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  • What Secretary of State John Kerry Could Mean for Latin American Affairs

    February 1, 2013

    by Liz Harper

    John Kerry, the longtime Democratic U.S. senator representing Massachusetts from 1985 until this week, was confirmed on Tuesday as the next secretary of state. He assumes the post today, and has some pretty big shoes, or heels, to fill after Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure.  

    What does this mean for Latin American affairs? What change awaits U.S. foreign policy?

    Not much.

    Based on observations from well-placed State Department sources and Kerry’s nearly four-hour confirmation hearing, however, there are a few hints of what’s to come. 

    First, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson will stay on, according to my sources. This is good news, given her masterful dexterity in bureaucratic and congressional machinations and cross-agency management—notably regarding counternarcotic efforts—in addition to her regional expertise. However, her office could become savvier with using U.S. media to present policy positions to American audiences. Not only does the United States need to win the hearts and minds of those abroad, it needs to bolster support for policies at home.

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    Tags: U.S. State Department, John Kerry, Roberta Jacobson, Hillary Clinton

  • Libya's Lesson For Latin America

    September 28, 2012

    by Liz Harper

    We are still wondering just what happened in Benghazi, Libya, with the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the State Department’s Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

    That this tragedy happened on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans makes it all the more difficult. Eleven years later, we have another September 11 to grieve. What have we learned? What lesson should we glean from such calamity?

    At best, the tragedy reminds us to honor the dedication, sacrifices and service of our personnel—and not just those serving in the military. All those who knew him say that Stevens represented the very best of our foreign service.

    At this point, it is not clear how and why critical warning signs were overlooked. Hopefully we will get good information about what happened—before the U.S. elections in November. As a first step, the U.S. is reevaluating the safety of our diplomatic personnel around the world including in our own hemisphere. One thing is clear, however: No matter our best intentions, people will want to do us harm. That is a safe assumption.

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    Tags: Latin America, Libya

  • Venezuela “Not Cooperating” on Antiterrorism Efforts

    August 2, 2012

    by Liz Harper

    Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, released the Country Reports on Terrorism 2011 this week and cited Venezuela as “not cooperating fully with U.S. antiterrorism efforts” for the sixth consecutive year.  The report is the U.S.’s annual evaluation of terrorism activities in countries around the world.

    This year’s report highlighted Iran’s increasing influence and activities in the hemisphere: “The most disturbing manifestation of this was the Iranian plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the United States; the plot involved enlisting criminal elements from a transnational criminal organization [the Mexican Zeta cartel] to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador by bombing a restaurant in Washington DC.”  Disturbing indeed.

    Benjamin, speaking at a press briefing, flagged increasing concern for “Iran’s support for terrorism and Hezbollah’s activities” worldwide. Hezbollah is the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based militant group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

    “They’ve both stepped up their level of terrorist plotting over the past year and are engaging in their most active and aggressive campaigns since the 1990s,” Benjamin told reporters

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    Tags: Venezuela, Terrorism, Hugo Chavez

  • DC Water Cooler: Hold Drops and Ambassador Swaps

    April 11, 2012

    by Liz Harper

    On March 29, the U.S. Senate confirmed several of President Obama’s diplomatic nominations, many of whom were tapped to serve in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA). Here’s a brief rundown of the confirmed WHA officials and their new positions: Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Larry Palmer, Ambassador to Barbados; Pamela White, Ambassador to Haiti; Phyllis Powers, Ambassador to Nicaragua; Jonathan Farrar, Ambassador to Panama; and Julissa Reynoso, Ambassador to Uruguay.    

    Not only do these confirmations provide a celebratory sense of relief, as many of these officials waited months for their nominations to proceed through the Senate, but the timing could not be better as the U.S. delegation prepares to depart for Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend’s Sixth Summit of the Americas.

    Jacobson was nominated in late September after becoming acting assistant secretary in July 2011 when her predecessor, Arturo Valenzuela, returned to academia. It’s both notable and laudable that a woman is leading WHA for the first time.  

    Jacobson’s candidature was challenged by Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who placed a hold on her nomination last November with a call to the Obama administration to “review abuses in the people-to-people Cuba travel policy.” Rubio dropped his hold on March 22 following guarantees from the State Department that it would require “applicants to demonstrate how their itineraries constitute purposeful travel that would support civil society in Cuba and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities,” according to the senator’s news release.

