Wednesday, January 23, 2013

VOXXI: Barack Obama needs a staff that has Latin America in mind

Barack Obama needs a staff that has Latin America in mind
W. Alejandro Sanchez
January 23, 2013
Originally published:

President Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term in office this past Monday. Obama’s new presidential term signals significant changes to his cabinet, and many expect that these changes will bring much greater gender and ethnic diversity to his body of advisors. For example, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) has urged the president to have at least two Latinos on his cabinet, particularly as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis will vacate their posts. Greater ethnic diversity is welcome, yet in order for the new administration to properly craft more progressive foreign policy initiatives toward Latin America and the Caribbean, the president’s cabinet will require members who possess more than just a Latino heritage. In other words, it will be important for the president to appoint individuals who are Latin Americanists, namely policymakers with deep knowledge of U.S. relations with the region. We will briefly go over some of the most prominent of these policymakers who will be important in the coming years as Washington formulates its foreign policy toward its southern neighbors.

Individuals to watch out for

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President Barack Obama looks to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as he announces Kerry’s nomination for the next secretary of state. Kerry’s Latin America expertise is under the microscope. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
With Hillary Clinton stepping down from her post as Secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been selected by President Obama to succeed her. It is worthy to note that the Democrat has received mixed reviews regarding his Latin American knowledge. For example, a December 23 Wall Street Journal commentary by Mary O’Grady heavily critiqued Kerry’s positions during Nicaragua’s Contra-Sandinista war during the 1980s, as well as his stance on the 2009 Honduran coup. In contrast, other analyses have praised Kerry as being an individual who shows the potential to improve the difficult relations between Washington and Cuba. When Kerry does become the top U.S. diplomat, a key individual advising him will be the Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, a position currently occupied by Roberta Jacobson. Jacobson should prove to be a welcome aide to Kerry, as in her career she has consistently shown a strong knowledge of topics such as NAFTA and security issues in Mexico.
Regarding the Defense Department, Frank Mora will step down from his post as deputy assistant secretary (DAS) for Latin America. Mr. Mora has held the post for over three years and will move on to the world of academia as director of Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center. It is still unclear who will replace him, but it is likely that the Obama administration will first want to have the new secretary of defense confirmed (he has already nominated Chuck Hagel), before a new DAS for Latin America is chosen. Regarding the U.S. military, General John F. Kelly has been the commander of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) since this past November. During his first days as the head of SOUTHCOM, he publicly praised the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC insurgents, but chose not to discuss U.S.-Cuba relations (including the fate of the detention center in Guantanamo).
Finally, an interesting development has been Obama’s decision to name Denis McDonough as his new chief of staff. McDonough shows great promise and is knowledgeable about Latin American issues. For example, during his youth, prior to pursuing studies at Georgetown University, he spent two years teaching in Belize. In addition, he specialized in Latin America while he was an aide at the House International Relations Committee.

Issues in Latin America

In an early January speech given at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, Robert Hale — the current under secretary and chief financial officer at the Defense Department — expressed that in the upcoming years Washington’s main geo-strategic interests will be based around the Asia-Pacific region. This is hardly a surprising statement as other government officials have previously made declarations about the Obama administration’s “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia. In light of this, it is clear that in order for the new administration to advance constructive and progressive initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean, it will be important for influential policymakers — such as those previously discussed — to remind the president of the continent’s importance.
Combating illegal narcotics trafficking will continue to be the cornerstone of Washington’s current policies toward the region, but other issues are clearly still important. One of the most important is the U.S. government’s relationship with Cuba, particularly whether Washington will take any action as a reaction to Havana’s recent decision to relax its travel restriction laws and as Raul Castro continues to liberalize the island’s economy.
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Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. U.S. policy on Latin America could be affected should Chavez fall to cancer. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Additionally, there is the ongoing situation in Venezuela, with a very-ill President Hugo Chavez in a Cuban hospital since December, which could escalate into a constitutional crisis in the coming months. Incidentally, some months ago, Roberta Jacobson held a telephone conversation with Venezuelan Vice President and interim head of state Nicolas Maduro — among the topics discussed was the possibility of the two countries restoring diplomatic relations. Other continental affairs that Washington will have to address include a March referendum in the Falkland Islands, in which the islanders are expected to overwhelmingly vote “yes” to the question of whether they want to remain a British overseas territory. Also, the future is uncertain for the U.S. military base in Honduras (known as Palmerola), as the Honduran government has shown interest in taking over the base’s airstrip with the intent of turning it into a commercial airport. SOUTHCOM and the next Defense Department’s official in charge of Latin America will certainly have to contend with the developments regarding the future of the Palmerola base.
There are plenty of outstanding issues that Washington can address regarding Latin America and the Caribbean, therefore it will be interesting to see how much attention the region will receive in the coming years in view of Washington’s changing priorities and President Obama’s new cabinet. To ensure the region is not forgotten, a factor of critical importance will be not just the ethnicity, but also the specialized knowledge of the new government officials during Obama’s second term.

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