A Conversation with the US Ambassadors to the Andean Region

Despite continued tensions among the Andean countries that have not abated since a controversial military pact was signed between the U.S. and Colombia in October, four U.S. ambassadors painted an encouraging picture of regional stability in an event jointly hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Brookings Institution on January 22. The four ambassadors —William Brownfield (Colombia), Patrick Duddy (Venezuela), Heather Hodges (Ecuador), and Michael McKinley (Peru) — were joined by Carmen Lomellin, the U.S. permanent representative to the OAS. Currently, there is no U.S. ambassador to Bolivia. Ambassador Brownfield opened the meeting with a largely positive evaluation of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Colombia.  “On every measurable criteria—whether it is politics, the economy, commerce, investment, human rights, labor rights, drugs, law enforcement, security on the ground—you name the category…Colombia is a better place today than it was ten years ago,” Brownfield declared. He attributed this success to mutual efforts by the Colombian people and government, and crucial U.S. financial support under Plan Colombia. Ambassador Duddy told participants that relations between Washington and Venezuela remain “enormously difficult and complicated,” partly because President Chávez continues to label the U.S. as “the empire” and occasionally “the enemy,” despite the fact that this country remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner. Duddy does not have high hopes for a major change in this regard. He added that the recent devaluation of the Venezuelan bolívar fuerte will further erode the purchasing power of Venezuelan citizens and worsen economic relations due to the expected increase in prices of U.S. and other foreign imports. Still, the Ambassador stressed that people-to-people relations continue to be “very high” and the number of Venezuelans interested in traveling to the U.S. is “huge,” extending across the political and socio-economic spectrum. Ambassador Hodges characterized recent U.S. bilateral relations with Ecuador as “up and down.” Although the Ecuadoran government claims it would like to deemphasize drug-fighting policy in favor of other issues, Hodges stressed that bilateral counter-narcotics cooperation is “superb,” describing 2009 as a “banner year” for seizing illicit drugs. Hodges discussed Ecuador’s current political situation, which she said seemed to show some promise for democratic consolidation. She also highlighted opposition to President Correa’s media law—which aims to intensify media content regulation—by members of the president’s own party as an example of the relative strength of Ecuador’s democratic institutions. On the other hand, the ambassador cited economic difficulties coupled with rolling outages and blackouts as being the main causes of the recent drop in Correa’s popularity. Ambassador McKinley praised Peru’s management of the 2008 global financial crisis and overall economic prowess among other Latin American countries. “Peru stood out in terms of generating a positive rate of growth, implementing a smart strategy of public investment, responsible macroeconomic management, and a continued focus on extending social spending,” he said. McKinley added that the U.S. and Peru have made “significant strides” on institution building, democratic consolidation, and drug trafficking, among other areas. According to McKinley, Peru also used discussions with the U.S. on free trade as a springboard to enter economic negotiations with the EU, Canada, China, Korea, and Japan, and to widen commercial relations with Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. “There is very clearly a strategy of engagement both regionally and globally, which has also given us a platform to work more constructively together on transnational issues—most recently in Copenhagen,” he noted. Lomellin reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to working through the OAS, but stressed that the association must take on a stronger leadership role through improving contact with civil society, increasing transparency, employing the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and regularizing elections. The January 22 panel discussion was moderated by the Dialogue’s Michael Shifter and Kevin Casas-Zamora of the Brookings Institution.

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