A Tribute to Outgoing Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon

In the coming weeks, Dr. Thomas A. Shannon, who protected a rational regional policy from the ideological knives of the Bush administration, will step down as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. By that time, President Obama’s pick for the job, Georgetown University Professor Arturo Valenzuela, will be confirmed by the Senate. Shannon, a career member of the State Department’s Senior Foreign Service, served as a diplomat throughout the region in the 1980s and 90s and as Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council from 2003 to 2005.1 Appointed Assistant Secretary of State on October 7, 2005, Shannon began to gain notice after conducting himself with considerable restraint as the administration’s chief Latin America policymaker. His tone sharply contrasted with that of the Bush administration’s original Latin America policymakers, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, who left irreparable damage for Shannon to fix.

Throughout his tenure, Shannon combined a sense of professionalism with a professed interest in not only encouraging democratic institutions throughout the region but also in promoting its economic development. From early on, Shannon rejected the confrontational and demagogic approach toward Latin American issues that all too often had been taken by his predecessors during the Reich-Noriega period, and he instead maintained a rational and non-ideological style of diplomacy. While U.S.-Latin America relations became increasingly tense during the past eight years, Shannon was uniquely able to reach out to a wide swath of leftist democratic hemispheric leaders by emphasizing areas of mutual interest when conflict seemed inevitable.

During the first months of Obama’s presidency, Shannon found no difficulty in quickly adapting to the spirit of the new administration’s policies and has proven to be a particularly effective diplomat. On May 27, Assistant Secretary Shannon was nominated by President Obama to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, a testament to the respectful and cooperative approach that has characterized his decades of service.2 The bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Brazil, Latin America’s largest economic power and a key U.S. partner in the region, is confronted by a host of complex issues surrounding climate change, trade, especially in regards to ethanol disputes, and counter-narcotics policy, which demand a diplomat of Shannon’s skill and expertise. As the top diplomat in the U.S.’s most important regional ally, Shannon will continue to play a critical role in hemispheric affairs for years to come.

Latin Americanists owe Dr. Thomas Shannon their gratitude and admiration for his years of high-minded service in which he stressed dialogue and constructive engagement rather than confrontation. To express our thanks, COHA wishes to recall some of the important policy hallmarks which occurred during his tenure as Assistant Secretary.

Reaffirming the U.S. Commitment to the Region
For an administration that had flagrantly ignored its neighboring countries as it became embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the appointment of Assistant Secretary Shannon signaled a renewed interest in cooperation with Latin America and a sign that productive relations with the region could become more of a priority for the U.S., despite that hardliners President Bush and Secretary Rice were still in office. The overarching theme of Shannon’s tenure became the link between democracy and development, which he emphasized as the key to promoting open governments and free markets in the hemisphere. In a briefing preceding Secretary Rice’s January 2008 trip to Colombia, Shannon offered his characterization of the U.S. role in the hemisphere: “It’s about how you show [that] the democratic state can deliver the goods of social and economic development while providing the security that all of our citizens want and need in order to be able to lead peaceful, productive lives.”3

Over the course of his service, Shannon worked to prove the accuracy of his prescriptions, not to insist that they were always a bonus or predictably a solution for the poor. Under Shannon’s leadership the U.S. negotiated ten free trade agreements with Latin American countries, encompassing two thirds of the hemisphere’s GDP. He praised the elections that occurred throughout the hemisphere in 2006, citing the year as “a regional reaffirmation of democratic institutions.”4 Yet Shannon supplemented his commitment to free markets and democracies by consistently focusing on socioeconomic development.

This is clearly reflected in the doubling of U.S. aid to Latin America during his tenure, the forgiving of $19 billion in debt to Latin America’s five poorest countries, and the dispatching of a thirty percent increase of Peace Corps volunteers to the region.5 Shannon promoted an ethanol agreement with Brazil to help the region reduce its dependence on foreign oil6 and the Partnerships for Latin American Youth program that has pledged $75 million in scholarships for Latin American students.7 He also was involved in creating the U.S.-Chile Equal Opportunities Scholarship Program to allow Chilean scholars to study in the U.S.,9 while during his tenure the Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a five-year compact for development with El Salvador and established threshold agreements with Guyana, Paraguay, and Peru.9 Overall, Shannon oversaw the increase of U.S. financial assistance to the region by 4 percent in 2008, bringing it to $1.6 billion for the year.10 While the Bush administration was still wildly unpopular among Latin Americans of all sectors, these various initiatives demonstrate a drive toward an increased cooperative engagement with the region and offer a foundation for new and progressive initiatives by the just inaugurated administration.

