Forward and Backward on Latin America

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Over the last couple of years, I have been increasingly impressed by the work and thinking of Georgetown scholar and now outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Arturo Valenzuela.

I didn't start there.  When Obama Land was picking its team, I had held some private doubts about Valenzuela when I first learned he might land his current job as he then appeared to me as part of the 'preserve the status quo establishment' on US-Latin America relations.  Many Democrats and Republicans in this business are essentially values-crusaders with no sense of the damage that the US-Cuba Embargo has done to American national interests and very little understanding of the costs of US arrogance to relations across the region.  I couldn't have been more wrong. 

Valenzuela is a serious, pragmatic strategist about America's national interests in the region.  He came in to his current position in turbulent currents just as Senator Jim DeMint was squaring off the with the State Department and White House over who DeMint wanted to be the leader of Honduras in what was perceived by many to be a coup against the legitimate President of that country.

Wanting to know more about Valenzuela's thinking I went to see him after he overcame the long "hold" that Senator DeMint had placed on his nomination and got an extraordinary tour de force not only of America's interests in the region but heard a thorough inventory of how leaders in the region saw America's behavior and actions.  He is an active listener -- and spent a great deal of time hearing out the issues bubbling in many frustrated nations to America's south. 

I got a sense of what America's real strategy was in the region -- as opposed to the politically correct optics, which I found vapid and tired, particularly when it came to the stale, badly managed US-Cuba situation.  Valenzuela convinced me that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had drilled down into the realities of Latin America's dynamics and really understood how important it was to get beyond the disfunctional cycles of neglect and hyper-attention that had left a residue of deep mistrust.

Valenzuela confessed to me that US-Latin America policy does not follow the same tracks as, say, US-China policy, or policy towards Iran, or Russia, or NATO-member nations.  Latin America policy -- set by the White House -- no matter how rational and conscientious and planned one wants to be about it, is easily hijacked by events, distractions, or the next perceived bigger item on the policy docket. 

I once quoted Center for Democracy in the Americas President Sarah Stephens who wrote that in one of Barack Obama's major foreign policy essays offered during his first presidential campaign, he committed only 13 words to Latin America.  One of his campaign aides then sent me another speech of Obama's in which he spent 2,115 words on Latin America -- but Valenzuela's point still stands:  Latin America gets surges of interest and then is often neglected.

That is the world that Assistant Secretary of State Valenzuela has operated in.  So, what has he accomplished?

According to numerous sources on the Latin America side of things, Valenzuela pumped life into somewhat moribund channels of communication, both bilaterally and multilaterally in the region.  There is great distrust in Latin America about America's intentions in the region when the US is engaged and anger about America's neglect when disengaged -- and according to sources in the diplomatic arena, Valenzuela balanced that better than nearly any of his predecessors.

Concomitantly, America's favorability ratings in the region have moved substantially higher -- meaning that there is less sense of US meddling, less of an ideological gap that rubs raw the nerves and sensibilities of Latin American citizens. 

Valenzuela also handled the Wikileaks fallout smartly -- convincing most impacted countries to get beyond the episodic moment and to focus on long term strategic bridge-building. Ecuador and Mexico proved to be the standouts -- but even those cases are moving in a better direction now.

US-Brazil relations were going into the tank, and are still rough, but Valenzuela managed a substantial 'reset' of the relationship with President Obama's visit (when the US and allies launched the Libya action).

Given that Valenzuela came into his job with the Honduran political situation erupting, it's impressive that he just helped usher Honduras' return to the OAS, from which it had been expelled.

Close to my own interests, Valenzuela helped move forward some degree of sanity and common sense in restoring cultural, educational, scientific and other dimensions of US-Cuba travel and exchange.

Valenzuela accomplished much during his tenure at the State Department -- and I fear that his leaving will result in some loss of ground for those who want a more dynamic, healthy, and modern American relationship with Latin America -- but am hopeful that his successor will move along a similar course as he laid out.

The truth is, however, that America tends to move backward on Latin America far more consistently than it moves forward.


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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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