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All I Want for Christmas is Ambassador Shannon in Brazil

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. 

Many conservatives—in and out of Congress—are upset with Shannon for what happened at the recent summit of the Organization of American States (OAS), when the U.S. agreed with all member countries to a resolution allowing Cuba’s re-entry to the OAS. Shannon was not the only Obama administration representative at the summit. 

Long before the summit, the Obama administration has made clear its intent to change Cuba-U.S dynamics and for a “new beginning with Cuba.”

As assistant secretary under Obama, Shannon was executing—with the exceptional skill he’s demonstrated throughout his career—the Obama administration’s vision.

But, even during the Bush administration, as I’m told, many seasoned policy observers fixed a bull’s eye on Shannon’s back for being “soft” on Cuba and the Castro regime.

Does an increase in U.S. funding for democracy programs in Cuba constitute a conciliatory approach? Not at all. From 2004 to 2008, the U.S. government markedly increased spending on Cuba democracy projects and Shannon sought more direct funding of Cuban civil society groups and expanded our network of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations. How could this signify that Shannon dismissed the horrendous violations of human rights and political freedoms in Cuba? 

Cuba aside, a deeper concern is the damage this hold is inflicting on our relationship with Brazil and the rest of the world.  In effect, we’re saying: We don’t care enough about Brazil to send our top Latin America diplomat there.

Can you imagine not having—and sending with expediency—an ambassador to India or China? Is this how we treat a highly valued player with whom we need a partnership?

Our domestic politics are bogging down U.S. international priorities and long-term interests.

Brazil could be poised to play a negotiating role with the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Cuba and Honduras—and already has growing economic and political influence.  We need someone in Brasilia who is well-respected and trusted by the Brazilians to maximize the potential of the U.S.-Brazilian relationship. We are missing opportunities to leverage Shannon’s excellent rapport with the Brazilians. 

The Obama administration is not going to fold over Shannon—or on its intent to hit refresh on Cuba policy, as I’m told by well-placed sources in the State Department.  Change is unstoppable on this front. 

That said—why isn’t the Obama administration giving more public support to Shannon’s nomination?  Is the administration actively backing Shannon or just nodding that it won’t back down? 

When there’s strong political dissatisfaction with Cuba policy, the easiest path to follow for any White House is to throw a career officer to the wolves as a symbolic way to assuage that criticism, as one veteran of the Cuba battles tells me. It’d be a mistake to make Shannon the sacrificial lamb. 

Early last month, a close observer commented, “Shannon had a really good run; he had a really good career”—and frankly, I do wonder if we’re seeing another slow, quiet death of an exceptional diplomat, blighted by the Cuba Curse. By the Cuba Curse I’m talking about the insidious trend of how anyone inside the government who works on Cuba could be tossed about as a political football and/or see their careers sidelined and/or get flamed themselves personally and professionally. 

In the meantime, we’re missing the boat on Brazil. The region needs our leadership, and it doesn’t need to wait forever.

*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: OAS, Tom Shannon, Obama administration, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, U.S.-Brazil, Castro regime

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