Friday, January 25, 2013

Latin America mentions in John Kerry's confirmation hearing

Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next Secretary of State, had his confirmation hearing yesterday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. U.S. policy toward Latin America came up several times.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) — who, if Kerry is approved, will be the new Foreign Relations Committee chair — asked Sen. Kerry about U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. Menendez mentioned several things that make him hopeful for better relations with Latin America, including a potential transition in Venezuela, a strengthening relationship with Mexico’s new president, negotiations in Colombia with the FARC. He asked for Kerry’s thoughts on the region.

Kerry responded: “it is an opportunity that is staring at us. Hope we can build upon what secretary Clinton and President Obama have already done to augment our efforts in the region, you can add the Merida initiative to that list … the Central American Security Initiative, assistance to Guatemala and Honduras, the energy initiative with Brazil … and increasing economic integration in the region. But as we know there have been outlier states that have not been as cooperative, depending on what happens in Venezuela there could really be an opportunity for a transition there … also hope we could make progress with Bolivia and Ecuador. One of the great stories of Latin America is Colombia … President Uribe stepped up in a critical moment and began the process of rescuing that nation, President Santos is now doing an amazing job, we strengthened the relationship by passing the economic trade agreement. We have to build on that. And that is an example for the rest of Latin America of what awaits them… [Also] hope to bridge the gap with some of the other countries.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) asked about the strengthening of the relationship between Mexico, Central America and the United States, due to “common security goals.” One element of this relationship is judicial reform, but the Senator noted that the federal government and several Mexican states have still lagged behind on this issue – i.e. making the judicial systems in those countries less “inquisitorial.” How, he askd can the United States better work with allies in Mexico to improve the judicial system?

Kerry responded that there are ongoing efforts with respect to the judicial system, with a lot of focus on guns and counternarcotics. He continued “I want to keep the existing efforts going, which could be subject to sequestration. … Mexico has been under siege, everybody know that. It has been very difficult. Lot of courage exhibited by military folk and police and I think there is an effort to move it somewhat away from military and into justice system, which is why we will have to double the efforts here and fund the personnel and program itself.”

Sen. Udall followed up that the new Mexican security strategy is to achieve a “Mexico in Peace,” and said he hoped that the government won’t abandon the fight against crime. How, he asked, can you assure that mutual areas of interest get the attention they deserve, especially cooperation along the border?

“President [Enrique] Peña Nieto is indeed trying to move this in a different direction. This has been a highly militarized and very violent initiative over the last years… one thing I learned [as a prosecutor] is that there is no one approach [to the fight against drugs], you’ve got to be doing everything that you’ve got to do, and that means domestically in the United States you’ve got to do education, and you’ve got to do treatment … we have a revolving circle of demand … we need a more comprehensive and less accusatory approach … I’ve always felt that this label the ‘war on drugs’ is kind of artificial because war implies it’s all-out … we have always failed to do our part when it comes to education and treatment and abstinence.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California): “Under Secretary Clinton’s leadership the State Department has fought to protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, to end the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, to promote women’s economic empowerment in places like Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to ensure that women play a meaningful role as new governments take shape in the Middle East and North Africa. If confirmed, will you ensure that the position of global ambassador at large is retained and that the office is effectively resourced? ”

Kerry: “Yes. … Secretary Clinton has put an emphasis on human trafficking in the State Department, and I intend to continue that. … What you’re talking about with respect to women and girls, in South Africa, in Guatemala, in other parts of the world, women have stepped up as peace makers, women have made the difference in many of these instances as to the security of those communities, the attitude of the state, its willingness to reach out and be inclusive.”

Also mentioning Latin America, but not eliciting a response, were Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who when criticizing U.S. foreign policy asked why did the administration condemn what happened in Honduras [the 2009 coup] while helping to steal an election in Nicaragua; and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) who said he is worried about rising Chinese and Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere (especially Iranian sponsored Spanish-language broadcasts).

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) made a comment on Cuba that did not get a response from Kerry: “I’ve felt differently than perhaps some of my colleagues on this panel and thought that the best way to foster change and progress toward democracy is to allow free travel of Americans, to let them go as they wish. I don’t think that that is a weakness or any capitulation at all. I think it shows strength. In fact I’ve always thought that if we want a real get tough policy with the Castro Brothers, we should force them to deal with Spring Break once or twice. … This president has taken measures to allow more Americans to travel freely: relatives, travel for religious or cultural education purposes and I think that’s a good thing. I hope that you’ll find ways to continue that and continue more innovative approaches to deal with change there.”

Sen. Flake’s comment, however, angered Sen. Menendez, who replied, “To suggest that spring break is a form of — a form of torture to the Castro regime — unfortunately, they are experts about torture, as is evidenced by the increasing brutal crackdown on peaceful democracy advocates on the island just in the last year, over 6,600 peaceful democracy advocates detained or arrested. Just this past Sunday, the Ladies in White, a group of women who dress in white and march every Sunday with a gladiolus to church, tried to come together to go to church this past Sunday. And the result of that, these are individuals who are the relatives of former or current political prisoners in Castro’s jails … is that more than 35 of the Women in White were intercepted, beaten with belts, threatened [with] death by agents aiming guns at them and temporarily arrested.”

(This post was researched by CIP Associate Sarah Kinosian and WOLA Intern Elizabeth Glusman.)