Diplomats say a revolving door of Latin American specialists at the White House and State Department has left the region’s leaders wondering who in Washington they can turn to on important matters of national security and other issues.
The sudden departure of Juan Cruz, the senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the White House’s National Security Council, and ongoing delays to install Kimberly Breier as assistant secretary of the State Department’s Latin America division along with many other departures has left diplomats convinced the region is not a priority.
“We want to know to whom should we talk,” said one South American diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomat was not authorized to publicly discuss U.S. policy. “First, you cut everyone at the State Department. Now, after a year of getting to know people at the White House, you’re changing everything again.”
The concerns come as the White House wrestles with infighting across the administration, fleeing staff and a president, already distrustful of traditional Washington bureaucracy, tightening his inner circle and questioning who is on his side.
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Diplomats have been left questioning whether they will be able to relate to the next person - and even asking reporters if the new officials will care about their country’s key issues.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged the vacancies during a news conference last week announcing new promotions. Citing a promise when he arrived “to get the team on the field,” he said there was still much work to be done.”
The places where we still have gaps, places like Western Hemisphere, where we have challenges in Venezuela and Nicaragua and in Mexico and the Northern Triangle – important areas, we need a leader,” Pompeo said.
It’s not just Latin America, Pompeo said.
The administration also doesn’t have an undersecretary for management or public diplomacy or an assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and South Asian Affairs. There is no ambassador even nominated at 25 embassies around the globe and the ambassador post hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate in 75 embassies.
In fact, of 716 “key positions” requiring Senate confirmation, 157 have no nominee and 187 have been nominated, but not confirmed, according to data compiled by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that tracks political appointees.
Under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the State Department lost 60 percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats and new applications to join the Foreign Service fell by half, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization of the U.S. diplomatic corps.
But perhaps nowhere has the the brain drain been as noticeable than in Latin America.
The people who foreign diplomats speak to frequently and have left include Francisco L. Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who will take over as ambassador to Honduras; and Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who is becoming ambassador to Ecuador.
And that’s in addition to all the Latin American specialists who had risen to the higher ranks of the State Department helping shape the direction of the nation’s foreign policy.
They include Thomas Shannon, who served as undersecretary of State for political affairs under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Shannon spent much of his career in Latin America. William Brownfield, the former assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs who served as ambassador in Venezuela and Colombia, spent much of his career in Latin America.
Other top leaders who left in just the last few months include Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador in Mexico and former assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs; John Feeley, who served as ambassador in Panama and Fernando Cutz, the NSC’s former director for South America and acting senior Adviser to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. (McMaster also has been replaced by John Bolton).
“I can point you to a half-dozen Latin American ambassadors here in Washington with whom I routinely speak who all, using the great Yiddish word, kvetch, tell me there is no one to talk to at State,” said Feeley, a career member of the foreign service who served as ambassador to Panama until March.
Diplomats are still irked that President Donald Trump skipped the Summit of the Americas in Peru. And he has yet to visit the region as president, instead appearing to hand off Latin American policy to Vice President Mike Pence and other officials.
Trump was scheduled to visit the region earlier this year, but pulled out to consider steps to take after Syria’s Assad regime had again used chemical weapons. He sent Pence in his place.
Both Pence and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have traveled to the region to discuss economic, security and immigration issues with, among others, Colombia, Brazil and Guatemala.
It was also Pence, for example, who last week spoke with new Colombian president Ivan Duque about the importance of maintaining bilateral relations with Colombia and migration, trade and counternarcotics priorities.
The White House confirmed Mauricio Claver-Carone has joined the NSC staff. The former Treasury official will replace Cruz and is expected to bring economic ideas for the region and ratchet up administrations policies on Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said the lack of a permanent assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs as well as many empty ambassador positions leaves no question where Latin America stands on the foreign policy hierarchy.
“Take the case of the Mexican ambassador. How long has it been since they haven’t had an ambassador?” Guajardo said. “It just tells you. They don’t care. The U.S. doesn’t care, not even a nominee. It sends a big message. And you go around and a lot of levels are not staffed. “
Benjamin Gedan, who was National Security Council director for South America during the Obama administration said the U.S. government is right to prioritize the crisis in Venezuela, but has otherwise allowed Latin America policy to become “hijacked by domestic priorities” such as trade protectionism and reducing immigration.
“The U.S. government rarely prioritizes Latin America, but the disinterest nowadays is notable,” Gedan said. “President Trump is the first U.S. president to skip the Summit of the Americas. In fact, he has not set foot in Latin America while in office, and it’s a coin toss whether he shows up to the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires next month.”
No one at the State Department has spoken with “any authority on Latin American issues” since the start of the Trump administration, Feeley said. He could remember only twice during his 14 months in the administration receiving instructions to be delivered to the Panamanian foreign ministry.
“The State Department has become a self-gelded horse,” Feeley said. “It’s not just the Latin diplomats. It’s the American diplomats in the field. Nobody knows what is going on.”
Guajardo argued that the lack of personnel in key positions works against U.S. interests. The United States complains about the region doing business with China, but he asked where are the Americans to stop them?
“I can assure you China has no embassies without ambassadors,” Guajardo said. “The United States is taking issue with all these countries working with them. Well, who is reaching out to them? Who is running interference in Washington? And often, the answer is no one.”
Cruz, Palmeiri and Fitzpatrick, are leaders diplomats had daily conversations with. They have reputations in the region for understanding each country’s distinct interests.
“We will have to make new relations with everyone,” the diplomat said. “Paco Palmieri is leaving. Mike Fitzpatrick is leaving. It’s a change from top to bottom.”
But what they really want to see is a commitment from Trump. They’re thankful that Pence has visited the region multiple times, but he’s not the president.
“The only person we get to speak with is Pence,” the diplomat said. “It’s always Pence.”
This story has been updated confirming Mauricio Claver-Carone has joined NSC.