Skip to comments.Latin Americans hail the new U.S. policy chief
Posted on 07/31/2003 1:56:45 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
WASHINGTON - After years of feeling all but forgotten by Washington, Latin American officials Wednesday welcomed Roger Noriega's confirmation as the first Senate-approved assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs since 1999.
''This is one of the best decisions the Senate has made in more than five years,'' El Salvador Ambassador Rene Antonio León Rodríguez said after the Senate vote late Tuesday. ``U.S. policy will have a champion now. And the region will finally get the attention it deserves.''
Noriega's confirmation came after a long delay because Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., had been blocking the vote for months in an effort to force a Senate vote on his proposal for easing restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.
''We had all been waiting for so long that we stopped watching,'' said Ana Navarro, a longtime Miami lobbyist and friend of Noriega, the current U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Until Tuesday, the Senate had refused to confirm a series of nominees for the State Department job, in charge of relations with Washington's hemispheric neighbors, since 1999 because of a string of political disputes. The post had been held since then on an interim or appointed basis by four officials.
The unanimous approval on a voice vote, as Congress headed toward its summer recess this week, drew praise from Latin American officials as well as U.S. supporters.
`A GREAT VOID'
''There has been a great void in leadership and direction in Latin America policy,'' said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican. ``There are a lot of challenges in Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and elsewhere. American policy has to have a voice, consistency. Roger Noriega has really earned this great position of leadership.''
Some Latin American diplomats expressed optimism that Noriega will help smooth the sometimes contentious relations between the White House and nations such as Venezuela, where populist President Hugo Chávez has often drawn criticism from the Bush administration.
Said Andrés Izarra, a spokesman for the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington: ``We hope he can help better the political relations . . . and bring it up to the level of importance that Venezuela should represent to the United States.''
Baucus aides said he lifted his ''hold'' on Noriega's confirmation after a compromise in which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose leaders had been holding up his proposals on Cuba travel, will vote on his bill this fall.
''We expect it to pass the committee overwhelmingly,'' said Laura Hays, a spokeswoman for Baucus, who is planning a trip to Cuba in September. ``This is a great accomplishment.''
Noriega is the grandson of undocumented Mexican immigrants who crossed the border about 80 years ago and settled in Kansas. Before his appointment to the OAS, he had been a senior staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
At a Senate committee hearing in May, Noriega said Washington must act quickly on several fronts in Latin America because ''the hemisphere is troubled'' by persistent political, social and economic tensions, and action is needed before reforms ``slip away.''
''In terms of our own security, we can ill afford widespread political instability or economic dislocation close to our borders,'' Noriega told lawmakers.
The last assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere who was confirmed by the Senate was Jeffrey Davidow, who served from 1996 to 1999. But a series of partisan battles later left Curt Struble and Lino Gutierrez with the word ''acting'' before their title. Pete Romero started out as ''acting'' and then obtained a recess appointment -- a White House move while Congress is in recess, to sidestep opposition.
The last man to hold the job, Cuban-born Otto Reich, also received a recess appointment because of stiff Democratic opposition to his outspoken views on Cuba and involvement in the 1986 Iran-contra scandal, when he ran a State Department office that provided diplomatic and publicity support for the Nicaraguan contra guerrillas.
''I'm very pleased'' with Noriega's confirmation, said Reich, who left the interim post in late November and now serves as the White House special envoy to the hemisphere.
Noriega could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Noriega would play a strong role in the development of U.S. policies toward the hemisphere.
And the Bush administration is sending its special ambassador to Latin America, Otto J. Reich, to Spain, Italy and France next week to discuss the region's hottest crises, as well as lingering financial troubles in Brazil and Argentina, White House officials and Palacio told me.
Among the people who have been asked to meet with Reich is French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, the diplomat whose public criticism of the Iraq war so exasperated the White House. Others will be Spanish Ibero-American Cooperation Minister Miguel Angel Cortes and Italian and Vatican officials.
The most pressing issue on Reich's agenda will be Venezuela, U.S. officials say.
The administration fears that Venezuela's populist leftist President Hugo Chávez will renege on an internationally brokered agreement to convene a national referendum on the duration of his term, and that he will provoke a violent clash with the opposition in order to suspend constitutional guarantees and radicalize his ``Bolivarian revolution.''
''He is trying to create an incident where he can call out the military and say that democracy has been threatened,'' a U.S. official says. ***
Captive Nations Week: Bush slams Myanmar, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe [Full Text] DALLAS, Texas (AFP) - President George W. Bush hit out six regimes on a US blacklist he said were guilty of oppression and human rights abuses in Myanmar and Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Belarus. In a proclamation issued to mark "captive nations week" first observed in 1959 as a statement against communism, Bush hit out at a familiar gallery of US foes.
"Millions of people still live under regimes that violate their citizens' rights daily," Bush said in a statement issued as he made a day-trip to Dallas from his Texas ranch. "In countries such as Burma and Iran, citizens lack the right to choose their government, speak out against oppression, and practice their religion freely," Bush said. "The despot who rules Cuba imprisons political opponents and crushes peaceful opposition," he said, in barbed remarks aimed at Fidel Castro.
There were also harsh words for North Korea, with which Washington has been locked in a nuclear showdown since October. "Hundreds of thousands languish in prison camps and citizens suffer from malnutrition as the regime pursues weapons of mass destruction," Bush said. "Violence, corruption, and mismanagement reign in Zimbabwe and an authoritarian government in Belarus smothers political dissent."
But Bush lauded his ouster of the "brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq," during a US-led war earlier this year. "The Iraqi people are no longer captives in their own country," Bush said. "Their freedom is evidence of the fall of one of the most oppressive dictators in history," he said, claiming that Iraqis were now meeting "openly and freely" to discuss the future of their country. [End]