This past week while in Mexico City Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to announce the new US Ambassador to Mexico. Several names had been tossed around in the last few months: Federico Peña (former Clinton Cabinet member), Henry Cisneros (former Clinton HUD Secretary), Frank Herrera (popular San Antonio attorney), Maria Echeveste (former Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff) and several other prominent Latinos were mentioned. Hence, when the time came to announce this appointment on Hillary’s maiden trip to Mexico as Secretary, it foundered. The nomination is stalled but not dead. The reasons are telling. But first, there are a series of pratfalls that led to not announcing it and the media buzz about this trip. It should be pointed out that the Obama Administration has correctly concluded that the current volatile situation in Mexico should be of utmost concern to the US. Plainly, there is a horrific condition gripping the Mexican people. The violence stemming from the drug cartels’ attempt to control more territory is spreading and increasing throughout the country, especially along the border areas with the US. The US reaction to this on-going violence is Plan Merida. This is a Plan Colombia style approach to pacifying Mexico. The US will provide well over a half billion dollars annually to Mexico to help counter this national menace where organized criminal groups (drug cartels) are striking at the public security forces, including elements of the Mexican military. This began when Mexican President Calderon sought boldly to drive out or tame these organized criminal gangsters. The criminals struck back with a fury and have for months if not longer laid siege to many municipalities and some larger areas. The constant brutal murder of law enforcement personnel and other innocent people has created a wave of fear and intimidation among many Mexicans and Americans living along the border. The essence of the problem is the running of huge amounts of cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the US making for a multi-billion dollar business on both sides of the border. In turn, the Mexicans have seen a staggering increase in illegal firearms (many highly sophisticated) flowing from the US into Mexico to supply these criminal groups. In sum, this is why the growing interest in Mexico is notable.
With a new US Administration, the selection and appointment of a new Ambassador is in order. Mexico’s well-regarded but haughty Ambassador in Washington, Arturo Sarukhan, was Calderon’s top foreign policy adviser during his presidential campaign. Sarukhan reportedly coveted the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs as a reward. But instead he was named the envoy to Washington. Inside the Beltway this young, hard-charging but brilliant Mexican diplomat began to cut a swath. His commanding presence along with his cultivated Oxonian accent in English makes for a foppish caricature. His attempt to enunciate the English language with a British accent evokes invariably light-hearted commentary. Many suspect it is a Mexican effort to demonstrate to Americans that Mexicans can speak English more eloquently than gringos: The Queen’s English no less. Yet, if a Hispanic US Ambassador to Mexico were to speak a Castillian lisp Spanish, he would be howled out of Mexico. Moreover, Sarukhan was reported to have commented some months ago that Mexico would want the new American Ambassador to be close to President Obama (like the last one, Antonio ‘Tony’ Garza was to the President and the First Lady). But sadly, it is alleged that Sarukhan added ‘…but hopefully not a Latino or a Mexican-American’. If this is true, it is most disconcerting. It is a widely viewed among many US Hispanics that Mexican social and intellectual higher-circles regard Mexican-Americans as merely Pochos (Mexicans who have abandoned the motherland) or Nacos (Mexicans who may be educated and might have moved up in social status but still remain merely jumped-up lower-orders usually with Indian or some aboriginal antecedents; no tienen roce ni cuna: no breeding and manners). Hence, if Sarukhan did indeed say this, it comes as no surprise.
The US has sent Latinos/Hispanics as envoys to Mexico. The first one was John Jova in the 1970’s, a career diplomat born in Long Island of Cuban-Spanish descent. His aristocratic bearing made him most acceptable. The second one was not so fortunate. Julian Nava was chosen by Jimmy Carter towards the end of his Presidential term. Nava, a Mexican-born California college professor, became among the Mexican elites the caricature of the Pocho/Naco coming home. At times his mangled Spanish, sprinkled with Spanglish, and his sometimes maladroit demeanor made him a reason for many Mexicans to insist that sending a Gringo envoy with such a background and behavior is a manifestly insensitive effort by gringos to insult the Mexicans. Plainly, it suggests an insecurity of the Mexicans’ identity conundrum. The third one Reagan sent. John Gavin, the glamorously handsome movie star of yester-year whose mother was a high-born Mexican from Sonora cut his swath. He spoke impeccable Spanish, manifested a self-possessed élan and almost recklessly proceeded to alienate all Mexicans with a sniffy contempt not seen since Lane Wilson the execrable US envoy of the early twentieth century. Most recently W. Bush sent his Texas friend, Tony Garza, a Mexican-American from Brownsville. Garza has no patrician airs, but looked and behaved like a regular gringo. He was not revered like Jova nor disdained like Nava nor loathed like Gavin, but viewed as a light-weight but amiable friend of the First Family and who managed to romance and marry the richest woman in Latin America, a Mexican beer heiress. However, it is known in some Washington circles that Garza did deliver in the end for the Mexicans. When the Plan Merida appeared to be headed for the budget chop at OMB, Garza readily called the White House and successfully persuaded President Bush to restore the Plan Merida funding. This is the kind of envoy the Mexicans hoped that Obama would name. Instead Carlos Pascual, a former career foreign service officer (with a zen-like demeanor) has been selected but not yet given agreement (approval or acceptance) by the Mexican Government. Pascual, a Cuban-born, Stanford/Harvard educated Hispanic achieved recognition mostly during the Clinton Presidency. He was sent to the CIS countries (former part of the Soviet Union) in the early ’90’s. He apparently has an academic concentration in Russian and related fields. Strobe Talbott, initially the State Department’s CIS head and later Deputy Secretary became aware of Pascual’s linguistic and programmatic accomplishments as a USAID development officer. Pascual was subsequently detailed to the National Security Council to manage the Russian and CIS portfolio.
