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.

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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.

Larry Palmer’s confirmation to the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown is one of note; in 2010 the White House nominated him for the sensitive and delicate ambassadorial post in Caracas, Venezuela. But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez rejected Palmer during his confirmation process in December 2010 and then the State Department went quiet on Palmer’s nomination. Hopefully Barbados was his first choice.

Meanwhile, the administration still has yet to put forward another candidate for the post in Caracas, even as Venezuela is ramping up for potentially pivotal elections and the current government’s future is increasingly in doubt.  

This wave of confirmations also includes the newly-minted U.S. Ambassador to Panama, Jonathan Farrar.  The White House in April 2011 had originally nominated him to serve in Managua, Nicaragua; however due to his prior work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, both Cuban-American Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Rubio objected. They maintained that Farrar wasn’t assertive enough with the Cuban government and that a stronger voice was needed in Managua, where President Daniel Ortega—an ally of Castro, Chávez, and others in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA)—is busy at work undermining the country’s fledgling rule of law. 

In December 2011, a solution was apparently found to this particular challenge:  swap ambassador posts. The Nicaragua portfolio would be swapped for Panama, with Farrar’s nomination to Managua being moved to Panama City, while then-Ambassador to Panama Phyllis Powers would take over the job in Nicaragua. Powers had been in Panama since September 2010; immediately before that she served in Baghdad, Iraq, as director of the office of provincial affairs, and before that (2005-2007), deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru. Such experience suggests she can effectively deal with difficult governments.

Despite these confirmations late last month, the U.S. still lacks ambassadors in Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, El Salvador, and the Bahamas.  

The Senate still has a hold on the administration’s nomination to Ecuador, Adam Namm, and it did not approve the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to serve in El Salvador.

As for Bolivia, an official joint commission, headed by Bolivian Minister for Development Planning Elba Viviana Caro and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kevin Whitaker, met in late February to discuss ways to enhance bilateral cooperation. Both sides also expressed interest eventually returning “ambassadors to both Washington and La Paz.”

But, clearly, there are other steps to take before exchanging ambassadors.

This cautiousness appears to be true regarding diplomatic relations with Venezuela as well. The U.S. is interested in improving the very complicated relationship with Venezuela, but there must be concrete advances and more than rhetoric to do so, said James Derham, the chargé d'affaires in Caracas.  

If the administration still wants to fill the posts in Venezuela and Ecuador, it must deftly nominate the right ambassadorial candidates and make the case why the American people need diplomatic representation there now.

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

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

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