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Biden Eyes Career Diplomat as Top Envoy for Latin America

Brian Nichols, currently the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, has experience throughout Latin America.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Brian Nichols, then ambassador to Peru, speaks at an event.
Then-U.S. ambassador to Peru Brian Nichols speaks at an Air Force base in Callao, Peru, on April 6, 2017. Martin Mejia/AP

President Joe Biden is considering nominating a seasoned career diplomat to be the top U.S. envoy for Latin America, several people familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.

If named, Brian Nichols would become the Biden administration’s point person for U.S. relations with Latin American countries that became strained under Donald Trump, particularly Mexico and Central American countries amid the former president’s sharp crackdown on immigration and failed efforts to build a wall along the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nichols would also be tasked with handling U.S. policy toward Cuba and Venezuela, some of the most politically sensitive foreign-policy issues for the new administration.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the expected appointment when asked by Foreign Policy, saying they had no personnel announcements at this time. Sources familiar with the matter stressed that Nichols’s nomination was not set in stone and required more paperwork and approval to work its way through the White House before a final decision was announced. 

Nichols is one of a number of career foreign service officers being considered for senior leadership slots, including regional assistant secretary of state posts, in the State Department, current and former officials said. The Biden administration pledged to reempower career diplomats in a break from Trump, who viewed the State Department with distrust and disdain, once referring to it as the “Deep State Department.” The Trump administration broke historic precedent by not appointing any current foreign service officers to be regional assistant secretaries of state. 

Nichols is the current U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe but has served across Latin America, including as ambassador to Peru and posts in Colombia, Mexico, and El Salvador. If tapped as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Nichols would be the first African American to be the top U.S. envoy to Latin America in over four decades. 

He won praise in U.S. diplomatic circles for how he addressed the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked a wave of protests that spotlighted systemic racial injustice and police violence in the United States last year. Despite widespread international outcry, top Trump officials at the State Department were slow to respond. 

“As an African American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own,” Nichols wrote in a statement released by the embassy in Zimbabwe, at a time when many in the Trump administration had yet to address Floyd’s death or the protests. “In a long, unbroken line of black men and women, George Floyd gave the last full measure of devotion to point us toward a new birth in freedom.” In the statement, he highlighted Zimbabwean pro-democracy activists whom human rights groups said were killed by Zimbabwean security forces. 

The Associated Press was first to report that Nichols was in the running for the senior State Department post, which would require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. 

In Venezuela, U.S.-led international efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power amid the country’s humanitarian and political crisis have foundered. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the Biden administration will continue to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, sticking with Trump administration policy. 

On the campaign trail, Biden also vowed to revive the Obama administration’s efforts to restore warmer diplomatic relations with Cuba after Trump swiftly reversed the detente when he came into office. Some in the Cuban American community and other Latino voters in Florida cheered Trump’s crackdown on the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, which have been accused of widespread human rights violations and corruption. 

Biden’s plans to reengage Cuba face a significant hurdle from the outset. In one of his final acts, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, saying that “the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice.”

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