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    Tags: Bolivia, Panama, Venezuela, Barbados, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, U.S. Department of State, Roberta Jacobson

  • Top-10 Storylines to Watch in Latin America

    February 1, 2012

    by Liz Harper

    This year is already proving that it will be an exciting one for news. Take the U.S. elections, for starters.  The presidential election, as it's been said by at least one GOP nominee, represents a battle for nothing less than America’s soul.

    As for Latin America, what should we expect to make headlines? 

    Before ticking off possible headlines, it’s important to note the substantial—and frustrating—distinction between what should be covered and what will likely be covered. There are so many issues that never make it to (online) print or broadcast, given the tough competition for airtime and eyeballs.

    Here are my top-10 most anticipated stories:

    10) Health of Hugo Chávez: There will be many reports well-timed with Venezuela’s election cycle—Venezuelans go to the polls in October—that cite “well-placed, unnamed” sources claiming President Hugo Chávez is healthier than ever after his surgery last summer in Cuba to remove a cancerous abscess. These reports will appear within days of other stories that cite other unnamed sources professing to know the awful truth of just how horribly sick Chávez is and how he is trying to hide his fatal illness. Both stories will include hypotheticals (and wishful thinking) on the future direction of chavismo and bolivarianismo when Chávez ultimately leaves power, one way or another.

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    Tags: Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Border security, Dilma Rousseff, Enrique Peña Nieto, Iran-Latin America, Energy Resources, Pope Benedict XVI

  • Social Media’s Role in U.S. Policy Toward Latin America

    October 13, 2011

    by Liz Harper

    The White House on September 27 announced the nomination of Acting Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson. This is good news for the U.S. and the region; she is precisely the right person for the job. Her confirmation hearing is not yet scheduled, though she is not expected to face major difficulties (unlike several other recent nominees for Western Hemisphere positions).

    As often happens with any change of leadership, goals and strategies will be reconsidered. This change-of-guard moment provides a great opportunity for the Obama administration to come forth with an idea, an initiative of its own—something that isn’t cribbed from the Bush administration—and to make its mark on the region. After all, it has been popular parlor talk that what is needed is a major initiative and a clear strategy for the region. Time is ticking.

    One smart idea comes in a report issued by Sen. Richard Lugar’s office last week, Latin American Governments Need to ‘Friend’ Social Media and Technology. It outlines an innovative strategy to advance U.S. goals, namely through social media and technology. Because governments that embrace new media technology are shown to be more responsive to their citizens and more transparent, the report argues, the U.S. has an interest in Latin America’s technological development. And, “[a]t a time when U.S. political influence is waning in the region, it is clear that U.S. driven technological trends could redefine relationships with many countries in Latin America,” writes the report’s author, Carl Meacham, senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. And a good way to regain some of that influence is by leveraging technology—in part because it’s an industry in which we lead, Meacham says.

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    Tags: foreign policy

  • DC Water Cooler: Vacant Slots at State Reflect Policy Shortcomings

    August 18, 2011

    by Liz Harper

    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.

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    Tags: Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, State Department, Rafael Correa, Arturo Valenzuela

  • A Brave New World, All-a-Twitter

    July 14, 2011

    by Liz Harper

    Last week, the Obama administration organized the White House’s first ever Twitter Town Hall. More than 60,000 questions were tweeted well before the start of the town hall—making it a massive outreach on jobs and the economy. While logistically awkward, the amount of participants in the town hall underscores the unrivaled reach of both Twitter as a medium and the imperative to know and use this tool. 

    Clearly, this administration recognizes the transformative power of social media. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela gets it too.

    As Valenzuela’s tenure comes to a close at the State Department, many observers will assess how he left his mark on U.S. foreign policy and policymaking. Most, if not all, past administrations have made an impact on their Latin American policies with an innovative initiative or style. Examples include John F. Kennedy (Alliance for Progress), George H.W. Bush/Bill Clinton (Free Trade Area of the Americas), and George W. Bush (democracy promotion). What will Valenzuela be known for?  

    With his digital town hall last November, active Twitter feed and Facebook account—amid the burgeoning Facebook presence of U.S. Embassies in the Americas—Valenzuela’s assertive use and understanding of social media stand out as a chief positive contribution. This proactive social media presence falls in line with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “21st Century Statecraft.”

