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.
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.