In early May, word went out that Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela, the top US State Department official for Latin America and the Caribbean, would be resigning to return to academic life. In the days that followed there was speculation about potential replacements, but no announcement. July 15 was Mr. Valenzuela's last day and there is still no sign of a replacement.
It's a necessary position to handle day-to-day policy and take the lead if a crisis in the region breaks out. From Steve Clemons:
Latin America policy -- set by the White House -- no matter how rational and conscientious and planned one wants to be about it, is easily hijacked by events, distractions, or the next perceived bigger item on the policy docket. That's true, which is why it should be important for the White House and the Secretary of State to keep the relevant personnel positions for Latin America filled. It's the job of the four or five top US officials for Latin American issues to keep policy on track while Washington is distracted and only a few journalists, think tanks and obscure bloggers are paying attention.
In one campaign promise not fulfilled, President Barack Obama never named a special envoy for Latin America. Now with the assistant secretary job empty, that's two spots that could be focusing on Latin America while Washington is stuck on other issues, but are instead empty. This is a completely preventable absence of leadership.
The problem now is that Mr. Obama's nomination for Valenzuela's replacement (whenever he makes it) still needs to be confirmed by Congress. The confirmation process is not going to be smooth and could very likely stall amid the rest of the political battles going on. It will likely be weeks and could be months without anyone in this spot. There's a big and capable bureaucracy that will manage US relations with Latin America in the meantime (and for those of you reading my blog, you're all great), but having the person at the top matters.
The same way certain Latin American leaders shouldn't jet off to Cuba for a month without delegating responsibility to a replacement, the US shouldn't leave its top foreign policy positions in the region empty and hope the bureaucracy takes care of itself and no crises emerge in the meantime.
One final question: Would any president leave the military commander of the United States Southern Command position empty and without a replacement for a significant amount of time? I know the cultures at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom are different (there will never be a political appointee as a four star military officer), but that parallel should be made. The US always fills its position for regional combatant commander with time to spare, while the diplomatic and economic posts sit empty waiting for executive appointments and then for Congressional approval. If diplomacy is more important than military power in this region, our actions should match our words.