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    Tags: Arturo Valenzuela, Social Media

  • Time to Talk about Venezuela

    May 27, 2011

    by Liz Harper

    Last week, President Barack Obama delivered a major foreign policy speech about the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East and North Africa.  It was bold, insightful and comprehensive.  He mentioned just about every country in those areas that has made headlines recently: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Just about every country except for one very big and important one: Saudi Arabia.  It turned out to be the elephant in the room, and its conspicuous absence from the speech spoke louder than most any other point.

    Similarly, in recent major speeches about Latin America, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Valenzuela have also neglected to mention the oil-rich elephant in this hemisphere: Venezuela.

    Why should we be silent on Venezuela? Is it a country—like Saudi Arabia—that we so often treat with kid gloves?

    Late last year, it was officially stated that we know that the Venezuelan state has connections to narcotraffickers and terrorists (among other items). This came thanks to the Senate’s “questions for the record” answered with refreshing candor by then-ambassador nominee to Venezuela Larry Palmer.

    When the truth is already “out there,” why should we still be passive with this South American country?

    Several tell me that the great debate on Venezuela inside our government is still hot between the strategic engagement (or “appeasement”) camp and the proactive camp. But, the numbers in the strategic engagement side seem to be dwindling.  This is good news. Nevertheless, to date, the tensions between these two camps and consequential apparent indecision and confusion about our policy direction continues to cost us internally and in the region. 

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    Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez

  • Venezuela’s Formal Rejection of Ambassador-Designate Larry Palmer

    December 21, 2010

    by Liz Harper

    The long-running debate over how to deal with the irrational and impulsive strongman, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has reached feverish pitch this winter. The latest casualty in this war of words has become U.S. Ambassador Larry Palmer, the Obama administration's nomination as ambassador to Venezuela. Worse yet, Chávez ultimately got what he wanted out of this latest battle: his choice of who will not be our next Ambassador in Venezuela. On Monday, Venezuela formally told the U.S. to not bother sending Larry Palmer as the next ambassador since he would be asked to return the moment he landed in Caracas.

    How did this all go down?

    Like Cuba, any U.S. move regarding Venezuela involves egos, politics and fortunately, some policy. Naturally, when Palmer went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the summer, the career diplomat—characterized by some at the U.S. Department of State as "not a Washington man"—he already faced an uphill slog.

    Our domestic debate over Venezuela generally falls into two camps: engagement and confrontation. There are, of course, shades of gray and nuances between the two sides—though such voices are so often overpowered by the more extreme views.

    On one side, you have those espousing "strategic engagement," keeping in line with the Obama administration's stated foreign policy and national security objectives. In short and broadly speaking, these proponents might argue, with an irrational state, you shouldn't turn your back. Look where that got us with North Korea, Iran and Syria. Instead you want a seat at the table to start a dialogue based on mutual respect and to build on areas of mutual interest. You raise concerns discretely and express disapproval quietly or through third parties. As one person said, engagement should be “subversive," because you seek to assert positive influence by being present and through cooperation on areas such as business development, financial opportunities, or culture and sports. Indeed, Palmer was the right guy to carry out this mission.

    But, the engagement policy, as it is practiced with Venezuela, seems more like "appeasement," say people clamoring for a tougher approach. After all, for years now, we have witnessed a democracy's death by a thousand cuts. This past week, Hugo Chávez got one of his Christmas wishes with the approval of new decree powers, thereby further eroding the country's once well-established institutional checks and balances. Chávez threatens more than human rights and democratic norms; the U.S. has legitimate national security concerns, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and narcotrafficking. Yet, as Chávez runs roughshod over international norms, is the U.S. working to halt the downward spiral?

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    Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, democracy in Venezuela, U.S. State Department, Venezuela-U.S. relations

  • Help Wanted at the Organization of American States

    March 2, 2010

    by Liz Harper

    You’d never know it, but there’s a pretty big election coming up later this month at the Organization for American States (OAS). On Wednesday, March 3, representatives from the member states of the OAS (35 in total minus Cuba and Honduras) meet in a special session to formally introduce candidates to become the tenth secretary general.

    The mission of the OAS, founded more than 60 years ago, is to promote and strengthen representative democracy, development and security, to act as the forum for governments in the hemisphere and to ensure peaceful settlement of disputes.

    That’s a pretty tall order.

