

*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: aqinfo@as-coa.org.


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

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