Almost two years after President Joe Biden stepped into office, nearly a dozen ambassadors to key countries in the Western Hemisphere are still not in place, with eight nominees having their confirmation hearings put on hold by a Republican senator — all during a pivotal time in the region.
Ambassadorial nominees to Nicaragua, Brazil, Panama, Uruguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, El Salvador and the Organization of American States have been nominated but their confirmations are being held up by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.
Biden recently nominated an ambassador to Ecuador and has yet to nominate ambassadors to the Dominican Republic, as well as Colombia — the strongest ally of the United States in the region which recently elected its first leftist president. Chile’s ambassador was recently confirmed after the position was vacant for close to four years.
“This is the worst it’s ever been,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a former State Department official and diplomat. “It’s been a trend for a long time. In other words, it gets worse with every administration.”
Finding candidates has become more difficult over the years because both the vetting and the confirmation processes have become more complex, and could become tedious and frustrating for the nominees. With Biden’s nominations to the region, partisan politics in Congress and what some have described as the administration foot-dragging have also complicated the confirmation process, even while they were still in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The latest holdup came in mid-May when Scott placed the “blanket hold” on all the nominees for Latin America and the Caribbean after Biden lifted some restrictions placed on Cuba by former President Donald Trump. The lifted restrictions included some on travel, as well as the amount of remittances that can be sent from the U.S. Scott called the move “an idiotic attempt to return to Obama’s failed appeasement policies.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “It is unfortunate that Republican obstruction continues to delay these much needed appointments to a number of critical roles, many of whom would help our government respond to recent political transitions in Latin America."
Scott’s office told NBC News in an emailed statement that “Biden’s appeasement of the illegitimate communist Cuban regime is disgusting. I will hold relevant nominees until it’s reversed.”
But even before Scott’s hold in May, some of the nominees had been waiting for over a year to be confirmed. The Senate has confirmed 143 Senate Foreign Relations Committee nominees, but very few of those confirmed have been from the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s an embarrassment,” said Michael Shifter, the former president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “It reinforces the perception that the U.S. doesn’t care about Latin America.”
Delays 'on a different level now'
Out of 49 State Department nominees pending in the Senate, less than 20 of them are on the floor. Almost half of those on the Senate floor are from the Western Hemisphere.
A White House spokesperson said they continue to press the Senate to process as many nominees as possible given other competing demands for floor time.
Shifter said the confirmation of ambassadors to Europe and Asia has always been a higher priority for the U.S. than Latin America.
“I do think it’s on a different level now,” he said.
Compared to other regions in the world, the confirmation of ambassadors in the Western Hemisphere can become more politicized. There are no blanket holds on nominees in other regions, such as Europe or Asia, like there is in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Farnsworth said part of the problem causing vacant ambassadorships is that “the political atmosphere in Washington gets more poisoned every cycle. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you’re trying to get the other team.”
Several senators such as Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are highly focused on Latin America, particularly Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“You have several senators who are passionately interested in Latin America and are very strong in terms of imposing their interests on the nominees,” Farnsworth said. “It gets worse every time. I’m not sure how you break out of that cycle. At the end of the day, it hurts our interests in the region.”
Ambassadors officially represent the U.S. in a foreign country and have a level of authority that diplomatic officials of other ranks don’t have. Ambassadors have the political weight to push things through the White House, while diplomatic officials of other ranks may be more risk-averse.
Holdups amid regional challenges
The holdup in ambassadorships comes at a time when Latin America is facing significant challenges. The region’s largest economies are grappling with the highest inflation in 15 years after the shocks of the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In many countries, the inequality gap has widened.
Many countries have been seeing historic migration flows to the U.S., including from Cuba and Venezuela. Nicaraguan migrants are on the rise, as well.
Complicating matters, the U.S. suspended its operations at the embassy in Venezuela in 2019 and cut diplomatic ties, though Ambassador James Story still plays an important role and has traveled back to the country in efforts to secure the release of American prisoners. The Nicaraguan government withdrew its approval of the U.S. nominee for ambassador to Nicaragua in July after he criticized the country’s president, Daniel Ortega, and said he would “support using all economic and diplomatic tools to bring about a change in direction in Nicaragua.”
As Nicaragua is discussed at the Organization of American States, which recently passed a resolution condemning Ortega, the nominated U.S. ambassador still has not been confirmed.
Several Latin American countries, like Colombia, have elected leftist leaders and it could potentially change the relationship with the U.S. Colombia has been the strongest ally of the U.S. in the region and its new president, Gustavo Petro, has been critical of the U.S.-led war on drugs and proposed ending the extradition of drug traffickers. He has also talked about renegotiating a 2012 trade deal with the U.S. With the absence of an ambassador, the Biden administration sent a high level delegation in July to begin conversations on a range of topics.
“I don’t understand what’s happening with Colombia,” Shifter said, referring to the ambassadorial vacancy. “It’s just puzzling to me.”
Meanwhile, China’s role in Latin America has grown rapidly in the past two decades and has become South America’s top trading partner. It’s a major source of investment, as well as lending in energy and infrastructure. During the pandemic it supplied the region with medical equipment, loans and hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.
Despite having a hold on eight nominees, Scott is a vocal critic of China’s growing influence in Latin America and wrote in a CNBC opinion piece in 2019 that “Latin America is the new battleground in the greatest geopolitical conflict of our time.”
Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could negotiate on legislation that would include getting the eight ambassadors confirmed. A vote to end Scott’s hold would require more bipartisan agreement from 60 of 100 senators, which generally is time consuming.
“Latin America is kind of a stepchild of foreign policy. It’s an afterthought,” Shifter said. “First you get Europe and Asia and eventually you get around to Latin America.”