Senator John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State, spoke for close to four hours at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.  He discussed U.S. policy in the Middle East and Asia at length, mentioning Afghanistan thirty-five times, China thirty-three times, Iran twenty-four times and Vietnam twenty-one times, according to the Wall Street Journal.  With the exception of Mexico – which came up a total of twelve times – hardly any of the hearing touched on the Western Hemisphere, which was mentioned only four times.  Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez, who is of Cuban-American descent, was the only one to ask a question about Kerry’s vision for relations with Latin America.

Menendez started off his question by saying “2013 will be a year of great change in the Western Hemisphere,” then mentioned “the impending change of leadership in Venezuela,” the new PRI administration in Mexico, and the recently-launched peace talks in Colombia.  “So,” he asked Kerry, “can you briefly talk to me about your views and vision as it relates to what I think is a new and momentous opportunity in the hemisphere?”

Kerry’s response [PDF] was indeed brief and elicited no reaction from his Senate colleagues. His statements suggested that, with Kerry as chief diplomat, U.S. policy toward the region will remain on automatic pilot, cruising along on more or less the same course that the State Department has followed since the Bush administration.  His response also showed a startling disregard for the perspectives and policy priorities of the governments and peoples of Latin America. Here’s what Kerry replied to Menendez:  

Well I agree with you, Mr. Chairman. It is an opportunity that's staring at us, and I hope that we can build on what Secretary Clinton has done and the Obama administration has already done in order to augment our efforts in that region.

You have had the Merida Initiative working with Mexico. There's an increased effort on anti-narcotics, anti-violence. There's been the Central American Regional Security Initiative. There's been development assistance in Guatemala, Honduras. Energy initiatives with Brazil, and -- energy and climate initiatives I should say with Brazil. There's increasing economic integration, but as we all know, there have been some outlier states that have not been as much a part of -- not been as cooperative, or as -- in a position to be as cooperative.

And we all know who they are. And I think depending on what happens in Venezuela, there may really be an opportunity for a transition there. Likewise I would hope that Bolivia, Ecuador, we could make progress. One of the great stories of Latin America is Colombia. I can remember when I was working on the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and Senator Dodd was here and others, and we were very engaged at that period of time. We -- there had recently been an assassination of 13 members of the Supreme Court in one room in Colombia, that presidential candidates were assassinated.

You couldn't run for office. And frankly, President Uribe stepped up at a critical moment and -- and began the process of rescuing that nation, and President Santos now is doing an amazing job. We've created our greater economic relationship by passing the trade agreement. We have to build on that. And -- and I think that is a -- an example really for the rest of -- the rest of Latin America as to what awaits them if we can induce people to make a better set of choices, frankly.

I think there are some other things that have contributed to the gap between -- in our relationship with some of those other countries. I hope to perhaps be able to try to see if there's a way to bridge some of that. And I would do it in close consultation with you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. But I think there are some ways to improve and augment our efforts in Latin America.

For the many social movements and an increasing number of political leaders throughout the region calling for alternatives to the current U.S.-backed “war on drugs,” Kerry’s words must have felt like a slap in the face.  “You have had the Mérida initiative working with Mexico,” he said, in reference to a U.S. security cooperation agreement with Mexico which has applied heavy-handed military tactics to counternarcotics operations.  Since the agreement was launched, Mexico’s yearly homicide rate has tripled and drugs flowing into the U.S. “remain cheap and more plentiful than ever in the United States,” according to the Washington Post

Kerry then touts the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), modeled on the Mérida Initiative, although the rate of homicides in much of Central America has also dramatically escalated.  He points to “development assistance in Guatemala, Honduras” as additional achievements to build on.  One would think that Kerry, who was a strong defender of human rights in Central America during the Reagan years, might want to avoid highlighting U.S. cooperation with these two governments.  Guatemala’s current president, former general Otto Pérez Molina, is accused of “acts of genocide” and his first year in office has already been marked by a military massacre of unarmed civilians.  Meanwhile, Honduras has witnessed a soaring rate of violence and an unraveling of the rule of law following a military coup d’Etat in 2009.  The country now has the highest murder rate in the world and its security forces have allegedly perpetrated thousands of human rights abuses.

But these countries don’t seem to be problematic to Kerry. He’s more concerned about “some outlier states that have not been (…) as cooperative.  And we all know who they are.”  But just in case we don’t, he goes on to name some of them: Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. With regard to Venezuela, he says “there may really be an opportunity for a transition.”  Understandably, Venezuela’s government didn’t very much appreciate Kerry suggesting that the possibility of Venezuela’s cancer-stricken president not returning to office would be an “opportunity.” 

Note that all of the “outlier” countries that Kerry identifies actually have excellent relations with nearly all of their Latin American and Caribbean neighbors.  They have also played important roles in regional integration plans.  Ecuador is host to the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR in Spanish). Venezuela, in December of 2012, hosted the launching of a new regional group – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) – comprised of every country in the hemisphere with the exception of the U.S. and Canada.  In the context of these and other regional integration efforts, it would be more appropriate to characterize the U.S. as an “outlier.”

Kerry next says: “one of the great stories of Latin America is Colombia.”  Such an assertion is truly a question of perspective.  “President Uribe stepped up at a critical moment (…) and began the process of rescuing the nation,” Kerry states.  While Uribe’s so-called “democratic security” policy – involving intense U.S.-backed military campaigns – may have led to a drop in the nation’s overall homicide rate, it has come at a huge human price.  Under Uribe’s presidency, 2.4 million people, primarily poor Afro-Colombians, were displaced and thousands of civilians were allegedly murdered and presented as guerrilla casualties by the Colombian military. Today, Colombia, which Kerry calls “an example really for the rest of Latin America,” remains one of the deadliest places in the world for labor activists.  And, though one of the key ostensible aims of U.S. military assistance was to curtail cocaine production, Colombia remains one of the world’s top producers of that drug. 

At the end of his response to Menendez’s question, Kerry acknowledges that “there are some things that have contributed to the gap (…) in our relationship with some of those other countries” and that “there are some ways to improve and augment our efforts in Latin America.” It’s possible that Kerry is vague here simply because he hasn’t yet had time to properly brush up on his knowledge of contemporary Latin America.  It’s also distinctly possible that he actually hopes to carry out some long-awaited policy changes, regarding relations with Cuba for instance, but can’t take the risk of upsetting his Cuban-American colleagues – Senators Menendez and Rubio – who vehemently oppose any significant change of policy toward Cuba, or toward Cuba’s closest allies in the region.  Whatever the case, the fact that much of Kerry’s statement was at odds with the views shared by many Latin Americans doesn’t bode well for the future of U.S. relations with the region.