Born in Chile to a Methodist pastor and an American missionary, Valenzuela first came to the United States as an exchange student after an earthquake destroyed his high school. After completing secondary school, he attended Drew University for his undergraduate studies.
At Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s recommendation, Valenzuela acted as an advisor to Michael Dukakis in his 1988 presidential campaign before being later nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, at least in part as a result of his reputation for having extensive knowledge of Mexican affairs. Dr. Valenzuela then served as the head of the National Security Council’s Hemispheric Section until he returned to his position as the Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. While Valenzuela initially acted as a campaign adviser to now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her presidential-primary campaign, Obama added him to his own foreign policy team last November. The hope among Latin Americanists throughout the country is that Valenzuela’s academic expertise in hemispheric issues and his broad diplomatic experience acquired during the Clinton presidency will dramatically contrast with the predatory Bush-era ideologues Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, who, without exception, were held in low-esteem by their Latin American counterparts for their arrogance and dismissive attitude toward the region and many of its leaders.
Progress in the Region
Valenzuela lauds the area’s democratic achievements as the “single most significant change… in the region,” since the end of the Cold War. While the most successful democracies in his eyes—Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica—have suffered the fewest number of juntas, Valenzuela believes that on the whole, the “days of violent conflict in Central America and [the] pervasive authoritarian rule with its massive human rights violations in the Southern Cone” have disappeared. It is this last point that may make liberal Latin America analysts disagree with his findings. It could be argued that his new soon-to-be boss, Secretary of State Clinton, in her seeming tolerance of the ruling military-civilian interim regime in Honduras, her indifferent Cuba policy, and her rumbles over Hugo Chávez, does not seem to wholeheartedly share such convictions. While Valenzuela may see the violent overthrows of democratically-elected governments as a phenomenon of Latin America’s distant past, he still sees what remains is a block of leftist politicians typified by Chávez in Venezuela, which could be seen as “a worrisome counterpart” to the region’s general democratic shift.
There is little question that Valenzuela possesses the astute diplomatic skills and necessary intellectual comprehension to assess the unique nature of the diverse policies and situations he will be called upon to confront. Such an ability will aid him in distinguishing radical factors at work in such countries as Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela from those to be found in more moderate Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. In this post-Bush-era, Valenzuela would be wise to ruminate why his predecessors routinely failed to more successfully interact with each of their individual leaders, no matter how controversial they might prove to be.
Predictions After Leaving Office
Upon George W. Bush’s election in 2000, Valenzuela remained optimistic in private life about the potential for progress and enlightenment in U.S.-Latin America relations if a consistent bipartisan consensus on issues of prevailing importance to a democratic agenda were systematically boosted. These could include free trade, political integration, stability, and the fight against narco-traffickers and terrorism. However, Valenzuela believed that approaching these issues would require a distinct brand of foresight that Washington might not be capable of mustering. Throughout the Bush administration, he continued to demonstrate a respectable insight into the region, usually expressing fairly centrist opinions on issues even before they fully matured, as if he was intent, at all costs, not to make enemies in order to keep some kind of dialogue alive.
Valenzuela expressed some of his concerns with developments in Latin America in a short interview with Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald, in which he offered a limited number of analytical options. Valenzuela branded the peace talks between the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government as doomed to fail just months before the reconciliation process officially collapsed, due to, it would seem, a “difficult internal war, that won’t be resolved quickly.” Valenzuela’s advice was to call for continued U.S. support to Colombia to squash the FARC rebels, connected to a comprehensive regional policy. This wasn’t exactly the kind of new thinking that the region was trying to conjure up.
