- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
U.S. policy in Latin America under President Obama has been mostly defined by a decline in U.S. influence and a languorous response to anti-democratic actions by a passel of populist regimes. Now we know the reason why: It’s those obstructionist Senate Republicans.
That’s the clear implication of an article last week in the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. Sway Clipped in Latin America," in which Senate Republicans are left largely holding the shears.
According to the Journal, "Republican lawmakers have been blocking many of the Obama administration’s Latin American nominations for three years," and that, "The Republican strategy has left many in the U.S. government perplexed about how to engage the vast territory."
Both assertions are patent nonsense.
While it is true that the nominations of a new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and one ambassadorship are being held up and that another ambassador was blocked from returning to post after a recess appointment (a third nominee was redirected to Panama after both a Democrat and Republican objected to his initial posting to Nicaragua), that is hardly indicative of a three-year campaign.
In fact, prior to these current holds, the only Obama nominee held up by Senate Republicans has been career official Tom Shannon, who is now Ambassador to Brazil. (Senate Democrats blocked not one, but two of George W. Bush’s nominees for Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere.)
Secondly, the notion that Senate Republicans are hindering a more robust U.S. policy in the hemisphere mixes up cause and effect. One senior official told the Journal, "Obviously, embassies continue to work on important issues without an ambassador. But not having an ambassador muffles our voice. There are things that need to be spoken about. The bully pulpit just isn’t as effective without an ambassador."
But it is precisely because the administration has failed to use ambassadorial bully pulpits in the face of the ongoing assault on democratic institutions in the region that has partly fueled Senate Republicans’ current frustrations.
A particularly risible assertion is that a lack of an ambassador in Ecuador — the last one was unceremoniously expelled by President Rafael Correa — is hurting U.S. interests, because "Some point to progress being that was being made in bringing Ecuador’s left-wing President Rafael Correa toward more moderate governing, particularly toward the business community, despite efforts by Mssrs. Ortega and Chávez to sway him further to their side."
Progress? In Ecuador? The only progress being made in Ecuador is in President Correa’s systematic dismantling of separation of powers and rule of law and his unremitting war against the media, which the Washington Post recently called, "the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere."
Rather than being criticized, Senate Republicans — primarily Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) — should be applauded for trying to pressure the administration into injecting some purpose and energy into its hemispheric policy. Rather than attempting to placate angry leftists in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Argentina, the administration needs to be more vocal in its support for democrats throughout the region who feel abandoned by the lackluster response from Washington.
The administration has had three years to develop and implement a regional policy that serves U.S. interests and those of our responsible neighbors. Rather than being obstructionist, all Senate Republicans are trying to do is help bring that about.