    The current secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, wants to serve for another five-year term and recently said confidently that he would be confirmed on March 24. He needs to get at least 17 votes.

    For the last year or so, current and former government officials have been murmuring that Insulza failed to lead the OAS and fulfill its mission. Instead, Insulza sat passively by as the executive powers in Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador gradually whittled away at the authority of the legislative and judicial branches. This weakening of democracies undermined the credibility and value of the OAS.

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    Tags: Jose Miguel Insulza, Hillary Clinton, Inter-American Democratic Charter, UNASUR, Organization for American States, Senator Richard Lugar

  • Our Man, Cuba’s Pawn

    February 4, 2010

    by Liz Harper

    This post is a follow-up to my Unleash the Googles entry from last week. But now I would like to specifically focus on the human rights implications of Alan Gross’ detention.

    Why is the U.S. keeping so quiet… still? This has been a vexing question. There’s no grand geopolitical strategy behind our silence.

    Alan Gross did not sign a privacy waiver. That simple. Out of respect for this request, the U.S. won’t say anything about Gross—either in his defense or in defense of our policies. This is true even though it’s in our best interests to clarify what Gross was doing and what equipment he was distributing.

    For now, it’s all very murky, enhancing the cloak and dagger mystique around this 60-year-old guy from the suburbs of WashingtonDC. This makes the nature of his work seem all the more insidious.

    We could be rebutting more aggressively the charges that the Obama administration is still Cuba’s arch enemy, working stealthily to topple its regime. Gross is being turned into the predictable tool for the Castros and the Chavistas to denounce the U.S., reminding me of how Fidel Castro sought to use Elián González as a pawn against the United States.

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    Tags: Cuba, Raul Castro, Alan Gross, U.S. Agency for International Development

  • Unleash the Googles on Cuba

    January 29, 2010

    by Liz Harper

    U.S.-Cuba dynamics continue to follow the traditional script of mixed signals. The romance is there; the trust is not.

    Shortly after U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bisa Williams returned from extended talks in Havana, the Cuban regime seized Alan Gross, a U.S. subcontractor for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) democracy program in Cuba.

    Another kicker came on Thursday when the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, told reporters that immigration talks in Havana were scheduled for February 19.

    Part of the Cuban agenda presented to the government of the United States is a proposal for a new immigration agreement and solidifying cooperation in the fight against people trafficking,” Rodríguez is translated as saying in English by Reuters. Let’s hope that Cuba’s wishes to exchange Gross for the Cuban Five will remain a non-starter.

    The imprisonment of Mr. Gross (or “Harold,” as he was first named to me in early December) serves as a good reminder of the criminals-in-office we are dealing with in Havana. And also a reminder of our ill-conceived, yet well-intended, Cuba policies and programs.

    Why didn’t we complain louder about Gross’ continued detention? For one, the man and his family did not sign a privacy waiver with the State Department, and without that waiver the U.S. Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad cannot release information on an individual—even when it hurts our national interests.

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    Tags: U.S.-Cuba relations, Bruno Rodríguez, Alan Gross, Senator Russ Feingold, Radio/TV Marti, Secretary Hillary Rodham, Google

  • All I Want for Christmas is Ambassador Shannon in Brazil

    December 10, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    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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    Tags: OAS, Tom Shannon, Obama administration, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, U.S.-Brazil, Castro regime

  • At the DC Watering Hole: Senate Continues to Hold Tom Shannon's Nomination to be the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil

    October 15, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    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.”

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    Tags: George W. Bush, Hugo Chavez, U.S. Congress, Tom Shannon, U.S.-Latin America policy

  • In Appreciation: Ted Kennedy's Latin America Legacy

    August 31, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    As Americans eulogized Senator Edward Kennedy over the weekend, I also want to take pause and remember his contribution to our nation’s relations with Latin America.

    He will be remembered as an effective liberal senator who knew how to work the Capitol, a flawed person who came to grips with his inner demons, and a man who used his name imbued with all its power and mystique of the Kennedy dynasty to tirelessly defend human rights and social justice—both here and abroad.

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    Tags: Human Rights, Pinochet, Edward Kennedy, U.S. Policy in Chile

  • U.S.-Colombia Military Deal Causes Controversy… Still

    August 17, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    Even now that Bogotá and Washington concluded their talks over the U.S.-Colombian military deal on Friday, questions linger over how and why it sparked so much controversy.  The general consensus—even by the Pentagon’s own admission—is that Bogotá and Washington mangled the public message. 