The populist rise of Hugo Chávez was a cause for alarm for Valenzuela, who said, “I see Venezuela as more of a wild card. Everything depends on the personality of the president.” Valenzuela called for developing an amicable relationship with Chávez, but with democratic safeguards to protect the country’s democratic social institutions as well as the internal affairs of other countries. Valenzuela feared for the stability of Venezuela’s economy in 2000, given the expected drop in oil prices at the time—lower oil prices would threaten the durability of Chávez’s reforms, and thus would weaken the loyalty of his domestic support base—and he cautioned about the possibility of Chávez tinkering in the internal affairs of nations like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay in an effort to maintain regional, if not continental, prominence.
The third call for caution that Valenzuela offered to Bush’s incoming administration was the need to strengthen ties with the sleeping behemoth of Brazil. The regional leadership of this “inward-looking giant” continues to grow to this day, and Brasilia has laid low, perhaps in order to avoid unwanted attention from a U.S. fearful of seeing its regional hegemonic status challenged. This tactic has worked exceptionally well for Brazil: the South American nation now provides relatively passive competition for the U.S. for regional leadership through its roles in UNASUR and MERCOSUR, its economic prowess, a huge and growing inventory of valuable commodities, a widespread productive capacity, its leadership of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, and a prominent role in other regional, hemispheric, and global initiatives.
Latin America Foreign Policy
Valenzuela understands the power of the one diplomatic tool that the Bush administration was not able to effectively activate: silence. For example, in June of 2005, the U.S. voiced concerns that the then-Bolivian presidential candidate, Evo Morales, was mounting protests within this country with the help of Cuban and Venezuelan funding. The Bolivian public so disapproved of this self-absorbed U.S. analysis that spirited public demonstrations broke out in support of Morales against the allegations being made in Washington. As a result, a larger percentage of the population switched its support to back Morales who went on to do just what the U.S. government had feared most of all: win the presidential election. But Washington’s apprehension regarding Morales’ victory was largely misplaced; as a result, precious political capitol and a possible valuable ally were lost in the process. As Valenzuela and some others correctly pointed out back in 2005, if Morales lacked the ability to master the distribution of Bolivia’s oil wealth, this would prevent him from being able to effectively mount a worrisome manifestation of popular domestic or international support as readily as Chávez. While there is no guarantee that silence at the right time would have resulted in a different electoral outcome, Washington’s intervention was effective only in making the region’s leaders more hostile to its predilections. It turned out that the former U.S. ambassador to La Paz, Manuel Rocha, probably handed victory to Morales by directly intervening in the internal affairs of the country by urging conservative Bolivians to oppose Morales.
The Bush Administration’s follies spread far beyond Latin America, as it tragically entrenched itself in a globally unpopular war in Iraq that served to tarnish Washington’s image everywhere. There is no question Valenzuela is an advocate for the U.S. to engineer a dramatic turnaround in its foreign policy, beginning in its own hemisphere. But the question remains how much muscularity is behind this punch. He argues for a renewed focus on democracy enhancement that would solidify, if not at least construct for the first time, value-neutral electoral institutions to encourage free and fair elections and open up the democratic process throughout the region, which has long been marginalized. Valenzuela also has observed that strengthening the monitoring of a government’s compliance with the rule of law, as well as the democratic principles being elaborated in such a merited body as the Organization of American States’ Human Rights Commission, should be of the utmost concern to the United States, even when the outcome of the democratic process does not directly favor Washington’s secular interests. To further a revamped regional policy, Valenzuela has advocated reinstating the Special Envoy to the Americas post that was once held by Buddy MacKay during one phase of the Clinton administration. Obama promised to fill the post, but has not acted on his campaign promise since taking office Here, it should be mentioned that there are a number of well-regarded Latin America analysts who would disagree that MacKay had significantly contributed to the expansion of an enlightened approach to U.S.-Latin America relations. But the potential for a capable candidate in the post to work on repairing hemispheric relations does exist, if the right person could be identified.
