Lunes, 27 de febrero de 2017

| 2009/05/26 00:00

Colombian Experts in Obama’s administration

Never before had there been so many high-ranking officials from the United States’ government who know so much about the reality of Colombia.

James Steinberg, Demetrios Marantis, Lael Brainard

Historically, no US government had had such knowledge about Colombia as in the times of William Henry Harrison. In 1828, long before being elected as  ninth President of the United States, Harrison was appointed ambassador to the Gran Colombia and moved to Santa Fe de Bogotá, where he was able to find out what really happened here. The experience, however, was not that useful. On March 4, 1841, when he took office, he read an almost three hours long speech – the longest of any Presidential Inauguration in his country – and the cold weather caused to him to catch a cold that turned into a serious pneumonia. He died one month later.

Despite the fact that no president of the United States has had such experience in Colombia, the government of the United States has gathered since then a good amount of information about the Colombian reality and has been interested in it. Some American presidents have visited the country in the past decades: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. But what is interesting about this "is the fact that never before Barack Obama's administration had there been  so many high-ranking officials in Washington with good knowledge about Colombian affairs", former Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs Guillermo Fernández de Soto told SEMANA.

The list is long and starts with no other than vice-president Joe Biden, who in 2000, when he was a prominent Democrat senator in the Foreign Affairs Committee, visited Cartagena (in the Colombian north coast) along with former President Bill Clinton, and with the House of Representatives' President, Republican Dennis Hastert. "It was in that moment when the bipartisan support to Plan Colombia, for which the country has received more than $8 billion, was consolidated", remembers Colombian president between 1998 and 2002, Andrés Pastrana.

There are three high ranked officials in the Department of State who have great expertise in Colombian topics. The first of them, James Steinberg, is a key person. Appointed by Obama as Hillary Clinton's 'number two', Steinberg was at the beginning the White House Plan Colombia supervisor. Like the second man to Sandy Berger, National Security Advisor for Bill Clinton, he was in the first meeting in the Oval Office between Clinton and Andrés Pastrana, who had not yet taken office in Colombia. When he left this post, Steinberg kept his eyes on Latin America: he became a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, renowned for its strength in Latin American Studies.

The second key official for Colombia at the State Department was appointed on May 12. His name is Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. From his post he will be the tsar on Latin American topics related to United States diplomacy. Born in Chile, Valenzuela is no rookie in the subject. He was in charge of it during Bill Clinton's second period and later led the important Center of Studies for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. He has been to Colombia many times and was honored with the Order of Boyacá.

Robert Manogue is the third most important person for Colombia under Hillary's orders. Less visible than the other two, the task for this former Economic Advisor for the Embassy in Bogotá is to coordinate with other offices the negotiations for free trade agreements with countries such as South Korea, Colombia and Panama. This is not an easy task, taking into account that the FTA with Colombia is still to be approved by the Congress and that Obama has expressed some reservations regarding it.

In the White House there is also a great Colombian expert. His name is Dan Restrepo and he was named director of the Western Hemisphere Affairs for the National Security Council. Restrepo, son of an adviser of Cesar Gaviria as Secretary General of the OAS, is the man who speaks closely to Obama in Latin American issues. Retrepo is a lawyer from the University of Pensilvania and worked for the Center for the American Progress, one of the most prestigious think tanks in Washington, where he joined the democratic campaign. Back then, he told SEMANA: “If violence against trade unionists keeps on going, Obama will not support the Free Trade Agreement”.

And speaking of the Agreement’s future, another two government employees that know about Colombia have to deal nowadays with the issue in Washington: Frank Sánchez and Demetrios Marantis. Sánchez, who has visited repeatedly Bogotá and is an expert in trade negotiations since Clinton’s administration, is the Under Secretary of International Commerce, just below Gary Locke. Marantis has also visited Colombia, negotiated the Free Trade Agreement between US and Chile, speaks Spanish fluently and was promoted recently as the ‘number two’ of Ron Kirk, US Trade Representative, the man who is really in charge of this matter in the Executive. As if that weren't enough, Marantis wears a yellow, blue and red bracelet that he will only take off when the Free Trade Agreement gets approved.

But that’s not the end of the story. Lael Brainard, the new Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, is also sensitive to Colombian matters. Not long ago, as senior fellow at the Brookings Institution – another famous Washington think tank – she promoted the creation of the Latin America Initiative. The name she suggested for its direction was Mauricio Cárdenas, former director of the Colombian Institute of National Planning (Planeación Nacional), who has been in the post for a year.

Why are there so many high-ranked staff members with a great deal of knowledge on Colombia? Michael Shifter, researcher at the Inter-American Dialogue, D.C.’s leading center for analysis on regional issues, explains that “since the 90s, there hasn’t been a Latin American subject more important than Colombia. Everyone who wanted to work on the hemisphere had to know Colombia’s reality. It has been a priority of the agenda”.

According to Shifter, who is considered an authority in these matters in the US capital, with Obama’s government and democratic majority in Congress the most likely thing to happen is that Plan Colombia could have from now on a more social emphasis and that the Free Trade Agreement can go through some changes. And how is President Alvaro Uribe’s possible reelection seen in the US high government? Shifter is conclusive: “I’ll be surprised if any of those government employees agrees with it”.

Semana International delivers news about Colombia in English. Find more in our home.

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