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Ambassadors Discuss U.S. Priorities in Andes
Diplomatic Pouch / February 4, 2011

By Larry Luxner

The five countries that make up South America’s Andean region include some of Washington’s best friends and worst enemies in the hemisphere.

On Feb. 1, three U.S. ambassadors — Michael McKinley (Colombia), Heather Hodges (Ecuador) and Rose Likins (Peru) — joined two charges d’affaires, John Creamer (Bolivia) and John Caulfield (Venezuela), for a lively forum organized by Inter-American Dialogue.

The envoys were all in town for the inaugural Global Chiefs of Mission Conference hosted by the State Department in early February — the first time U.S. ambassadors from around the world gathered simultaneously in Washington to mobilize and coordinate the work of America’s ambassadors overseas.

The Inter-American Dialogue discussion though offered particularly relevant insights ahead of President Obama’s planned visit to Latin America in March, when he’ll travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

It would have been five ambassadors, if not for the fact that neither Bolivia nor Venezuela — which are run by left-leaning populist presidents — have full or friendly relations with the United States. At the other end of the spectrum are Colombia and Peru, which both enjoy excellent ties with Washington, and Ecuador floating somewhere in the middle.

“Normal relations means having an exchange of ambassadors, and would allow for more dialogue,” said Caulfield. “But we have not been able to send an ambassador to Caracas. President Chávez has rejected our nominee, so we’re at an impasse.”

Caulfield, speaking a day before the 12th anniversary of the 1999 inauguration of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela, said the stalemate has endured ever since former ambassador Patrick Duddy’s departure in July.

Chávez had previously expelled Duddy twice, and in December angrily rejected Larry Palmer, the veteran diplomat President Obama named to replace him. As a consequence of Palmer’s rejection, Venezuela’s former ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Alvarez — who had gone home for Christmas — was told not to come back.

Asked by a member of the audience if Venezuela is a democracy, he declined to answer directly.

“In addition to our elections in November, there were legislative elections in Venezuela, and those were significant because, unlike previous elections, the opposition decided to compete, and they competed strenuously,” said Caulfield, who’s serving as charge d’affaires in Venezuela for the second time.

“More importantly, there’s a real game in politics now, and both sides came away looking at the 2012 presidential elections and realizing it was a horse race. It looks like both sides are committed to doing their best. Whether the playing field is level is something else.”

Caulfield warned that despite the massive oil and gas reserves that have made Venezuela “an extremely wealthy country,” the political risk for U.S. companies operating there is very high.

“The business community was surprised with the recent expropriation of the Owens-Corning glass factory,” he said. “That sent a shock wave throughout the U.S. business community, which until then had considered itself not involved in politics. This was a wakeup call, and it’s unclear how this will affect future investment decisions.”

Creamer, who has run the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia for the last 18 months, was very careful not to criticize President Evo Morales in any way — even though Morales has made inflammatory statements about U.S. “imperialism” and expelled the previous American ambassador, Philip Goldberg, more than two years ago for “meddling” in internal Bolivian politics.

“The United States and Bolivia have had a long relationship, and we’re an important source of trade and remittances for Bolivia,” he said. “It’s no secret that the relationship in recent years has become more complicated. I’m in charge because we’ve not had an ambassador since September 2008. The Bolivian government also expelled the Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2008, and so what was historically a very close relationship has become more challenging.”

Nevertheless, Creamer said Washington and La Paz have several issues of common concern, such as reducing poverty and eradicating the drug trade.

In fiscal 2010, he said, the United States provided $73 million in aid to Bolivia, mostly for health care, environmental protection and counternarcotics assistance.

“Given that backdrop, both governments decided to launch an initiative aimed at normalizing our relationship. Tom Shannon [former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and now U.S. ambassador to Brazil] led a delegation to La Paz in 2009 with the aim of establishing general principles. We have yet to conclude this process.”