    Now that more details are coming out about the deal, it’s clear that it didn’t need to be such a lightening rod. And even if it did, why did the U.S. allow Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to twist in the wind?

    The core of the deal is to grant the U.S. access to seven of Colombia’s military bases (five air and two naval) to help build up Colombia’s current assets and capability (particularly on surveillance and intelligence gathering). The deal seeks to “provide to the Colombians that what they need in order to continue to prosecute their efforts against the internal threats that they have,” as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General James E. Cartwright said at a Pentagon briefing on August 13, 2009.

    This is NOT about increasing the ceiling for U.S. personnel in Colombia, or in South America. 

    Under current law, the U.S. cannot have more than 800 military and 600 contract personnel in Colombia. Last year, there were only 71 military personnel and some 400 contractors in Colombia.  More importantly, the U.S. Congress has little appetite to increase the number of U.S. troops stationed there. 

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    Tags: Alvaro Uribe, U.S. bases in Colombia, U.S. diplomacy in Latin America, Robert Gates

  • Honduras Holds Up State Department Nominations, as the U.S. Signals Policy Shift

    August 7, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    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.

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    Tags: Honduras, Tom Shannon, Arturo Valenzuela, Jim DeMint, Mel Zelaya

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

    July 9, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    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! 

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    Tags: Cuba, Honduras, U.S. Congress, Tom Shannon, Arturo Valenzuela, Carlos Pascual, Kenneth Merten

  • Que Importa Honduras! – Obama Administration Strikes the Right Tone

    July 2, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    Honduras, que importa, right? Does this tiny Central American country warrant all this debate, discussion and media coverage?! Yes, it does, and the Obama administration is right to be defending democracy.

    Due attention must be given to the dramatic developments there—not only for the historic regional implications of dealing with a twenty-first century military coup, but for the test of how the U.S. will now conduct its relations in the hemisphere.

    Besides being a striking, unsettling reminder of the fragility of our region’s democratic institutions, the event brought to the fore how different the Obama administration’s approach to Latin America is from that of the Bush administration.  

    On day one, the Obama administration joined other Latin American governments by presenting a swift and unequivocal condemnation of President Manuel Zelaya’s expulsion and calling for his immediate return.

    On June 29, President Obama went a bit further, calling the military’s actions a “coup” in his press availability with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe:

    “President Zelaya was democratically elected.  He had not yet completed his term. We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there,” the chill president said.

    Obama’s reaction—and that unity among hemispheric leaders of all political stripes—represents a departure from the Bush administration’s “go it alone” cowboy style, particularly in contrast to the U.S. reaction to the 2002 coup in Venezuela against President Hugo Chávez.

    The Bush administration initially acknowledged a change of power there, and did not condemn the coup until it collapsed—unlike the quick condemnation by most Latin American governments. This placed the U.S. in a rather lonely and awkward spot as the only country in the hemisphere to suggest that coup was OK.

    Another notable difference from the Bush administration’s approach comes with Haiti in 2004, when Democrats slammed the administration for what it called its failure to back ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. This had sent a scary signal to democratically-elected governments in this hemisphere, and Chávez has since exploited these and other actions to his own advantage in rallying voters about the hypocrisy of the U.S. evil empire.

    But, Obama’s cool remarks squelched Chávez’ initial flame-throwing to depict this as a U.S.-inspired coup. Of course, given U.S. history in Central America that accusation is far from outlandish, and Zelaya’s policies were not exactly in line with those of the United States.

    Obama’s move to prioritize rule of law and democratic processes over Zelaya’s ideology and his own questionable actions to “win” another term in office over the constitutional objection of the Congress and Supreme Court effectively disarmed Chávez and bolstered U.S. credibility.

    Still, there are legitimate challenges to Obama’s position and that is a subject of debate and even discomfort among some State Department officials. One concern is the administration’s invocation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. For one, is it hypocritical that the U.S. did not invoke the Charter’s principles during the debate over Cuban permission to re-enter the Organization of American States. And, why shouldn’t the U.S. hold Zelaya to these standards when he was arguably resorting to illegal means to convoke a referendum that could eventually lead to amending the constitution to stay in office?

    It’s not so black and white.