The Task Ahead: Cuba, Mexico, and Honduras
The Cuba question remains paramount in the minds of Latin American leaders after the issue took center stage at the OAS General Assembly meeting in San Pedro Sula, Honduras in June. At the meeting, Secretary of State Clinton opposed the unrestricted lifting of Cuba’s suspension from the OAS that eventually was passed, but she was successful in retaining human right language in the OAS vote. Earlier, the Obama administration had lifted restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba, but only for Cuban-Americans. Although this flurry of activity by the Obama administration may have been a sign that his administration is planning further relaxation of policies, it does not reflect a pledge on the part of the White House to significantly overhaul the full panoply of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Despite offering relatively little analysis on U.S.-Cuba relations during the Bush years after he had returned to academia, Valenzuela recently has come out in support of expanded dialogue and the opening of links to Cuba, which had been more a part of the Obama than the Clinton campaign. A new, slightly fleshed out policy—albeit, still of a minimalist nature—was endorsed by the Obama administration at the OAS gathering. Valenzuela will have to increase his concentration on U.S.-Cuba relations because his immediate constituency will come to expect this, knowing that his office will be sitting astride the route to be taken by the White House in order for any future rapprochement to be achieved between Washington and Havana.
Mexico and Immigration
Mexico, meanwhile, has grown in importance to the United States, given the internal changes now taking place in the country, particularly due to the stepped-up tempo of the anti-drug war there. It is not too much to say that after years of being riveted elsewhere in the hemisphere and the world, Washington is offering a rare primacy to its policy toward Mexico. Valenzuela’s expertise in the country is sure to advance the U.S.’ capability to effectively interact with Washington’s neighbor to the south, to which President Obama has promised immigration reform and major expansion in the cooperation in combating the cartel-inspired violence there as indicated by the newly operational Mérida Initiative, for which the U.S. Congress has designated more than USD $1.6 billion.
Mexico is experiencing an impressive increase in its UN Human Development Index as its educational attainment and life expectancy rates improve, its economy continues to develop, and the number of migrants seeking to gain entrance to the United States somewhat dips. As Valenzuela has observed, “the very [institutionalization] of the [US-Mexico] relationship, which helps to routinize it and manage it…, has also the unintended consequence of Balkanizing Mexico policy, [causing Washington to lose] sight of the overall national security.” The problem with American policy toward Mexico is that it drives “in fits and starts by a myriad of domestic factors… it is a policy that is often diffuse, fragmented, and contradictory.” He suggests one possible remedy would be to conceptualize Washington’s policy toward Mexico primarily in terms of security and strategic concerns.
Mexico’s political institutions have lagged behind the social changes occurring in the country’s economy and society. Valenzuela sees a prosperous and stable Mexico as essential to the United States’ well being; “a failed Mexico on the other hand, of course would present enormous challenges.” Therefore, the US-Mexico relationship needs to witness the overcoming of a variety of petty disagreements over smaller issues, rather than be heavily focused on the mutual interest of guaranteeing Mexico’s stability.
Some of the most contentious issues for the two countries’ policy makers have been brought about by sharp differences in Mexican and American living standards, which end up driving millions of distressed Mexicans and Central Americans to undertake the treacherous journey of illegal immigration to the United States. The best solution to the immigration issue in Valenzuela’s mind appears to rest in the Obama-proposed program of amnesty that includes the option of obtaining U.S. citizenship after a series of mandatory, if arduous steps, are taken. However, this plan will only achieve success if measures are taken to equalize living standards on both sides of the border. Valenzuela has spoken out on this issue and believes that the US should invest heavily in bettering living conditions in Mexico if it means helping to solve the illegal immigration crisis. The equalization of the standards of living between the two countries should be carried out even if it has to be on the U.S. dime: “with all due respect, Mr. Chairman, [if] we can spend $87 billion on a project of reconstruction [in Iraq] in one part of the world, let’s pay some attention to our own hemisphere and the challenges that we face.”
