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?
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.
United States officials asked former president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, to delay his return to the country until after the March 20 elections amid fears that his presence will influence voters. President Aristide has been living in exile in South Africa since his removal from office in 2004. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated in comments yesterday that the decision to allow Mr. Aristide to return was up to Haitian authorities but warned that his return before the election could be “destabilizing” and “could only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections.” Mr. Aristide’s lawyer, Ira Kurzban, has echoed the U.S. State Department’s sentiment that the former president’s return be left up to the Haitian authorities while noting that Mr. Aristide wishes to return to Haiti to dedicate himself to education and not to politics.
Speculation of Mr. Aristide’s return to Haiti has increased since the return of another exiled former Haitian leader, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, to Haiti on January 16, 2011, after 25 years of living in exile in France. U.S. authorities have appealed to the South African government to delay Mr. Aristide’s departure from the country. However, South African deputy foreign minister Marius Fransman stated today that it was not “our responsibility to say if Jean-Bertrand Aristide should or should not leave South Africa before the election” while noting that the Haitian government has cleared the way for Aristide’s return by issuing him a passport this past February.
Both presidential candidate’s in this weekend’s run-off, Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly, or “Sweet Micky” as he is more popularly known, have no objections to Mr. Aristide’s return. Meanwhile, Mr. Aristide remains a divisive figure in Haitian politics and still retains some support, especially among Haitian living in slums and tent cities where the since the January 2010 earthquake, where people have become frustrated with the slow pace of recovery.
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?
The stakes for the United States in the Honduran political crisis are higher than ever. At the end of October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the unprecedented overturning of a coup through dialogue. That assessment has now proved naïve, and the State Department finds itself in the awkward position of distancing itself from the rest of Latin America after saying it would recognize the Honduran elections whether or not Manuel Zelaya is restored to power. This crisis is an extremely important moment for Honduras, but it also now has the potential to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to mend the United States’ relationship with Latin America.
Since President Obama took office, his administration has worked hard to heal the wounds left by President George W. Bush in Latin America. Obama’s most symbolic moves came with respect to Cuba, as he condoned the island nation’s re-admission into the Organization of American States (OAS)—long a rallying cry of the OAS’s other members—and eased the terms of the embargo. Obama has also toned down the rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, cutting away at Hugo Chávez’ platform for America-bashing. Whereas President Bush seemed to court confrontation in the region, the Obama administration has thus far sought compromise and consensus. These efforts have not radically altered U.S. policy, but they have represented significant first steps toward repairing relations with Latin America.
Before last week, the United States had also marched in step with the rest of the Americas in its response to Honduras’ June 28th coup. The United States supported the OAS’s denunciation of the coup, suspended aid to Honduras and visas to leaders of the de facto regime and continually demanded the restitution of President Manuel Zelaya. Until late October, the U.S. assiduously avoided taking the lead on the Honduras issue, instead abiding by regional consensus and making sure not to stoke the flames with Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) nations. State Department representative Thomas Shannon’s deal-making visit to Honduras also built directly on the work of the OAS and Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, assuring that the fleeting victory was shared by all partners.