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Archive for Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Latin America a low priority for Obama

February 10, 2009

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— After a week in the capital interviewing senior Obama administration foreign policy officials, here are some of my conclusions — granted, very preliminary — about how the new government will deal with U.S. Hispanics and Latin America.

First, Obama is doing a relatively good job appointing Hispanics to his administration, but — since the withdrawal of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson from his nomination as secretary of Commerce — there is no enthusiastic advocate for greater attention to Latin America in his Cabinet.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a 12th-generation American, wants to take an active role in Latino issues and is expected to be the administration’s most visible face on Hispanic community affairs.

But when it comes to top-tier officials with close ties to Latin America, Obama has been moving slowly. The administration’s top Latin America jobs have yet to be filled.

Thomas Shannon, the highly respected head of hemispheric affairs at the State Department, has been asked to stay at least until the April 17 Summit of the Americas, well-placed officials say. The leading candidate to succeed him is Chilean-born Arturo Valenzuela, a former Latin America adviser with the National Security Council and long-time Mexico expert.

At the NSC, the leading candidates for top advisers on Latin America affairs are Dan Restrepo, the former Obama campaign Latin America policy coordinator and a former congressional staffer, and former CIA Latin America analyst and Cuba expert Fulton Amstrong.

The job of special envoy to the Americas, which Obama promised during the campaign to reinstate, is now in limbo. Former Obama campaign aide Frank Sanchez, who was the top contender for the job, is now expected to be appointed undersecretary of Commerce.

Second, when asked about the administration’s overall Latin America policy, a source close to the White House told me that, considering Washington’s scant attention to Latin America at a time when the government faces a world economic crisis and two wars, “We are going to focus our limited attention on the two countries that count.” Translation: Brazil and Mexico.

Not surprisingly, Obama will receive Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Washington next month, and will meet him twice in April at the G-20 Summit in London and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Obama, who also is considering a visit to Brazil later this year, has already met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon as president-elect on Jan. 12 in Washington.

Third, the Obama administration’s top pet project in the region — creation of an Energy Alliance for the Americas to jointly produce alternative fuels — is running into trouble.

Senior administration officials tell me that Brazil, a key U.S. partner in the proposed alliance that is already leading an energy cooperation group in South America, is objecting to the idea. Brazil wants to work with Washington on alternative fuel projects around the world, not just in Latin America, and does not want to enter an inter-American alliance that does not include Venezuela and Cuba, U.S. officials say.

Asked about this, Brazilian Ambassador Antonio Patriota confirmed to me, “We are not necessarily focusing on an inter-American format.” He added, “We already have an ongoing process of coordination within South America” on infrastructure and energy issues.

Fourth, on Cuba, I won’t be surprised if Obama goes a little further than his promise to lift Bush administration restrictions on travel and remittances. He may consider additional measures, such as licensing fiber optic cable companies to operate in Cuba.

While some polls among Cuban-Americans show a greater enthusiasm for a U.S. opening toward Cuba, and other surveys don’t, Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel seems to believe in the first set of polls. “There is a big change going on” in the Cuban-American community, he told a small group of journalists when we asked him about U.S. policy toward Cuba.

My opinion: I’m split on this one. I think the Obama administration will indeed do a good job appointing Hispanics, but will be short of a strong voice for greater ties with Latin America in top Cabinet positions.

That’s a problem, because Latin America is the region that impacts U.S. daily life on most fronts — be it trade, immigration, drugs, the environment or oil. The more I visit Washington, the more convinced I am that personalities matter, and that proximity to the president is power.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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