    But, going ahead with the referendum and not obeying the judiciary’s decision is not the same as a military coup!  And an elected president’s actions do not warrant a military coup—even to prevent him from potentially using unlawful means to stay in power. Zelaya should be judged on his anti-democratic steps through a fair and free political process when he’s back in the country and in power again.

    If Roberto Micheletti, the newly installed leader, stays in office, what signal does that send to Guatemala—a country struggling with its own political polarization in light of murder allegations against President Álvaro Colom?

    That said, Obama’s ongoing condemnation of Zelaya’s expulsion, his calling the coup illegal and working with hemispheric organizations like the OAS and countries including Venezuela is a way for the U.S. to restore some of its lost credibility and leadership. And, hopefully also bring some stability back to a Central American country that is small but is still one of our free-trade partners.


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    Tags: Honduras, Barack Obama, Manuel Zelaya

  • More Talk at the DC Water Cooler: Obama’s Latest Nominations

    June 11, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    President Barack Obama is zipping along with nominations and appointments related to all things Latin America. I am not going to share a laundry list of every post coming from the administration, but here are some highlights and what people are saying. 

    First, Arturo Valenzuela. As I wrote here months ago, he was nominated as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in May. Valenzeula, a Chilean-American, served at the State Department and the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and was an adviser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.  

    If confirmed by the Senate, he’ll be leaving his current job as director of the Center for Latin American Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His expertise is democratization, security issues, and of course, Chile. And, he really knows how to deal with the media. That’s important.

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    Tags: Obama, US, Valenzuela

  • To Run or Not to Run – Is that Even a Question with Uribe?

    May 26, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    Here in Washington discussion about Colombia generally revolves around the free-trade agreement (FTA). Will Obama really push Democrats in Congress to approve it?

    And now that the Colombian Senate this week approved a referendum on whether to change the constitution to eliminate a ban on a third presidential term, the topic du jour has shifted: Will President Álvaro Uribe run?  And what does that mean for the FTA?

    Wait. Haven’t we recently heard this story before from another Andean country

    Oh right. We have, but now we’re talking about Colombia—one of the United States’ best allies in South America—and about its popular president, now in the middle of his second, charmed term. And, he only got that second term through a constitutional amendment in 2006.

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    Tags: Colombia, Venezuela, Alvaro Uribe, Term Limits, Presidential Election

  • Today is World Press Freedom Day: Let’s Look at How Far We’ve Come

    May 4, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    Do you know that it’s World Press Freedom Day today?

    The media are so often taken for granted or made into the punching bag for whatever complaints we have. But just pause for a second, and imagine what the U.S. would be like without reporters.  You can’t. The press is essential for a healthy democracy—to expose corruption, fight against abuses, give a voice to the voiceless, and to share information and ideas in an open manner, regardless of socioeconomic level or political bias. But what’s the status of U.S. media today?

    Many say that U.S. reporters are giving a sweet deal to President Obama and that his honeymoon isn’t over yet. 

    We all know the danger of sleeping journalists (i.e., an Iraq war based on fabricated information).

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    Tags: Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Journalism

  • All Quiet on the Latin American Front? Not Quite.

    April 30, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    The Summit of the Americas brought a ton of Latin American coverage in the U.S. media.  Finally. But, now that the Summit is over, press attention to the hemisphere is waning. That is except for the swine flu spreading from Mexico.

    There were a few news nuggets that came out of the Summit, but judging from post-Summit news coverage, you’d think that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba were the only stories.  Of course, those are the two boilerplate favorites for covering Latin America. There have, in fact, been a number of positive developments—some of them coming out of the Summit. Unfortunately, none of them makes the U.S. news.

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    Tags: Summit of the Americas, Cuba, Chavez, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ortega

  • Another Czar is Born!

    April 17, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    Indeed, as some feared and others hoped, the Obama administration does like its czars and special envoys. 

    We’ve already got the war czar, climate czar, health czar, urban affairs czar, drug czar, and a special envoy for the Summit of the Americas, to name a few.

    And as of April 15, we now have a border czar when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named former federal prosecutor Alan Bersin, 62, to the newly created post at a press conference in El Paso, Texas.

    Well, his official title is Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Special Representative for Border Affairs.

    Somehow I imagine him as Superman, swooping in to save the U.S. from spillover of narco-violence, and to crack down on the flow of guns and drugs across the border.

