The Obama Administration’s New Chapter of Engagement in Latin America – Juan Sebastian Gonzalez

In April 2009, President Barack Obama told his Latin American counterparts that he wanted to begin “a new chapter of engagement” with the region. Almost two years later, Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said that the Obama Administration remained committed to shifting “the balance in the U.S.-Latin American relationship in a positive and constructive direction.” As we enter the twilight of its term in office, regional experts are trying hard to account for the ways in which the Obama Administration has followed through on these commitments. For our second interview in the “LATAM Subject Matter Experts Series,” James Carroll, Managing Director of the Inland Islands Society, therefore discusses the current state of the U.S.-Latin American relationship with Juan Sebastian Gonzalez, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the Department of State.

What is the current state of US relations with Latin America? What do you feel are the greatest opportunities and risks facing the American national interests in Latin America?

Latin America and the Caribbean are critically important to the United States, as demonstrated by the active pace of engagement by President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry and other members of the Administration on everything from promoting energy security in the Caribbean through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative to partnering with Caribbean nations against transnational criminal organizations through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. Elsewhere, we are deepening our trade ties with Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Peru through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and helping Central America tackle poverty and insecurity. Just as important are the ties between the people of the Americas, which we are working actively to expand through initiatives like President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas to increase study abroad programs within the Western Hemisphere.

Throughout the hemisphere, U.S. foreign policy is driven by the premise that a middle class, democratic, and secure region is not just profoundly in our national interest, but also a critical building block of a more prosperous global economy and a more peaceful, secure, and free world. To take advantage of the limitless potential, we need to renew the common stake that we have in one another to effectively address such shared challenges as climate change, terrorism, and the spread of Zika, but also to seize economic opportunities by breaking down trade barriers, investing in the region’s education, and promoting equality for all our citizens.

The second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was release by the State Department this past April. What has been the impact of the QDDR on US diplomacy in Latin America?

The QDDR sets forth Secretary Kerry’s policy priorities for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, our policy development is informed by the four policy priorities outlined in the QDDR: 1) Preventing and mitigating conflict and violent extremism; 2) Promoting open, resilient, and democratic societies; 3) Advancing inclusive economic growth; and 4) Mitigating and adapting to climate change. These form the basis of our common agenda with our Caribbean partners.

The 2015 National Security Strategy identified that climate change poses a threat to US national security and the QDDR called for a “historic global framework” on climate change. Latin America and the Caribbean combined have more than 525 million people and will emit more greenhouse gases by 2050 than the US. How will the US work with Latin American countries to move towards more sustainable practices? Do you feel that the pact signed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference has done enough to prevent future insecurity in the region?

The United States collaborates with governments, businesses, and civil society groups on a wide range of initiatives related to climate change, clean and renewable energy, and other sustainable practices. We are engaging actively with governments in the region to implement the Conference of Parties Agreement from December in Paris, and we have several efforts underway to address shared energy needs in specific while mitigating the effects of climate change.

The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) promotes the sharing and implementation of solutions to energy and climate challenges facing the hemisphere. Connecting the Americas 2022 (Connect 2022), an ECPA initiative, promotes universal access to reliable and affordable electricity through increased interconnection and aims to catalyze private investment in generation, transmission, and distribution in order to promote greater access to cleaner and low-cost energy in the region’s power sector.

The Caribbean Energy Security Initiative (CESI), launched by Vice President Biden in June 2014, is intended to support Caribbean nations in their efforts to overcome their reliance on imported petroleum products and to chart their own energy futures. At the Caribbean Energy Security Summit in January, government, finance, and private sector leaders from the United States and the Caribbean, along with representatives of the international community, agreed to promote a cleaner and more sustainable energy future in the Caribbean through improved energy governance, energy diversification, greater access to finance, and donor coordination.

In April 2015, President Obama and regional leaders announced the creation of a Task Force on Caribbean-Central America Energy Security to evaluate progress under these initiatives and identify concrete steps to advance energy sector reform, regional integration, and clean energy development. He also announced a $20 million Clean Energy Finance Facility for the Caribbean and Central America (CEFF-CCA) to provide early-stage funding to clean energy projects and spur greater public and private sector investment. The facility, officially launched in October, will help the region increase local, renewable energy sources, cut down on imported fossil fuels, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The final Task Force meeting is scheduled to take place in early 2016.

We are also working with partners throughout the region to ensure traditional fossil fuel energy development is performed responsibly. This includes working to implement best practices for social and environmental standards for unconventional and offshore oil and gas development, such as through the Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program (UGTEP). While we work to ensure best practices in using today’s energy, we are also paving the way to help the region transition to a cleaner, more secure, and more sustainable energy future.

Eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies is critical to realizing a clean energy future, and the United States and a growing list of countries have endorsed fossil fuel subsidy reform in multiple international forums, including APEC, the G-20, and the Summit of the Americas. Fossil fuel subsidies often encourage wasteful energy consumption, undermine incentives for investment in clean energy, and hinder progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The United States is committed to working with other governments to rationalize and phase out these harmful subsidies.

Finally, we are also working closely with Latin America and Caribbean partners to ensure all countries have access to timely and accurate climate information and modeling data. While all countries are susceptible to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather, nearly half in the Western Hemisphere lack the meteorological and climate services necessary for informed decision-making and long-term planning. Our many partnerships in this area build national capabilities to use climate data and strengthen our region’s ability to reduce the risks posed by natural disasters from droughts to floods.