Counter-narcotics and Security Cooperation
Perhaps the most urgent matter that Assistant Secretary Shannon faced during his tenure was the rampant violence related to the trafficking of narcotics that afflicts a growing number of Latin American states. Most volatile is the situation in Mexico and Central America, where raging drug wars have led to heavy stresses on the civilian police force and have threatened to unseat the Mexican democracy, military, and civic institutions. However, in the face of an increasingly tense situation, Assistant Secretary Shannon worked constructively with the government of President Felipe Calderón to enhance the mutual border security of Mexico and the United States. Shannon consistently expressed his support for President Calderón’s escalating crackdown on the drug cartels and urged the necessity of full U.S. cooperation.1q He was also one of the first U.S. officials to actively recognize that the U.S. is part of the problem in Mexico by allowing the smuggling of guns and laundered money into Mexico and by providing a huge market in the U.S. for illicit drugs. Shannon pledged to work toward tightened law enforcement on the southwest border area of the U.S. as a step toward solving these problems.12

In a critical effort at outreach during President Bush’s March 2007 visit to Mexico, Calderón expressed the need for a rigorous program of institution-building. The U.S. would help shore up the police, penal system, intelligence services, and security on the U.S.-Mexican border and thereby increase the capacity of his government to combat drug traffickers.13 Shannon worked throughout the following year to transform this program into a reality, testifying before Congress concerning the urgency of enhancing bilateral cooperation on a number of fronts. The result of these efforts was the Mérida Initiative, a partnership signed into law by Congress on June 30, 2008, by which the United States agreed to provide $1.6 billion to Mexico and the Central American states over the next three years to fight transnational drug trafficking and organized crime.

In particular, these funds are to be used to develop security infrastructure in Mexico and Central America and to combine the efforts of U.S. and Mexican law enforcement.14 While the program has been criticized for an excessive focus on military funding, the Mérida Initiative still marks a new level of cooperation and trust among the governments of Mexico, Central America, and the United States. Unlike many previous foreign assistance programs characterized by unilateral U.S. action, the Mérida Initiative was built on the input of the Mexican and Central American governments, which identified the resources most crucial to them in fighting narcotics traffickers.15

The Mérida Initiative also includes funds earmarked for human rights and judicial reform, to ensure that increased funding for the military does not yield opportunity for corruption and human rights violations.16 Though most of the Initiative’s programs are currently only in the initial and implementation phases, the Mérida Initiative signals an important advancement involving multilateral relations which will surely outlive Shannon’s tenure.

Cuba Policy
Washington’s policy towards Cuba continues to be among the most contentious areas in which U.S.-Latin American relations are being carried out. The period in office of Assistant Secretary Shannon saw a number of important developments in Cuba’s domestic political arrangement, most notably the transfer of power to Raúl Castro from his brother, which demanded an immediate but well thought out U.S. response. Unsurprisingly, the Rice State Department did not use this period of transition as an opportunity to move toward normalized relations with Cuba, but continued to reiterate the worn line that Cuba would first have to take steps toward democratization. However, Shannon did not employ the inflammatory rhetoric against Raúl Castro’s government that was an essential characteristic of the Bush administration. Rather, he legitimized his criticisms of Havana on the principles outlined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter: that all people of the Western Hemisphere are entitled to democracy, elections, and basic political liberties.17

Moreover, Shannon remained aware that a trade embargo is not the only way to encourage political change in a nation, and he did not try to install America’s chronically controversial Cuba policy throughout the rest of the world. When the European Union lifted its economic restrictions on Cuba in June 2008, Shannon displayed a remarkable calmness and understanding. In an interview with members of the Spanish Press, he explained, “We think the benchmarks we understand they have set are the right benchmarks, they are good benchmarks, and they I think underscore a shared commitment both in terms of the United States and the European Union on the importance of releasing political prisoners, protecting human rights, and looking for a way to convince the Cubans to begin a process of political opening and national dialogue in Cuba that will lead to some kind of democratic transition.”18 While Shannon recognized that the U.S. and the E.U. have different tactics that they bring to the Cuba question, he was ultimately able to reach beyond fractious differences to delineate their common goals in the region.

Even more promising have been Shannon’s efforts under the possibly freed-up atmosphere of the new administration to advance a meaningful dialogue with Cuba, one that may be less predicated on punitive preconditions. Twice since Obama’s easing of travel and remittance restrictions, the Assistant Secretary has met with Jorge Bolanos, the director of the Cuban interests section in Washington, to discuss prospects for improving U.S.-Cuba relations.19 This cautious break with the past could hopefully give rise to a truly constructive reform policy which would likely produce desired results in Cuba and raise Washington’s profile throughout Latin America.

