Arturo Valenzuela: Looking Back to Look Ahead

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Part One of a Two Part Memorandum: Preparing for the Job – What’s at Stake for the Region

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held an initial hearing on July 8 concerning President Barack Obama’s nomination of Dr. Arturo Valenzuela to the position of Assistant Secretary of State and head of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. However, a narrowly-led effort in the Senate initiated by Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) marred Valenzuela’s nomination from being moved to the Senate floor, where he most likely would have been overwhelmingly confirmed before the summer recess set in. The Senate will reconvene on September 8, when it could then take up the Valenzuela nomination as one of its first orders of business.

When finally confirmed, Valenzuela will sit in the seat occupied by Dr. Thomas Shannon during the latter part of the Bush presidency and into the beginning of Obama’s term. Shannon is currently the Obama nominee for the position of U.S. ambassador to Brazil. The Valenzuela nomination could not come at a more opportune moment in recent U.S.-Latin America history, as the region has been seriously roiled by a string of inappropriate policymakers under the Bush administration, who operated against the background of the distractions posed by Iraq. As a result of the inauguration of President Obama, Valenzuela’s assumption of the Assistant Secretary of State position has the potential to redefine Washington’s relationship with the rest of the hemisphere.

Confirmation Hearing
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced Valenzuela to the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which was presided over by the Chairman of the Senate Western Hemisphere Committee, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and the ranking Republican member, Senator Richard Lugar, from Indiana. Valenzuela initiated his presentation at his hearing with a fairly upbeat statement about the future of U.S. relations and the prospects for the rest of the hemisphere, emphasizing the necessity of consultation between the branches of government, and promising “open and frequent lines of communication” with members of Congress at this “promising moment in the Americas, with challenges for sure, but also with many opportunities.”

While admitting that “the challenges of fledgling democracies in the area are daunting,” Valenzuela remained confident of the ability of U.S. diplomacy to overcome the challenges presented by a hemisphere “working to narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” In terms of improving the quality of life for the hemisphere’s many impoverished residents, Valenzuela providentially insisted that free trade is not enough to undo the harsh realities of poverty found in the region. He maintained that the wealth of commerce must be shared among all sectors of society, and that education must be made available to all of the region’s children in order to guarantee improved prospects for a more prosperous future for the region as a whole.

There is no question that Dr. Valenzuela has the background and capacity to do the job. He is an estimable public figure who will be a much more worthy incumbent in his new position than were his counterparts in the early Bush administration, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega. But nagging doubts still remain whether he is strong-willed enough and possesses sufficient grit to dare to challenge the mainstream of conventional wisdom when it comes to promoting issues involving regional sovereignty and a new level of constructive engagement. The same is true of his willingness to back the right of Latin American nations to develop their own political and economic models, no matter how much they may stray from traditional U.S. standards. A monitoring of CNN en Español and other media and lecture appearances made by Valenzuela in recent years indicate that stances taken by him both before and after holding high positions in the Clinton administration demonstrate an unwavering consistency on major regional issues.

There is little to show that upon his return to university life after the Clinton years or until he prepared for a return to government service under Obama that he was privy to innovative and breakthrough beliefs. Nor was there an obvious adherence to bold values that might prompt him to challenge the timorous formulations of so much of the commonplace thinking going on in Washington’s Latin America policy work shops at the present time.

DeMint’s Senate Block
Since the initial hearing, Senator DeMint has blocked Valenzuela’s nomination due to his negative viewpoint of Obama’s handling of the explosive situation in Honduras. In a press release published on his website on August 5, the arch-conservative DeMint stated,

“I’m glad to see the State Department is finally beginning to walk back its support for Manuel Zelaya and admit that his ‘provocative’ actions were responsible for his removal. The State Department has also acknowledged that the current leaders of Honduras have taken encouraging steps to find a peaceful solution.”