Hodges, who became U.S. ambassador to Ecuador in July 2008 following a tour of duty in Moldova, conceded there have been ups and downs ever since the left-leaning Rafael Correa was elected Ecuador’s president in late 2006 — though she tried to put the best face forward on U.S. ties with the shaky government in Quito.

“Ecuador and the United States have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for a long time. Issues we work on together include trade, economic development, security and defense,” she said. “The importance of that relationship was highlighted last year when we had a string of visitors, after a long gap during my first year in Ecuador when we hardly had any visitors at all. So all of a sudden, Arturo Valenzuela [assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs] came, followed by Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton. Then we had the U.S. special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern. This was an opportunity at the highest level to exchange views.”

Nevertheless, Hodges lamented the “lost opportunities” arising from Quito’s refusal to sign a “diplomatic note” that would expand U.S. military assistance to Ecuador, particularly with regard to training missions and counternarcotics.

“We lost the whole year of 2010 because we could not sign that diplomatic note,” she said. “Now we’ll try to make it a three-year note, but we don’t know if the government is going to sign it. It’s unfortunate we can’t get moving on that.”

Hodges noted that despite Correa’s 70 percent popularity rating, crime remains the top concern of most Ecuadoreans — which is why a violent police uprising against the government last September was so troubling.

In addition, she said, “some issues just never go away. The one that’s been most prominent is our concerns about the lack of a visa requirement for anyone wanting to enter Ecuador. Ecuador has imposed visa requirements for eight or nine countries, but we wish there were more. People are using Ecuador to get to the U.S., and some of these people could be dangerous.”

On a happier note, Washington’s relations with Peru are at an all-time high, according to Likins, who was previously posted to El Salvador.

“In my 29 years in the Foreign Service, I don’t remember when we had a better relationship with Peru,” she told her audience. “This is an interesting time to be in Peru, and not just because of the upcoming elections. There’s tremendous economic success, and a real excitement that’s palpable.”

Last year, Peru under President Alan García enjoyed growth of 8.9 percent — the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

“That economic growth has allowed them to make lots of progress in reducing poverty,” said Likins. “Peru’s annual per-capita GDP is now over $5,000, and everybody believes these elections will be free and fair. Regardless of the outcome, little will change.”

Presidential elections are scheduled for Apr. 10. Leading candidates are Luis Castañeda Lossio, the former mayor of Lima, and Keiko Fujimori, daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, as well as one former president, Alejandro Toledo.

“Corruption is the number-one issue. Most if not all the candidates have addressed this. Narcotics are also a continuing challenge,” said Likins. “The third challenge is the issue of social inclusion. Not everyone has benefitted from the tremendous growth Peru has experienced. That will continue to be a challenge for whoever is leading Peru a year from now.”

With 46 million inhabitants, Colombia is by far the most populous of the five Andean countries. It’s also one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance.

Last October, Colombia — under the leadership of its new president, Manuel Santos — assumed a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Santos is also eager to ratify a free-trade agreement with the United States as he seeks to preserve the successful economic policies of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, while repairing damaged relations with Venezuela, Colombia’s neighbor to the east.

“What’s most impressive are the new initiatives this government has launched, focusing on economic, social and human rights reforms,” said McKinley, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru who was transferred from Lima to Bogotá last August.

“These are fundamental reforms that deal with the most pressing issues in Colombia over the last several decades,” he said. “Colombia is taking advantage of an economy that’s rapidly globalizing, negotiating FTAs with the European Union, Canada and others. And the Santos government has had considerable success in rebuilding Colombia’s relationships throughout Latin America.”

Asked about the chances for passage of a free-trade agreement by Congress — especially given U.S. concerns over jobs and labor practices in Colombia — McKinley kept his remarks relatively brief.

“Obviously, the key issue on the agenda in taking our relationship to the next step is the FTA,” he said. “It’s been made clear on numerous occasions that the FTA with Colombia remains a top priority. The fact that President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address is very significant indeed. It’s a good agreement, not just for Colombia but for the United States as well. Colombia as an export market is larger than that of Spain, Indonesia, Russia or Turkey. But the decision and timing on this will be made by the White House.”

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