Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

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

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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.

Beyond this, I’m not going to regurgitate the rumors of who’s staying, who may be going or already gone, but I will say that the State Department has lost a few good minds for greener pastures, while others are staying put for now. 

Second, the State Department may possibly see a more proactive stance on the “outlier” countries in Latin America, or a clarification of the U.S. position. It may just be my wishful thinking, but during his confirmation hearing Kerry said, “Depending on what happens in Venezuela, there may really be an opportunity for a transition there.” Of course, many would have preferred that our next secretary of state called out the government of Hugo Chávez for its ties to narcoterrorists, its support for countries like Cuba, Iran and Syria, and its disregard for freedom of the press. Still, Kerry did diplomatically imply that a Chávez death would present the chance for a positive change.  

And, to draw a contrast to those “outlier” states, Kerry lauded former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s leadership as a model for transformative leadership for other countries in the region, noting that other Andean nations needed to make a “better set of choices.”

As a notable aside, Kerry’s past record tempers much hope he’ll be more assertive with authoritarian strongmen, namely with his meeting with Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega in 1985. In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal Mary Anastasia O’Grady provided background to Kerry’s 1985 meeting.  

Third, a Kerry State Department should see continued improvements on supporting the rights of women and girls in Latin America and elsewhere, namely to augment their roles “as peacemakers,” to use Kerry’s words.

Finally, and most importantly, the U.S. should expect a robust pursuit of its economic interests in the hemisphere. Kerry was quick to recognize that “[m]ore than ever, foreign policy is economic policy.” 

“I am especially cognizant of the fact that we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home—and the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order,” Kerry said in his prepared remarks.  

In all, during Kerry’s confirmation hearing, Latin America was mentioned seven times, and Mexico specifically 12 times. In contrast, Afghanistan was mentioned 35 times and Iran 24, according to a useful word cloud in the Wall Street Journal. Given the security flare-ups in Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the instability throughout North Africa, it’s reasonable that the Western Hemisphere remains on the backburner. 

Yet, should the backburner justify a low expectation of “not much” development regarding Latin American affairs? 

That would be unfortunate, given the potential of certain Latin American markets and the urgent imperative to get our “own fiscal house in order,” as Kerry said.   

The U.S. can strengthen its economy by expanding on economic opportunities with fast-growing nations like Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Chile. America now faces a critical moment to seize upon today’s opportunities; otherwise the U.S. will cede them to other, less friendly nations.

We can do better than “not much.”


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

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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