In 2000 before the Clinton Administration ended, Pascual was made Ambassador to the Ukraine. After a successful stint there, he returned in the first term of the George W. Bush Administration, and Colin Powell selected him as the first Director of the State Department’s Reconstruction Office. This office primarily focused on strengthening emerging democracies and faltering states. He later left State and the Foreign Service to replace Jim Steinberg at the Brookings Institute as Vice President International Affairs when Steinberg became head of the LBJ School at the University of Texas. Strobe Talbott had become Brookings’s President. Now in the Obama Administration Steinberg is Deputy Secretary of State (the old Talbott position). Susan Rice, also formerly at Brookings and an Obama confidante, is US Ambassador to the UN. Pascual is seen by his Brookings colleagues as a perfect fit for Mexico with his programmatic talents and his glowing accomplishments. Yet he has no Mexico or Latin American experience or connection except for being born in Cuba and may speak Spanish as good as Ukrainian. Clearly, the Brookings group promoted him into this job as a fellow member of the Institute’s guild. However, it is generally perceived that both Hillary and the White House leaped like trouts when Pascual’s name came before them with hefty recommendations from Brookings along with a Hispanic last name to boot. But the Obamites failed to appreciate the significance of a recent dust up in senior Mexican official circles caused by the public assertion or suggestion by some high ranking US officials that Mexico was either a ‘failed state’ or fast headed towards that status. Now the selection of the former head of the ‘failed states’ bureau at State Department as the US Ambassador caused the Mexicans to scratch their heads or recoil in frustration. Hence, why did Hillary not make the scheduled announcement after she met with President Calderon? Moreover, Pascual does not have any notable direct links to President Obama. Adding to the Mexican concern is their natural distrust of Cuban Americans because of the Miami crowd’s animosity over the years towards Mexico for being the only Latin country to preserve continuously diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro. Certainly, Pascual does not appear to share the Miami Calle Ocho syndrome. Any President reserves the right to send whomever he desires to be his envoy. But the acceptance (agreement) by the receiving country has to be manifested. In this case, the US did not think this carefully through. Moreover, the Latino political leadership in Washington was either unaware of the appointment or equally ignorant of the consequences. Now the challenge for the talented Pascual, assuming he gets Mexican approval, will be to manage the disjointed Plan Merida program and be as successful as in the Ukraine. The problem will be that the Mexicans, unlike the Ukrainians, will not drop to their knees or kiss up to the US. The Ukrainians had good reason: they sought US protection from the Russians next door. Hence, their servility to the Americans was evident. The Mexicans with their historical and morbid suspicion of American intentions and actions will be harder to read, distant at times, unrelentingly independent, reluctant to be led or guided by the US…the question arises, ‘Is Pascual really a fit or a misjudgment by the Obamites and the Brookings crowd?’ He may have to choose between trying to conduct the bilateral relationship or just managing the US Plan Merida programmatic cast of thousands who will appear throughout Mexico. Sarukhan, who is already conducting the basic thrust of the bilateral relationship in Washington, will ultimately prefer having Pascual do the programmatic drudgery and he (Sarukhan) carry out the more glamorous weight of the bilateral relationship fraught with diplomatic sensitivity, sovereignty issues, political suspicions, the treatment of Mexican illegals in the US and the NAFTA political and bureaucratic thickets. Sarukhan has quickly mastered that a country knows when its relationship with the US is equal and mature. This is discernible when the bilateral relationship is conducted in Washington by the foreign country’s ambassador and not in the capital of his country with the American would-be pro-consul. The US can send as envoys retired politicians, used car salesmen, fat cat businessmen, and political party donors to countries like France, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Scandinavian countries, Japan, Spain and sometimes even to Russia and China. These countries in return send the US their top professional diplomats or statesmen to conduct the bilateral relationship directly with the White House, State Department and the myriad of US agencies in Washington. The US sends normally career diplomats as chief of mission generally to weaker, less significant countries to conduct the bilateral relationship in those countries. Mexico has joined the ranks of these more mature relationships. Hence, the US Embassy in Mexico is not as influential as in the past, but it remains a huge job.
Where were the Latino advocacy wags and politicos in Washington on this critical selection process? It was noted that several Latino advocacy groups were included in the pre-trip briefing dinner held for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before she set out for Mexico. Apparently, neither the State Department’s talking heads and analysts nor the domestic Latino groups present like the National Council of La Raza added any value to the expected substantive discussion. Plainly, Mexico appears to be treated as an appendage of the domestic Latino concerns not as a foreign policy priority. The appointments of Dan Restrepo, a Colombian American to the National Security Council, Frank Mora, a Cuban American to the Defense Department’s Office on Latin America, Pascual to Mexico and the pending appointment of Arturo Valenzuela, a Chilean American to be the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere appear to be solidifying. These selections have the Latin Americans already wondering if the Obama team is trying to address Latin America or the domestic Latino/Hispanic agenda. If it is the latter: what has been the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ role? And the advocacy groups’ input into such selections would be most interesting to examine. This zany selection process demonstrates that the Obama team has to be more surefooted in vetting not only for qualifications and ethnicity but for political sensitivity. Moreover, it needs to distinguish better the domestic from the foreign policy concerns. This is a classic case where a perfectly sound and qualified Latino is selected but stumbles for more nuanced and complex reasons.
Photos: Secretary Clinton in Mexico, Mexican Ambassador to US Arturo Sarukhan, and Carlos Pascual