In the QDDR the passing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would put “the United States at the center of a free trade zone covering two-thirds of the global economy (p9).” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell stated that it would be a mistake if the White House pushes through a vote on the TPP before the next election cycle. If the deal does not get passed, how could this jeopardize US political and economic interests in Latin America?

In their entirety, the countries of the Trans Pacific Partnership have a combined GDP of nearly USD 30 trillion, covering two-thirds of the global economy and economies as diverse as the United States, Malaysia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Canada. It is a 21st century trade agreement, with strong labor and environmental protections, that will support the creation and retention of jobs and promote economic development among its members by increasing market access, and by levelling the playing field.

Everyone is familiar with the allure of Asia’s economies, but we also see enormous potential in the Americas. The TPP is also the manifestation of our vision for a broader Pacific that includes the Western Hemisphere. Grouped together, the Western Hemisphere’s market of nearly a billion people is an active hub of trade and investment. The agreement will significantly deepen our trade relationship with a region that is the global epicenter of energy, the destination of almost half of all U.S. exports, where we already have a nearly unbroken line of free trade agreements from Canada to Chile, and where we have a trillion dollars in trade with North America alone.

In November, the 12 countries released the complete text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The text will be public for at least 90 days before the President signs it. After that, Congress will review and consider the agreement before the text is put to a vote and we are confident the agreement will earn strong bipartisan support.

Christopher Sabatini of Columbia University makes the argument in Foreign Policy that the election results in Venezuela and Argentina, as well as President Dilma Rousseff facing impeachment, are leading to the Death of the Latin American Left. In your opinion, does the US have an opportunity to take advantage of the friendlier governments in countries that were historically hostile to American foreign policy?

President Obama made a commitment at the Summit of the Americas in 2009 to begin a new era of cooperation with the hemisphere, as equal partners, with relations rooted in mutual respect. This commitment continues to guide our approach to the region and nowhere is it more apparent than in President Obama’s historic decision to change our outdated policy toward Cuba.

Throughout my travels, I’ve been fortunate to meet many inspiring leaders who are working to lift their citizens out of poverty, to diversify and open up their economies to compete globally, to integrate energy markets and national infrastructures, and to build new spaces for dialogue and cooperation. It is up to the citizens of each country to choose their leaders, and our foreign policy priority is to formulate policies that promote and enhance such trends, regardless of a government’s political ideology.

Recently, Congress approved of a $750 million program for assisting Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to increase security, strengthening institutions, and reducing poverty. Some believe that this plan will only exacerbate existing problems in the region. How does this program defer from previous less successful attempts to realize the US’s interests in the region?

With the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America, the United States is partnering with governments in the region to address the underlying conditions that drive migration. As you note, the U.S. Congress just agreed to invest up to $750 million in Central America, and our government is committed to use that money to support the efforts of the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to reverse endemic violence and poverty, promote economic prosperity, crack down on criminal networks, and strengthen good governance and the rule of law.

Make no mistake, the problems in Central America can be fixed; but it will take resources and a sustained commitment that works both ways. Here is what is different this time: the Central Americans are putting their own money on the line–up to $2.6 billion–and they are following through on political commitments. The Central American governments are having some success resolving their own problems, as well. Honduras reduced a budget deficit that had reached a record high of 7.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—roughly $1.4 billion—in 2013 to only three percent of GDP today, outperforming the International Monetary Fund-mandated target of 3.5 percent. El Salvador increased tax revenues by 30 percent from 2010 to 2014 through improved enforcement of tax policies, which provides the country greater resources for social and productive sector investments. Guatemalans are making historic progress combating corruption and impunity with an independent criminal investigative body known as CICIG: it has investigated approximately 200 complex cases, which led to the recent arrest of the former president and vice president of Guatemala.

Only a serious, sustained effort between the United States and Central America will really transform the region. The core Central American problems underlying undocumented migration have been growing for decades. The joint work to solve these problems will be measured in years, not months.

The surge of Cubans seeking passage to the United States has put a strain on Central American countries. And, Nicaragua and Guatemala have responded by refusing to allow passage to cubans through their countries. What is the American point of view on this issue and how will it be resolved?

We understand regional governments are working to find solutions to the ongoing Cuban migration challenge, including coordinated and comprehensive solutions that focus on preventing loss of life, ensuring the human rights of all migrants are respected, and promoting orderly and humane migration policies. We remain concerned for the safety of all migrants throughout the region. This dangerous journey illustrates the inherent risks and uncertainties of involvement with smugglers and organized crime in attempts to reach the United States by irregular migration.


Juan Sebastian Gonzalez

Juan Sebastian Gonzalez is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, with responsibility for U.S. diplomatic engagement. He was previously at the White House, first from 2011 – 2013 as National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, then most recently from 2013 – 2015 as Special Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden on Western Hemisphere Affairs. In the Office of the Vice President, Juan advised and represented the Vice President on all policy matters related to the region, and accompanied him on seven visits to eight countries in the hemisphere including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Guatemala. Prior to working at the White House, Juan served in various capacities in the Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, including Chief of Staff to Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Huehuetenango, Guatemala and worked in the New York State Assembly as a Legislative Assistant to Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (D-144). Juan received an M.A. with distinction from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a B.S. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations and speaks fluent Spanish. He is a native of Cartagena, Colombia.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: ryanaward via Flickr CC

You Might Also Like