    Actually, his job is even bigger than that (though no cape is involved, as far as I know). Bersin will coordinate the efforts and resources of local, federal and state agencies on counter-narcotics matters, as well as other transnational issues, like cross-border commerce and immigration. 

    "Alan brings years of vital experience working with local, state and international partners to help us meet the challenges we face at our borders," said Secretary Napolitano. "He will lead the effort to make our borders safe while working to promote commerce and trade."

    That’s a mighty big challenge. 

    But Superman or not, Bersin does come to this position with plenty of experience. During the Clinton administration, he served as the U.S. Attorney General’s Southwest Border Representative and the U.S. Attorney for California’s Southern District, with a focus on stemming illegal immigration, and coordinating law enforcement between Mexico and the United States.  As federal prosecutor, he racked up an impressive number of drug convictions. As the Southwest border czar, Bersin in 1994 oversaw “Operation Gatekeeper,” a controversial program that beefed up security in the southwest border region. 

    While human smuggling decreased in that area, the “higher levels of surveillance and patrol along key urban corridors of the border basically pushed many of the undocumented immigrants out to desert and mountain areas and led to much higher levels of death and injury for people crossing the border,” according to David Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego in a discussion with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

    For that reason, his appointment was met by criticism from several human rights groups, like the American Friends Service Committee

    Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee told the San Diego Union Tribune that Bersin’s “iron fist” approach doesn’t “respond to the needs of border community members who are still dealing with the errors of policies, like Gatekeeper.” 

    Nevertheless, Chappell Lawson of MIT, who served as a director of inter-American affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and knows Bersin personally, called it “a brilliant and inspired choice.” 

    “I’m going through my mental rolodex—and it’s hard to think of anyone else in the U.S. who would be more qualified than him.  He understands the border region; he lives in a border area, he’s been immersed in border issues going on two decades now. Plus, he’s well respected in the U.S. and in Mexico,” Lawson said. 

    When asked why this new czar position was even created in the first place, Lawson called it “essential for the DHS to coordinate the inter-agency process” on counter narcotics, trade and immigration issues.

    So, is a new czar enough to tackle the narco-violence and human smuggling problems along the U.S. border with Mexico? 

    One surely can’t expect a mere mortal to do the superhero task of solving these problems.

    Certainly not alone.

    “My great hope is that Mexico will name a counterpart on their end—to have parallel structures on the border. Right now, there is no Mexican border authority—that would help a lot.  There are consulates, but not a Mexican border patrol to talk to their U.S. counterparts with their walkie talkies,” Lawson told me.

    “You need a coordinator on that side.  So, long-term goal, there needs to be a real border control and customs agency in Mexico. In the short term, it would greatly improve the working relationship if Mexico had its own border czar,” Lawson concluded.

    As assistant secretary for international affairs for Homeland Secretary, Bersin reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security.  His portfolio includes the southwest border, overseeing relevant DHS agencies, helping to coordinate border security efforts with the State and Justice Departments, and building relationships on the state and local levels.  It does NOT include having a direct role with the Merida Initiative, or taking on a policymaking role, an official from Homeland Security said.  He’s not going to be working at the White House or for the White House, as a good source said, stressing, he’s going to be the secretary’s point man on border issues.

    But, it’s not yet clear what authority he may or may not have over other DHS agencies, like Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Permanent chiefs for both agencies remain vacant. 

    Napolitano’s announcement came a day before President Obama headed to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderón.  Drugs, guns, border security and commerce were expected to be top items on their agenda.


    *Liz Harper is an contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to:

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    Tags: Mexico, Immigration, Security, Obama, Calderon, US

  • Drug Flashback: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Drug War

    April 8, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    As if President Barack Obama didn't have enough on his plate—the Mexico drug war has really come up and brought the administration's focus back into this hemisphere.  Besides grappling with a global financial meltdown, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the stunning severity of narcoviolence—and the "spillover" into the U.S.—is demanding immediate attention from the U.S. government, perhaps sooner than people would have thought or certainly hoped. 

    Congress is paying attention, holding several hearings and questioning officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice, among other agencies. Unfortunately, the hearings have demonstrated there is no comprehensive strategy or clear coordination, or direction, in confronting the drug problem.  In all fairness, it's still quite early in the Obama administration and people who would otherwise be working on this issue have yet to be installed in the government. And, the Merida Initiative—the $1.4 billion, three-year counternarcotics program for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and Dominican Republic initiated under the Bush administration—has only recently gone into effect.

