Perspectives from the United States National Security Council

photo of CAF Conference - Keynote Dialogue Jack Schwartz

At the 26th Annual CAF Conference, the Inter-American Dialogue, CAF-Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Organization of American states convened Gabriela Frías, business anchor for CNN en Español and Juan Gonzalez, senior advisor and special assistant to the President of the United States as well as senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council for a keynote dialogue with insights into the White House’s perspective on a number of current trends across the Western Hemisphere.  

Frías began by asking a question on the United States’ strategy toward China and how it permeates both domestic and foreign policy in Latin America, including its focus on human rights and democracy. She referenced recent comments by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a South American summit in Brasília that described Washington as creating a narrative hinging on these issues in places like Venezuela to advance US interests. Gonzalez responded that he was most interested by Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou and Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s comments at the forum, which – despite ideological differences – represent strong democracies in the region in part because they engage in such dialogue. Gonzalez emphasized how the United States has been aware since the Obama administration of Brazil’s opposition to sanctions as a foreign policy tool. In that sense, these debates are necessary to find consensus among South American countries who have an interest in a change in Venezuela, Gonzalez said, but the United States’ strategy is not to engage in needless public exchanges on the topic. 

Frías pointed out that some wonder whether the US stance on human rights is somewhat opportunistic, asking Gonzalez whether it would be a good idea for the United States to publicly support presidents in the region who – like Lula – share these same values with the Biden administration. Gonzalez replied that he believes that both the left and the right have a sort of selective morality in this regard, but emphasized that the White House prioritizes addressing such issues in a manner that yields concrete results. For this reason, he added, the US administration does not have to engage in public spats or Twitter infighting on every single human rights issue that arises – though some topics, such as speaking out against attacks on journalists and judges or against corruption, merit public statements, Gonzalez said others must be handled in a more strategic way to avoid the United States becoming a distraction from actually addressing the problems. “Latin America right now is a very complicated region at a time of global change,” Gonzalez said. “And to navigate this effectively, we have to find a way … to advance strategic topics while avoiding that ongoing global transitions distract us from our national security interests.” 

Bringing it back to Brazil, Gonzalez acknowledged that the United States has areas of agreement and disagreement with the South American nation, but recognized that Brazil is a bridge between G-7 countries and Latin American nations. Though it is important to find common ground on topics like the defense industry and climate change, similarities between the United States and Brazil go beyond this to issues of democratic freedom and racial diversity and social justice, and more conversations should be had in this regard, Gonzalez added. In relation to the US sanctions policy in Venezuela and Brazil’s opposition to it, Gonzalez said it has been clear that the maximum-pressure sanctions that were put in place in 2020 have failed in driving political change in the Andean nation. Now, the United States is looking for an alternative route, understanding that the White House cannot be a political actor within Venezuela – instead, Gonzalez said, it prioritizes supporting dialogue among Venezuelans, gradually alleviating sanctions in tandem with concrete steps by the Maduro regime toward a democratic transition, and thinking more about a medium-to-long-term change. 

Frías then asked whether there are reasons for optimism in the current electoral scenario in Venezuela and whether US incentives are working in that regard, to which Gonzalez immediately responded that he did not know. The current US strategy is based more on the belief that maximum pressure through sanctions does not work, and exploring new routes that focus on “institutionalizing” the Venezuela issue in a bid to facilitate a democratic process and address humanitarian concerns. At the same time, the Department of Justice will continue looking into allegations of money laundering by the Venezuelan regime, with Gonzalez describing the United States as having a “responsibility” on judicial issues. He also stressed that US policy toward Venezuela is based on bipartisan legislation.  

Frías returned to the topic of US commitment to human rights and democracy, asking Gonzalez what the line is for the administration in terms of whether an issue is deserving of a public position, referencing concerns in Mexico over the militarization of public security and reforms to the electoral commission. Gonzalez said it is not a black-or-white issue and that public statements are based on certain principles, but he added that Mexico is special case given their proximity and the history between the two countries. Gonzalez said that a public statement by the United States on domestic Mexican affairs could end up being counterproductive to US interests by, for example, mobilizing a nationalistic stance and opposition to the United States, distracting from debates that need to happen within Mexico. The US strategy partially relies on tools like USAID and diplomatic efforts to protect civil society and journalists, but it is crucial not to intervene in what should be domestic discussions, Gonzalez added. “We are not going to solve these debates from the United States,” Gonzalez said, “but we have a fundamental national interest in Mexico’s economic stability and security because it has direct implications on our own.” 

Frías and Gonzalez expanded on issues at the heart of US-Mexico relations, and the increase of fentanyl deaths specifically and whether the militarization of drug control in Mexico has exacerbated the narcotics issue. Gonzalez answered that, in this case, the role of the military has led to improved transparency and more efficiency in intelligence-sharing and cooperation. With regard to fentanyl, what worries Gonzalez is that current drug policies were developed with cocaine in mind – fentanyl is produced and trafficked in very different ways, and so a change in strategy is needed. This includes addressing problems within the United States, including reducing demand for fentanyl and the trafficking of arms from the United States to Mexico. 

Next, Frías pivoted to Guatemala, asking about how the United States will approach upcoming elections in June in an overall context of democratic decline amid the persecution of journalists and former prosecutors. Gonzalez highlighted the role the OAS plays in monitoring elections and expressed concern about corruption, which he described as a structural challenge. 

Frías wondered whether it is a little late in the Biden administration’s term for the United States to advocate for a new regional consensus that seems to downplay tools such as free trade agreements, favoring instead in micro treaties. Gonzalez said that the Biden government during its first year was focused on strengthening its domestic tools, prioritizing initiatives such as the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act in order to position the United States to be able to compete with China in Latin America and the Caribbean. A policy that builds on free trade agreements would be using tools of the past to compete with China and other countries that are using tools of the future, Gonzalez added. That is also why the administration has focused on reforming the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and working with the Inter-American Development Bank to develop such tools.

Frías then turned to Haiti, asking Gonzalez whether US policy toward the Caribbean nation has failed. Gonzalez said the United States has tried to learn from the past, recognizing that the US security assistance is necessary but insufficient in Haiti, which requires a candid dialogue among the country’s political elite. He emphasized the importance of behind-the-scenes action in Haiti and said that it should be a multilateral priority. 

In reference to Argentina, Gonzalez said the debt restructuring negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are complicated in the context of an electoral year. The White House is closely following the discussion between the Argentine government and the IMF, saying it was an opportunity for the multilateral lender to show that it is able to respond to challenging situations such as the one in Argentina. In turn, Argentina can be an example for other countries in LAC on how to navigate such debt negotiations.  

The session ended with a question on a potential shift in US policy toward Latin America should Biden lose the 2024 election. Gonzalez responded that the United States’ position toward LAC cannot rely on ideologies of the past. Despite disagreements on some fronts, the United States must forge common causes with regional leaders regardless of their ideological leanings. Frías asked how this is reconciled in cases when some of these leaders’ policies may not work, referencing Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s move to cancel oil exploration contracts without having an energy transition plan in place, which could lead to more poverty and migration. Gonzalez responded that Colombia has strong institutions where these debates will take place and mechanisms through which the United States can express its perspective privately. For example, Gonzalez mentioned disagreements over Petro’s new drug policy but stressed that they are having conversations to collaborate in spite of this. 

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