Friday, July 15, 2011

Assistant Secretary of State Valenzuela Steps Down

As Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela’s tenure comes to a close this week, several analysts have attempted to sum up his performance. When Valenzuela first announced his intention to step down in May, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor interviewed four of his predecessors to comment on his accomplishments. In general, there was broad consent that Valenzuela proved himself to be a deft strategist, demonstrating a strong emphasis on human rights performance as well as a serious talent for diplomatic mediation.

According to Otto Reich, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush, Western Hemisphere Affairs is considered one of the “most 'political' of all bureaus.” But it seems Valenzuela managed it quite well, using contacts he gained from years of experience in government and academia to his advantage in the face of numerous political crises that have occurred in the region over the past two years.

As Liz Harper of the U.S. Institute of Peace points out in the Americas Quarterly blog, one of Valenzuela’s central achievements has been to push the use of social media in the State Department. In addition to managing active Twitter and Facebook accounts, Valenzuela hosted a digital town hall last November, responding to questions submitted online as well as from a live audience about policy issues, youth programs, and career opportunities at the Department of State.

The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons presents a glowing review of Valenzuela’s work, particularly stressing his handling of the Honduran coup, his management of the fallout from WikiLeaks’ Cablegate and his efforts at patching up Brazil-U.S. relations. He also expresses a degree of pessimism regarding Valenzuela’s predecessor (who has not yet been announced), predicting a potential “loss of ground” for those who seek to move U.S.-Latin America relations beyond their paternalistic legacy.

Meanwhile, Intercambio Climactico’s Guy Edwards and Kelly Rogers make a convincing case for why the next Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs should have experience promoting environmentally sustainable policies, in order for the U.S. to keep up with the increasing support for “green growth” among Latin American countries.

The State Department’s Dip Notes blog hosted a live online video discussion yesterday between Assistant Secretary Valenzuela and Dr. Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, asking the two a number of questions which were submitted online. Although no particularly tricky questions were chosen by the moderator, the discussion presents an interesting snapshot of the main challenges that the region faces in consolidating democratic rule.

News Briefs

·         Mexican officials announced yesterday that they have discovered a massive clandestine marijuana field outside if Rosario, Baja California. According to the Associated Press, the plantation covers around 120 hectares (slightly less than 300 acres) and was operated by 50 employees, all of whom somehow managed to evade capture. The news agency called the find “the largest marijuana plantation ever detected in Mexico,” and Mexican authorities have said that it would have produced nearly 120 tons of the drug. El Universal has video footage of the plantation, which was hidden from aerial view by a black screen-cloth, often used by farmers to protect their crop from sun damage.

·         According to a report released on Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center, Mexican American birthrates have outpaced immigration from Mexico.  As the New York Times points out, this has the potential to significantly alter the domestic immigration debate in the coming years.

·         The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights announced on Wednesday that it will send the Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families to Mexico in order to conduct a two-week long investigation on the state of migrant rights in the country. This is the second time that the office has visited the country; the first time was in 2002.

·         Colombia Reports says the FARC has demanded three million dollars in ransom for the four Chinese employees of Emerald Energy who were kidnapped last month. Because Colombian President Santos has threatened to dismiss any foreign businesses which pay ransom to the country’s illegal armed groups, it is unlikely that the company will make the payment.

·         Argentina has sentenced two former military officials to life in prison on charges of murder, kidnapping and torture at “El Vesubio,” one of the most infamous prisons run by the country’s former dictatorship, Clarin and AP report. Five others were convicted of torture, and were sentenced to 18-22 years in prison.

·         Barbara Mertz of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti has announced the start of "Operation Phoenix,"  which will send peacekeeping troops, along with Haitian police, to the Port-au-Prince slums of Cite Soleil, Bel-Air and Martissant, all three of which are major hubs of gang activity. AP says that the operation is expected to last for several days, and will be followed by a community development initiative which will repair roads and set up health care clinics.

·         The opposition-controlled Paraguayan legislature has rejected President Lugo’s bid to run for reelection, Reuters reports. Although the Constitution forbids presidents from serving more than one five-year term, last month Lugo’s supporters presented a petition with 90,000 signatures supporting the move.

·         One day after announcing that he will likely undergo radiation treatment and chemotherapy in order to fight his cancer, rumors have emerged that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez will travel to Brazil for treatment. According to Folha de São Paulo and Reuters, the rumors are still unconfirmed. But if he does go to Brazil, it is likely that he will come to Sirio Libanés Hospital, which is known for its world renowned cancer treatment center. Both Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (who underwent treatment for lymphatic cancer last year) and Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota have previously offered to host the Venezuelan leader.

·         In the latest indicator of Brazil’s development, The Economist predicts that only five countries in the world will have more than a million centenarians each by 2100, and Brazil is one of them.

·         The Los Angeles Times highlights the work of El Salvador’s Pro Búsqueda, an organization that has located almost half of those disappeared in the country’s civil war.

·         Nery Jeremias Orellana, a pro-Zelaya journalist and member of Honduras’s National Popular Resistance Front, was shot and killed yesterday by unknown gunmen in the province of Lempira. AP cites human rights groups which claim that at least 22 journalists have been killed in the country since 2007.

·         Despite President Lobo’s plan to hold a series of dialogues with various social and political organizations across Honduras, a minister of his cabinet has announced that the administration will not seek to organize a constitutional referendum. El Diario reports that the purpose of the meetings is to hear the proposals of all sectors of society for change and then “promote them through the Constitution’s existing instruments.”

·         Finally, good news on the Cuban relations front: the Obama administration has sent out a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) which threatens to veto a house appropriations bill that includes provisions seeking to reverse current policies on Cuba. As The Havana Note points out, this is “the closest this administration has gotten to appearing to have a policy on Cuba and sticking to it.