    After Congress made a big enough stink, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico last month, and President Barack Obama is due to visit Mexico City on April 16, before he goes to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. (Actually he’s arriving the evening of the 15th and leaving the 17th.)

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    Tags: Mexico, Obama, Narcotics, US, Clinton

  • The Obama-Lulathon

    March 16, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and President Barack Obama met in the Oval Office on Saturday morning.

    The White House said Larry Summers, head of the White House's National Economic Council, General Jim Jones, head of the National Security Council (NSC), Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Dan Restrepo, the NSC’s director for Western Hemisphere affairs attended the meeting. Among those attending on the Brazilian side, Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim, Chief of Staff Dilma Rouseff and Finance Minister Guido Mantega.

    On the menu: the upcoming G-20 summit, the Summit of the Americas, the global financial crisis, biofuels and, privately, the custody case of David Goldman.

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    Tags: Brazil, energy, Obama, Lula, Financial Crisis


    March 13, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    The State Department is in full gear preparing for the Summit of the Americas in mid-April. And I got a good look at those preparations at the Inter-American Dialogue’s discussion with Tom Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow—who I can now FINALLY say is the White House Adviser for the Summit of the Americas.

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    Tags: Summit of the Americas

  • Seduced by Cuba’s Honey Pot of Power

    March 5, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    Cuba’s Raúl Castro shook up his Cabinet big time this week—the largest change in decades—when he ousted, promoted or shifted around more than 20 officials.

    Most prominent—and surprising to many here in the United States—was the dismissal of Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage, known as the brains of recent economic reforms.

    The next day, Raúl’s older brother, Fidel, wrote a letter saying he had been consulted about these changes (oh, but of course he was!).

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    Tags: Cuba, Castro


    February 26, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    This week, two small steps for U.S. policy on Cuba.

    First up: Sen. Richard Lugar’s new report, “Changing Cuba Policy-In the United States National Interest.” In short, it calls the existing policies ineffective, finding major reform in the United States’ best national (and economic) interests.

    The recent leadership changes in Washington and Havana have created an opportunity to “reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion and open hostility,” Sen. Lugar wrote in his letter to fellow senators.

    Several traditional realists, like Pedro Burelli, a former member of the PDVSA—Venezuela’s state oil company—board of directors have applauded this report’s recommendations as pragmatic, rather than “coming from the perspective of the teary-eyed leftist camp.”

    And, the report, I’m told, has largely received positive feedback.

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    Tags: Cuba, Castro, US

  • Mr. Obama Goes to Ottawa

    February 18, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    But do people really care?

    Well, north of the border, it’s very big news that Obama is traveling to Ottawa. Beyond his exciting Rock Star status, Obama revived the presidential tradition of making Canada the first overseas trip, following the footsteps of four of the last nine presidents.

    You couldn’t tell that though by hanging out at White House briefings, talking with other foreign affairs reporters, or about any of the anticipatory prep and advance work for this visit. The Ottawa trip is very ho-hum.

    And why should anyone in the U.S. really care about Obama going to Ottawa—Canada’s Washington, DC—to meet with Conservative party Prime Minister Stephen Harper (no relation to yours truly) and Liberal party opposition leader Michael Ignatieff? Obama is scheduled to be there for a mere five to six hours.

    Some press reports characterized this stop as a “training wheels trip” – a kind of “practice run” for future pow-wows abroad. It’s way too cold anyhow and the accents can be rather off putting.

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    Tags: Canada, Free Trade, Obama

  • Talk at the DC Water Cooler

    February 12, 2009

    by Liz Harper

    A popular DC parlor game these days is about who is getting what position in the Obama administration. There have been numerous articles about the administration’s foreign policy agenda and what related appointments suggest about the president’s priorities –Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, Iran, and Iraq.

    Yet, among all this verbiage—Latin America is usually left out. Has this part of the world just fallen off the map with the administration?

    With that void, many are picking up on the water cooler talk about possible appointments and as a way to deduce what direction Obama’s Latin American policies could take.

    It’s already well known that Tom Shannon is asked to continue “for the time being” as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. What does “for the time being” mean? Shannon reportedly wondered the same thing. He’s expected to stay put at least until the Summit of the Americas in April.

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    Tags: Obama, US

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