The Cable

Last-Minute Push by Top Kerry Advisor Smoothed Over Americas Summit

By all accounts, the weekend meeting between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro went off without a hitch. You can thank Tom Shannon.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon waits for a press conference at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, on October 29, 2009. Shannon along with senior adviser on Latin America, Dan Restrepo and representative of the US State Department Craig Kelly visit Honduras in a new push to end the crisis set off by the ouster of President Zelaya exactly four months ago.     AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon waits for a press conference at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, on October 29, 2009. Shannon along with senior adviser on Latin America, Dan Restrepo and representative of the US State Department Craig Kelly visit Honduras in a new push to end the crisis set off by the ouster of President Zelaya exactly four months ago. AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

By all accounts, the weekend meeting between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro — the first substantive interaction between leaders of the two countries in a half century — went off without a hitch.

But just days before the two men met Saturday on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, diplomats in both countries feared another issue would overshadow the historic meeting: a new row between the U.S. and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, a leftist critic of U.S. policy, planned to use the summit as a soapbox to rail against new U.S. sanctions against Caracas — a cause that enjoyed growing support in South American capitals. But when it came time for Maduro to deliver on his threat, and present Obama with 10 million signatures demanding the repeal of the sanctions, the Venezuelan president backed off.

The cause of this about-face, according to diplomatic observers, was a last-minute trip to Caracas by Tom Shannon, a longtime Latin America hand and a top adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Arriving in Venezuela last Tuesday, April 7, Shannon met with Maduro and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez in an effort to ease tensions before the summit in Panama began.

A State Department official declined to provide a detailed readout of the meeting, but described it as a “productive exchange.”

“[Shannon] accepted an invitation to meet prior to the summit to discuss a range of bilateral issues,” the official told Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.

Prior to Shannon’s visit, Maduro had castigated the U.S. for a March 9 executive order that declared Venezuela a “threat to the national security” and levied sanctions against seven officials accused of human rights abuses.

In a recent speech, Maduro told supporters he planned to “show up in Panama with the strength of 10 million Venezuelans and tell the U.S. empire and its president: ‘Repeal the aggressive and offensive imperialist decree against Venezuela!’”

Though regional experts view Maduro’s reflexive anti-Americanism as increasingly unhinged, many have questioned the timing and choice of words of Obama’s executive order — in particular, its claim that Venezuela posed a “national security” threat.

During Shannon’s visit, tensions over that specific issue eased when a senior White House official clarified the language of the executive order in a conference call with reporters in Washington.

“The U.S. doesn’t believe that Venezuela poses some threat to national security,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said as Shannon landed in Venezuela. “We just have a framework for how we word executive orders.”

Then, a day later, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff spoke to Maduro on the phone. According to a statement by her office, she found that Maduro was willing to improve ties with the U.S. and offered assistance in facilitating dialogue.

That development, coupled with Shannon’s visit, appear to have mellowed Maduro’s temperament significantly by the time of the summit on Friday.

Instead of confronting Obama with the petition in person as he pledged, he decided to deliver it through diplomatic channels.

During the summit, the two leaders met in a cordial exchange that resulted in brief statements issued by their respective offices.

“President Obama indicated our strong support for a peaceful dialogue between the parties within Venezuela,” said White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. “He reiterated that our interest is not in threatening Venezuela, but in supporting democracy, stability and prosperity in Venezuela and the region.”

A Maduro aide said the meeting included a “lot of truth, respect and cordiality,” in a statement on Twitter.

According to one U.S. official who attended the summit, Shannon’s diplomacy created a “real win for the U.S.” by marginalizing the Venezuela issue. Others felt similarly.

“Tom’s visit to Caracas clearly made a difference,” said Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “I was very impressed to see how Venezuela did not take over the summit.”

Shannon, whose official title is State Department counselor, is well known in diplomatic circles in Latin America. The career foreign service officer served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2005 to 2009 and followed that position with a nearly-four year posting in Brazil as ambassador.

“He is particularly well-regarded in Brazil and credited with improving the relationship,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I wonder if he was able to get the Brazilians to weigh in with Maduro as part of the effort to manage him in Panama.”

In recent months, rumors have swirled that Shannon is next in line to be nominated as undersecretary for political affairs, the fourth-ranking position in Foggy Bottom. That position is currently filled by the dual-hatted Wendy Sherman, who also serves as the chief U.S. negotiator to the Iran nuclear talks. Sherman is expected to leave the department after those negotiations end, opening the position for Shannon.

If that succession pans out, Shannon’s Maduro diplomacy may be his final high-profile act as counselor.

While his efforts left a number of issues unresolved — as evidenced by the summit’s failure to produce a joint declaration — defusing the sanctions issue kept the focus on the historic engagement between Washington and Havana.

“Many of us thought going into the summit that Venezuela would overshadow the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement,” added Piccone. “But the history-making nature of the Obama-Castro meeting won out.”

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