Is Chairman Menendez the Right U.S. Signal for Latin America?

By: Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, Professors of Government, American University School of Public Affairs

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

Fresh and credible allegations about U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s bullying of Latin American governments and influence-peddling for political cronies raise further doubts about what Washington is signaling to the region – and the implications for U.S. relevance in the second Obama Administration.  Secretary of State Kerry’s successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez is now a major architect of U.S. policy, and his activities and policies are an indication of U.S. intentions around the world, especially in Latin America, which has been the focus of much of the Senator’s attention.

Media reports have documented well how Menendez persistently intervened on behalf of a wealthy campaign donor to pressure the government of the Dominican Republic to institute port security programs over legitimate objections of local authorities.  When Dominican officials appropriately exercised their duties and pointed out that the donor lacked expertise for the exorbitantly priced contract, Menendez only turned up the heat.  This was consistent with an ongoing pattern of behavior.  In 2011, according to reliable sources, Menendez demanded a U.S. policy of forcing the government of El Salvador to fire a cabinet minister he did not like, clearing the way for the military to capture the position.  Earlier, when the OAS opened discussions on whether to lay out conditions for Cuba’s readmission to the hemispheric body, he threatened to cut all of its U.S. funding.  A self-proclaimed champion of “democracy promotion” and “accountability” in Latin America, the New Jersey Democrat never missed a chance to criticize centrist or left-leaning governments.  Governments in the region are not the sole targets of his interventions:  Menendez has used his influence to intimidate bureaucrats throughout the U.S. foreign policy community into either supporting his initiatives or, at least, turning a blind eye to them.

Latin American opinion-makers grew accustomed to Menendez’s ways during his tenure (2010‑12) as Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on the western hemisphere, but his ascension to the chair of the full committee from within Obama’s own party makes his voice – and style – much more important.  His influence-peddling for his buddies’ business interests – at the expense of other U.S. government and foreign partners’ priorities – can only fuel greater cynicism about U.S. preachiness on anticorruption and “democracy promotion.”  It also further risks U.S. relevance at a time that many in the region remain hopeful of a revival of President Obama’s short-lived emphasis on “partnership” in the “neighborhood.”  The investigations into Menendez’s activities may run into serious obstacles – many bureaucrats fear his ire, and will be reluctant to talk – but it’s already clear that his bullying and influence-peddling make him the wrong person for a leadership role in U.S. policy toward Latin America. 

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.

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