Tillerson Weighs Latin America Expert for Top State Department Post

While most other top State Department positions still sit empty.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
till crop
till crop

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is considering a seasoned diplomat to be his next envoy to Latin America, according to sources.

William Brownfield, a career diplomat who currently leads the State Department’s law enforcement and anti-narcotics efforts, is a top pick for Tillerson to be the new assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, two senior State Department officials and two former officials told Foreign Policy.

The assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, covering Latin America and Canada, could play an outsized role in U.S. foreign policy given the Donald Trump administration’s fixation on immigration issues stemming from Latin America, trade deals with its closest neighbors, and the unraveling crisis in Venezuela.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is considering a seasoned diplomat to be his next envoy to Latin America, according to sources.

William Brownfield, a career diplomat who currently leads the State Department’s law enforcement and anti-narcotics efforts, is a top pick for Tillerson to be the new assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, two senior State Department officials and two former officials told Foreign Policy.

The assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, covering Latin America and Canada, could play an outsized role in U.S. foreign policy given the Donald Trump administration’s fixation on immigration issues stemming from Latin America, trade deals with its closest neighbors, and the unraveling crisis in Venezuela.

Brownfield is also already well-known in Latin America, having served as U.S. ambassador to Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia over the past 15 years, among other positions.

“When it comes to handling the situation in Venezuela, there’s nobody better to be in the job,” Juan Gonzalez, a former senior White House and State Department official who covered Latin American issues, said of Brownfield.

While Brownfield is a top contender for the job, two sources cautioned that no nominees for the position have been formally cleared and at least one other official is in the running: Francisco Palmieri, the current acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. One State Department official said Tillerson “leaned on Palmieri heavily” for Western Hemisphere issues, including in formulating the newly unveiled sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and a summit with Central American leaders in June.

If nominated and confirmed, Brownfield will have a full plate; his responsibilities would include balancing the political tightrope of U.S.-Mexico relations under Trump, dealing with the roiling political crisis in Venezuela, managing the diplomatic end of renegotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement, and helping cement the historic Colombian peace deal brokered last year.

The Trump administration has also thrown its weight behind confronting violent Central American gangs, most notably MS-13 — brandishing it as a poster child for the dangers of illegal immigration. Brownfield’s current role as assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs could give him a leg up in the administration’s eyes, one senior State Department official told FP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Trump administration has filled other top Latin America posts with security-heavy experts, including retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the region and career CIA veteran Juan Cruz as National Security Council director for Western Hemisphere affairs.

In the meantime, Tillerson is grappling with deep internal discord and plummeting morale at the State Department, in part because President Trump has yet to fill top diplomatic posts, now more than six months into his administration. That has stoked new tensions between Tillerson and the White House in the past; Tillerson reportedly blew up at White House aides in June after they torpedoed his pick for a new envoy to East Asia.

At a State Department press briefing Tuesday, Secretary Tillerson conceded that State still had “a lot of open slots” but praised career diplomats for stepping up in the interim.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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