DeMint also condemned the pro-Zelaya resolution approved by the Organization of American States, and went on to state that:

“the Honduran people are fighting to uphold their constitution, and they deserve America’s full support in their defense of democracy. This administration should make it clear that we support the rule of law and Manuel Zelaya is not above it. He should be permitted to return to Honduras, but he shouldn’t be illegitimately returned to power. He should face a fair trial under the laws and constitution of the Honduran people.”

De Mint maintained his hold in the Foreign Relations Committee through the beginning of the Senate’s August 7 recess and it remains to be seen what will happen when the Senate reconvenes in September, but Valenzuela is all but certain to be confirmed. A cursory review of Valenzuela’s career to date reveals that his success in this administration will be based on whether he is prepared to seek the robust strategies called for by such objective requirements as high poverty levels and national aspirations for non-traditional relations with governments seeking more critical definitions of democratic governance and progressive economic systems. It is hoped that his undoubted knowledge of the region will help him to fulfill the yearnings of all its citizens.

There is no doubt that he can meet the test because there is no question that Valenzuela has the personal and institutional skills that are likely to bring success. But, it will be necessary for Valenzuela to be prepared to fight for a fair-minded policy of constructive engagement and to be willing to dismiss some of the myths and spent language spawned by the decades of shallow “truths” coming out of Washington. Unfortunately, these were the essence of the policy promulgated by the Clinton administration at a time when Valenzuela was a senior member of its Latin American team, and we all recall Clinton’s unfortunate Haiti policy. At the very least, one hopes that Valenzuela will seek to establish a rapport with some of the constructive thinking subscribed to by his predecessor, Thomas Shannon. This should mark the beginning point of Valenzuela’s future odyssey.

Foreign Familiarity
During his tenure as Assistant Secretary of State, Shannon distinguished himself by laboring to repair profoundly damaged relations with Latin America throughout President George W. Bush’s time in office. But the damage control came too late in Bush’s tenure to salvage matters in an administration that had long since pushed hemispheric concerns off its plate in favor of an obsession with Iraq. To Obama’s credit, Valenzuela, who first worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign and then switched over to Obama’s after she dropped out of the race, has both the experience and reputation in regional affairs that appear necessary to positively affect policy and to participate effectively in what hopefully will turn out to be a meaningful dialogue. The only problem is that he may continue servicing a status quo that is more receptive to repeating past inadequate policies than to traffic in truly new ideas. Ultimately it will be his knowledge of the hemisphere and his long-established personal relations that will potentially give him respect and influence within the administration, as well as the region, which he will need as long as he has the courage to act on his convictions once they are more formally articulated.

Interestingly in 2003, Valenzuela spoke of the “significant problems” Bush created by sending Clay Johnson, the then Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget of the White House, to the inauguration of the then-President of Ecuador, Lucio Gutiérrez. Locked out of official and unofficial meetings due to his relatively junior-level title, Johnson’s attendance revealed the low priority with which Bush regarded the region and perhaps, even worse, the inability of the administration to adequately fathom the appropriate methods of informal networking used to embark on the kind of negotiations that are critical to achieving positive diplomatic outcomes at such events.

Valenzuela’s critique of Johnson’s attendance reveals that he understands the subtle, implicit messages that can matter more to transact effective diplomacy than official discourse and speeches at formal occasions. Equally important for rebuilding hemispheric relations that had been trampled upon by the Bush administration will be Valenzuela’s recognition that there are multiple complexities underlying the full spectrum of Latin American relations, which must be respected. Even though the U.S. may have tensions with Brazil and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Brazil had no problem honoring him with the Order of the Southern Cross in 2000 for his skills in foreign relations, and Colombia saw fit to award him its Order of Boyaca, as well. But Valenzuela must create bold, if not transformative attitudes to take on the new Latin America that molted during his absence from the scene.

Part Two- Valenzuela: Dealing with current Latin American realities of a different order and of a more sizable magnitude.