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Latin America Report

Is it bad for America to have so many ambassadorships empty in the Americas?

USEmbassyHondurasProtest.jpeg
Elmer Martinez
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AP
STILL AMBASSADORLESS Protesters throw burning tires at the entrance to the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa in 2019 during a demonstration against then Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

More than a third of U.S. ambassador posts are unfilled in Latin America and the Caribbean — some for years — including at the Organization of American States.

This summer President Biden will host the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. That gathering of the western hemisphere’s leaders is held every three years — and Biden hopes this one will promote democracy at a time when authoritarian governance is on the rise again in Latin America and the Caribbean.

But many people who care about Latin America policy question the U.S.’s commitment — at least in the sense that several U.S. ambassador posts in the region are empty. In fact, more than a third of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean do not now have a U.S. ambassador, including the largest, Brazil.

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“The signal this passes on, whether it’s intentional or not, is one of disinterest and disengagement,” said Eric Farnsworth, who heads the Washington D.C. office of the New York-based hemispheric think tank Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

It’s not unusual to have brief ambassador vacancies, and a new U.S. ambassador was just confirmed for Argentina. But these days there seem to be more long absences — as in Chile, which has not seen a U.S. ambassador for more than three years. Farnsworth said that can weaken the U.S.’s stature as a go-to ally for Latin American governments.

“And at a time," he said, "when the United States is no longer the only game in town in the western hemisphere — if you include China and some other options — that becomes problematic from a national security perspective."

READ MORE: Why is Nicaragua's Ortega keeping opponents locked up — even after his 'sham' election?

In South Florida, Latin American exile communities are also growing impatient with Washington’s inability to fill ambassadorships in countries like Honduras. Its capital, Tegucigalpa, hasn’t seen a U.S. ambassador since 2017 — even though helping that country escape its crushing poverty, gang violence and government corruption is crucial to reducing illegal immigration to the U.S.

Perhaps the biggest concern here is the long absence of a U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, or O.A.S. Based in Washington, it’s the hemisphere’s de facto U.N.

“The emptiness of the leadership of the United States in that space — it doesn’t make any sense," said Nicaraguan expat Claudio Acevedo, a leading human rights activist in Miami.

When the U.S. is no longer the only game in town for the western hemisphere — there are China and other options — the lack of U.S. ambassadors is problematic from a national security perspective.
Eric Farnsworth

He points out there’s been no U.S. ambassador to the O.A.S. for a year now — since Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Cuban-American appointed by former President Trump, left the post in January 2021. President Biden nominated former Florida International University Latin America director Frank Mora as O.A.S. ambassador last July. But Mora, a Miami-born Cuban-American who's also a former top Pentagon official, hasn’t had a hearing on his nomination yet in the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, Acevedo says the O.A.S.’s attempts to build a more united hemispheric front against Nicaragua's brutally repressive leader, Daniel Ortega, are faltering without stronger U.S. involvement.

“Nicaragua has become a jail," Acevedo said, noting the hundreds of political prisoners languishing there — including the opposition candidates Ortega locked up for "treason" before last November's presidential election.

"And so it should be a concern for both [U.S.] parties that the Frank Mora nomination goes through. Or if not him, then somebody else. But someone.”

"MIXED MESSAGING"

Acevedo and other Nicaraguan exile leaders recently sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to that effect. A Committee spokesperson told WLRN a hearing for Mora is “pending.”

Other exile groups, including Venezuelans, also worry about the ambassador void in Latin America and the O.A.S.

“The Venezuelan crisis is deepening," said Adelys Ferro of Weston, who is a director of the nonprofit Venezuelan-American Caucus..

"It is extremely important that we have an authorized voice in the Organization of American States to deliver the message that the Biden Administration wants to get out there.”

The U.S. doesn’t recognize authoritarian Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. So the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela is based next door in Colombia. As a result, though the O.A.S. is often criticized for ineffectiveness, Ferro feels a sitting U.S. ambassador there could better confront Venezuela's human rights abuses.

Ferro fears the large number of U.S. ambassador vacancies in Latin America risks the impression that Washington cares less about the region —and that, she said, emboldens autocrats like Maduro.

“It leaves the door open for mixed messaging,” she said.

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Miami Herald
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Former FIU Latin America director and now OAS ambassador nominee Frank Mora.

The ambassador vacuum in Latin America did worsen under Trump, whose relations with the region were strained at best. But Republicans and many independent observers complain the Democratic Biden Administration itself has been slow to deliver enough nominations.

Either way, arguably the main obstacle to filling these ambassador positions is Washington's worsening partisan gridlock.

Senators in both parties delay the confirmation process for political purposes, especially when they're in the minority — and especially when it comes to Latin America, where communist Cuba is often a hot-button issue.

Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Foreign Relations Committee member and a Cuban-American, has publicly objected to O.A.S. ambassador nominee Frank Mora’s support for U.S. engagement with Cuba. (The Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, also a Cuban-American, himself opposes more engagement with Cuba, but has not publicly opposed Mora's nomination.)

Mora declined to comment because he’s not been confirmed yet.

At the same time, some Latin American experts point out that ambassador vacancies don’t mean diplomacy isn’t getting done.

“While it’s politically inconvenient not to have an ambassador, the embassy’s working, especially with a highly professional foreign service like the U.S.'s,” said former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís, who's now interim director of FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.

Solís says it's of course preferable to have a good ambassador in place; and he does insist the U.S. needs to confirm Mora as O.A.S. ambassador — especially since the organization plays such a large role in putting together the Summit of the Americas the U.S. will host in a few months.

But when it comes to embassies, he said the second in command who run things in lieu of an ambassador, often called DCMs, or deputy chiefs of mission, are usually very capable diplomats. (He points to the U.S. embassy in Honduras as one example.)

“It’s actually much better to have an effective DCM than a lazy ambassador, you know?” Solís said, pointing out that sometimes politically-appointed ambassadors aren't the most effective envoys.

That means the U.S. can still promote democracy in Latin America even if U.S. ambassadors aren’t everywhere in the region.

Solís acknowledges "the lack of that direct representative of the U.S. president can have a psychological effect on host countries." But if Americans are concerned about the ambassador void in Latin America or any region, he and other experts say, they'll need to address the current Washington system that's created it.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.