Nearly two years after President Joe Biden took office, nearly a dozen ambassadors to key countries in the Western Hemisphere are still not in place, with eight candidates having their confirmation hearings suspended by a senator republican – all during a pivotal period in the Region.
Candidates for the posts of ambassador to Nicaragua, Brazil, Panama, Uruguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, El Salvador and the Organization of American States have been nominated, but their confirmation is blocked by the Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.
Biden recently named an ambassador to Ecuador and has yet to name ambassadors to the Dominican Republic, as well as to Colombia — the United States’ strongest ally in the region which recently elected its first leftist president. Chile’s ambassador was recently confirmed after the post had been vacant for nearly four years.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a former State Department official and diplomat. “It’s been a trend for a long time. In other words, it gets worse with each administration.
Finding candidates has become more difficult over the years as the verification and confirmation processes have become more complex and could become tedious and frustrating for candidates. Along with Biden’s nominations in the region, partisan politics in Congress, and what some have described as the administration’s slow pace also complicated the confirmation process, even while still on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. .
The latest heist came in mid-May when Scott placed the “general hold” on all candidates for Latin America and the Caribbean after Biden lifted some restrictions imposed on Cuba by former President Donald Trump. . Restrictions lifted included some on travel, as well as the amount of remittances that could be sent from the United States. Scott called the move “a silly attempt to revert to Obama’s failed appeasement policies.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.N.Y., said, “It is unfortunate that the Republican filibuster continues to delay these much-needed appointments to a a number of critical roles, many of which would help our government respond to recent political transitions in Latin America.”
Scott’s office told NBC News in an emailed statement that “Biden’s appeasement of Cuba’s illegitimate communist regime is disgusting. I will be holding affected applicants until it is cancelled.
But even before Scott’s take in May, some of the nominees had been waiting for more than a year to be confirmed. The Senate confirmed 143 nominees to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but very few were from the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Michael Shifter, the former president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, DC think tank. “It reinforces the perception that the United States doesn’t care about Latin America.”
Delays “on a different level now”
Of 49 State Department nominees pending in the Senate, fewer than 20 are on the floor. Nearly half of those who sit in the Senate come from the Western Hemisphere.
A White House spokesman said they continue to pressure the Senate to process as many candidates as possible given other competing demands for speaking time.
Shifter said confirming ambassadors in Europe and Asia has always been a higher priority for the United States than for Latin America.
“I think it’s on a different level now,” he said.
Compared to other parts of the world, the confirmation of ambassadors in the Western Hemisphere can become more politicized. There is no general hold on applicants in other regions, such as Europe or Asia, as there is in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Farnsworth said part of the problem driving ambassadorial vacancies is that “the political atmosphere in Washington escalates with each cycle. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you’re trying to get the other team.
Several senators such as Bob Menendez, DN.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are very focused on Latin America, particularly Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“You have several senators who are passionately interested in Latin America and are very good at imposing their interests on candidates,” Farnsworth said. “It gets worse every time. I don’t know how you get out of this cycle. Ultimately it hurts our interests in the region.
Ambassadors officially represent the United States in a foreign country and have a level of authority that diplomatic officials of other ranks do not have. Ambassadors have the political clout to push things through the White House, while diplomats at other ranks may be more risk averse.
Hold-up in the face of regional challenges
The blocking of embassies comes at a time when Latin America is facing significant challenges. The region’s biggest economies are grappling with the highest inflation in 15 years after the shocks of the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In many countries, the inequality gap has widened.
Many countries have experienced historic migration flows to the United States, especially from Cuba and Venezuela. Nicaraguan migrants are also on the increase.
To complicate matters, the United States suspended operations at the Venezuelan embassy in 2019 and severed diplomatic relations, although Ambassador James Story still plays an important role and has visited the country in an attempt to obtain the release of American prisoners. The Nicaraguan government withdrew its endorsement of the US nominee for ambassador to Nicaragua in July after criticizing the country’s president, Daniel Ortega, and said it would “support the use of all economic and diplomatic tools to bring about a leadership change in Nicaragua”.
While Nicaragua is under discussion at the Organization of American States, which recently passed a resolution condemning Ortega, the appointed US ambassador has still not been confirmed.
Several Latin American countries, such as Colombia, have elected leftist leaders and this could potentially change the relationship with the United States. Colombia has been the United States’ strongest ally in the region and its new president, Gustavo Petro, has criticized the US government’s war on drugs and has proposed an end to the extradition of drug traffickers. He also discussed the renegotiation of a 2012 trade deal with the United States. In the absence of an ambassador, the Biden administration sent a high-level delegation in July to start conversations on a range of topics.
“I don’t understand what’s going on with Colombia,” Shifter said, referring to the ambassadorial vacancy. “It’s just confusing to me.”
At the same time, China’s role in Latin America has grown rapidly over the past two decades and has become South America’s largest trading partner. It is a major source of investment, as well as energy and infrastructure lending. During the pandemic, it provided the region with medical equipment, loans and hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines.
Despite having a sway over eight nominees, Scott is an outspoken critic of China’s growing influence in Latin America and wrote in a 2019 CNBC opinion piece that “Latin America is the new field of the greatest geopolitical conflict of our time”.
Schumer, DN.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could negotiate legislation that would include confirmation of the eight ambassadors. A vote to end Scott’s sway would require a more bipartisan agreement from 60 of the 100 senators, which usually takes time.
“Latin America is sort of a child by marriage of foreign policy. It’s an afterthought,” Shifter said. “First you get Europe and Asia and eventually you move to Latin America.”
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