Relations with Leftist Leaders
During Shannon’s tenure, the United States faced significant challenges flowing from the growing influence of an increasing number of left-leaning leaders in Latin America, who were reluctant to cooperate with the State Department’s economic and security initiatives in the region. In particular, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez vociferously dampened U.S. policies and challenged Washington’s traditional role as the principal provider of economic aid to the hemisphere and an unwanted dominating voice in the region. However, while others in the Bush administration were quick to denounce Chávez as a conspirator against the United States—a previous Assistant Secretary, Otto Reich, deemed him part of an “Axis of Evil”20—Assistant Secretary Shannon consistently restrained himself from such sclerotic language. In his first address on Venezuela to the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs in November 2005, Shannon based his criticism of the Chávez government on evidence presented by Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Committee on Human Rights, which – accurately or inaccurately – had shown the President to be consolidating his political power in a manner dangerous to Venezuela’s democratic institutions.21

In his July 2008 testimony before the House Subcommittee, Shannon emphasized that Chávez is wont to use brusque language to rally other left-leaning Latin American states against more assertive acts by U.S. leadership, but he maintained optimism that given significant domestic and international challenges, the Venezuelan leader would eventually be open to cooperate with the U.S. Indeed, under Shannon’s leadership style, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs explored options toward renewing relations with Venezuela in areas where interests converged: energy, commercial relations, and counter-narcotics cooperation. While active diplomacy with Venezuela continued to stall through the closing days of the Bush presidency, the inception of the Obama administration introduced signs that relations with Chávez will most likely begin to thaw. In a move indicative of increased goodwill between the two nations, Chávez reappointed an Ambassador to the United States, and he expressed to President Obama his desire for improved relations at the recent Summit of the Americas.22

Assistant Secretary Shannon acted with similar respect toward other Latin American leftist leaders. He met with President Evo Morales of Bolivia the day before his inauguration,23 without presupposing the socialist leader to be an adversary of the U.S., and emphasized, “We want an opportunity to enter in dialogue with the president-elect and with the government to better understand how we can go forward with the … extremely positive … relationship that we have historically had.”24 After suspicions of a conspiracy against his government led Morales to expel the U.S. ambassador from La Paz, Shannon emphasized the need for diplomacy and dialogue in resolving the conflict. A number of days ago, Shannon visited President Morales to discuss prospects for improved relations, cooperation in the fight against drugs, trade, and principles of noninterference.25 Relations between the countries remain tense—a date was not set for the re-exchange of ambassadors and Morales expressed his indignation over U.S. “interference”—but Shannon’s diplomatic overtures, the first from any U.S. official since the expulsion of ambassadors, still offer an important promise that relations will soon heal.

Shannon also has recognized El Salvador’s leftist party, Frente Farabundo Martí par la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), as a legitimate contender in the country’s 2009 elections and supported the party’s right to participate within a democratic system. Shannon visited the FMLN President-elect, Mauricio Funes, several days after his victory, and he announced that he looked forward to cooperation in economic development and fighting organized crime. Importantly, he did not chastise the Salvadorian leader for his decision to recognize the government of Cuba upon his inauguration.26

Looking Ahead
Newly nominated Arturo Valenzuela will confront an array of challenges when he takes over as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. As drug-related violence escalates in Mexico, Colombia, and much of Central America, Valenzuela will be called upon to initiate reforms that will place constraints on the use of military power and more effectively address the demand side of narcotics-fueled conflicts. Another point of contention is United States Cuba policy, which remains frozen in the Cold War era and must be dramatically overhauled to meet the demands of a new epoch. Valenzuela will also have to address the fact that leftist leaders in Latin America will remain skeptical that free trade agreements will bring prosperity for all, and therefore Valenzuela must dilute the force of Washington’s free-trading orthodoxy if the U.S. is to establish normalized and mutually beneficial relations with its leftist counterparts in the region. However, the new assistant secretary will also inherit a promising strategy from his predecessor, who faced complex diplomatic problems with a willingness to understand multiple perspectives and who was thereby able to maintain at least minimal civility in U.S. relations with the hemisphere under strenuous circumstances.

While serving a Bush administration which was basically unsympathetic to what he was trying to do, and which too often conducted diplomacy with crow-bar demagogic audacity, Shannon has reminded us of the redeeming value of cooler heads in foreign policymaking. President Obama’s recent announcements on Cuba, his positive reception at the Summit of the Americas, and his readiness to engage in the re-exchange of ambassadors with Hugo Chávez offer hope that this new administration will begin a new age of multilateral engagement and cooperation with Latin America. It will be the responsibility of Assistant Secretary Valenzuela to serve as a strong advocate for the region and to build on the legacy of his predecessor, whose achievements were almost extraordinary given the liabilities of the administration under which he worked. Valenzuela must ensure that his period of leadership will witness the maintenance of rational policies that are respectful of all of the region’s sovereign governments and the extension of social and economic initiatives that will help bring greater social justice to the Latin America.

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