Mexico and the Anti-Drug War
Valenzuela’s expertise regarding Mexican issues has persuaded him to push for anti-drug policy reform since the beginning of his professional career. When the United States tied its own aid and loans to the IMF and World Bank to yearly assessments of drug-trafficking reduction efforts, Valenzuela understood that the policy would foster the creation of a region-wide block of countries that resented their failure to meet U.S.-imposed goals for the Americas. He saw through a contradictory strategy that withheld the aid necessary to create the free and healthy societies via projects funded by development banks that eventually would be achieved without local citizens needing to kowtow to the cartels in order to have their basic economic and security needs met.
By dubbing countries like Mexico and drug corridor nations in the Caribbean as “not trying hard enough,” Washington runs the risk of these countries banding together in protest of U.S. policy when it comes to fighting the War on Drugs in the region. Any U.S.-Latin America partnership should center on joint efforts to combat problems that affect the region, not on issuing judgments regarding Washington’s neighbors that “dampen relations and create a back drop that would create some hurdles.”
Following the OAS’ lead, the United States has adopted at least the appearance of a thoroughly multilateral approach in responding to the ousting of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Its delegation joined in the unanimous vote that gave Tegucigalpa a 72-hour deadline to restore Zelaya to the presidency and condemned his removal as an “unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order.”
But while Washington has issued numerous statements in support of Honduran democracy, in an attempt to distance itself from the interim government, its actions have been far more cautious than the situation requires, especially if President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton particularly are aiming to restore faith in the U.S.’ democratic bona fides in the region and the credibility of its actions.
The pro-democratic inter-American community essentially would have to quarantine the de facto Honduran government in order to produce positive results. As a statement of principle, all Latin American nations and members of the European Union have recalled their ambassadors, and the World Bank and InterAmerican Development Bank have cut off new loans to the country. Meanwhile, the U.S. refuses to legally classify Zelaya’s removal as a military coup, even though the Pentagon has withdrawn all military cooperation. The State Department has not formally recalled its ambassador from Tegucigalpa while Washington reviews whether to cut off all development aid. Having inherited a long history where the U.S. has been the instigator and a chronic co-conspirator in staging Latin American military coups, the Obama administration has been heavily criticized for not taking a stronger stance throughout this ordeal and for not fulfilling its promise to be an equal partner in the region. Clearly, time is running out for the Obama administration and it is doubtful whether the U.S. will be able to stand in the middle for very much longer while still retaining the respect of Latin American leaders, who are beginning to talk about Washington as stonewalling in order to protect an anti-Chávez government.
Valenzuela appears to strongly believe that an interruption of the constitutional order has occurred in Honduras and that the U.S. needs to stand with democracy, even if it feels uncomfortable with the specifics of the outcome of a given country’s democratic process. In an era after which tens of thousands of innocent civilians had been murdered by military death squads throughout the hemisphere, it is unacceptable that a military force be allowed to be used to remove an elected official from office without due process, and without at least first pressing charges based on a procedure laid out by the constitution. Even the heavily-compromised de facto heir to Honduras’ presidency, Roberto Micheletti, acknowledges that constitutional procedures regarding a lawful impeachment process were not followed, in a hemisphere where, for far too long, militaries have tampered with issues of democracy with impunity, and habitually have managed to undermine them.
As Washington spends valuable time redefining its position on the restoration of Honduran democracy and its own future role in the region, the leadership of Dr. Arturo Valenzuela will be germane in assessing the effectiveness of U.S. policy. His policies could provide a solid personal base of formal credentials, experience, background, and ties that could serve to positively affect democratic change in the region, while also encouraging useful economic and cultural links. While in one sense, his appointment could not come at a better time, it also has the potential to usher in a period of great disappointment. It all depends whether his confirmation brings to the fore someone who is prepared to dare to dream the same “hope” and “change” messages that the president continuously spoke about during his presidential campaign, or whether the region will once again be served up a generous mixture of clichés along with empty rhetoric that has been its inadequate regime for so long in the past.