Tom Vilsack in Havana in 2015.

Tom Vilsack in Havana in 2015. (AP)

Joe Biden’s Top Officials on Latin America and the Caribbean

By Katie Hopkins and Holly K. Sonneland

AS/COA Online looks at the new U.S. president’s nominees and appointees, their ties to the region, and relevant policy leanings.

Editor’s note: A prior version of this article stated that the Summit of the Americas will occur in April 2021. The summit has been postponed.

Foreign policy initiatives between the United States and Latin America have been a priority for President Joe Biden since back when he was a senator. As the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he led the passing of Plan Colombia in 2000. His 2020 campaign proposed ambitious plans to tackle climate change, immigration, and a $4 billion rebuilding strategy for Central America to slow migration by addressing the root causes. 

Biden’s cabinet, if confirmed as is, would have four Latinos—tied with Barack Obama’s second cabinet for the most—to helm the departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Education, and the Small Business Administration. Donald Trump’s cabinet was the first in three decades to include no Latinos. Biden’s cabinet would also be the first gender-balanced cabinet in U.S. history and the fourteenth globally. 

Biden’s chances of the Senate confirming his nominees improved greatly when Democrats took majority control of the body in January. In an early vote, the Senate confirmed Antony Blinken as secretary of state in a 78-22 vote on January 26. Though all of the nays were from Republicans, Blinken did win support from most of the GOP senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Marco Rubio (R-FL) and outgoing chair Jim Risch (R-ID).

What experience with Latin America and the Caribbean will his cabinet and top advisors bring to the table? AS/COA dives into some key nominations as they pertain to the region. While most cabinet-level posts require Senate confirmation, other advisory positions—including all National Security Council posts—are appointments.

Nominees for Senate confirmation

  • Secretary of Defense: Lloyd J. Austin III
  • Secretary of State: Antony Blinken
  • Attorney General: Merrick Garland
  • Secretary of Energy: Jennifer Granholm 
  • Secretary of Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas 
  • Secretary of Commerce: Gina Raimondo
  • U.S. Trade Representative: Katherine Tai
  • Ambassador to the United Nations: Linda Thomas-Greenfield 
  • Secretary of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack 

† Confirmed

Appointments

  • NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs: Juan Gonzalez
  • Coordinator for U.S. Southern Border: Roberta Jacobson
  • Special Presidential Climate Envoy: John Kerry

This piece was originally published on January 28 and has been updated as nominees are confirmed.

Secretary of Defense: Lloyd J. Austin III

The Senate voted 93-2 to confirm the retired four-star general on January 22. While Austin’s military background was primarily focused in the Middle East and Central Asia, one of his early decisions will be whether to recall thousands of U.S. troops stationed along the border with Mexico. To help Austin navigate the region, Biden named Daniel Erikson to be deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA). Erikson served as a special advisor to Biden during his vice presidency and later during his campaign. Erikson’s experience in the region includes being a part of the State Department team that negotiated reestablished U.S.-Cuba relations, securing $750 million in assistance for the Northern Triangle, and advising on Colombia’s peace process.

As of this report, Biden had not announced a nominee to head Southern Command, Defense’s top Western Hemisphere role.

Secretary of State: Antony Blinken

Blinken is a long-time foreign policy aide for Biden who previously served as deputy secretary of state from 2014 to 2017, during which time he aided in the U.S-Cuba rapprochement.

On Venezuela, Blinken expressed doubts about Trump’s approach back in May 2019, saying the United States might have overplayed its hand in hoping for the military to switch allegiance to Washington-recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president. Those doubts aside, Blinken responded to Rubio during the January confirmation hearing that he believes the White House should continue to support Guaidó and not enter into negotiations with Nicolás Maduro. Blinken also backed a stronger focus on humanitarian assistance and more targeted sanctions.

Biden has not yet named his pick for the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the top diplomat to the Americas.

Attorney General: Merrick Garland

After Senate Republicans denied U.S. Appeals Court Judge Garland a confirmation hearing in 2016 as Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Garland will get his day before Congress as Biden’s nominee for U.S. attorney general. If confirmed, he’ll be dropped in the middle of handling a complex situation with Mexico over retired General Salvador Cienfuegos. The former Mexican defense secretary was arrested in the United States at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration in October on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, then extradited to Mexico on the promise that he’d be prosecuted there, only for the Mexican courts to clear him of all charges on January 14.

Outgoing Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called Garland a “sound choice” to head the Department of Justice when his nomination was announced. His confirmation hearing date has yet to be set.

Secretary of Energy: Jennifer Granholm

In a step toward supporting clean energy, Biden nominated the former Michigan governor to be energy secretary. As secretary, Granholm will be responsible for reducing emissions across the country, a top climate priority for Biden, who promised to build 550,000 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

South America has a not insignificant role in the development of the lithium-based technology EVs require. Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile—dubbed the Lithium Triangle—hold two-thirds of the world’s lithium reserves. The Inter-American Development Bank forecasts the lithium market to reach $7.7 billion in value by 2022, nearly quadrupling in value in the span of three years.

During her two terms in Lansing from 2003 to 2011, Granholm secured $1.35 billion of funding for the EV industry and brought 18 battery and EV companies to Michigan. Her connections to Proterra Inc. raised concerns surrounding potential conflicts of interest, though she’s pledged to cut ties with the EV manufacturer should she be confirmed. Her committee hearing took place January 27.

Secretary of Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas

The lawyer and Obama Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alum earned Biden’s nomination for the country’s top immigration official. Mayorkas was born in Havana, immigrating to Miami as an infant, and grew up in Los Angeles. He is the first Latino and first immigrant to hold the position. Mayorkas’ knowledge of the immigration system is based not only on his personal experience, but on years working as the DHS deputy secretary and head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2016.

Mayorkas was also one of the main architects of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and responsible for its initial implementation. The Biden administration’s immigration plan includes decreasing the time it takes to become a citizen—primarily by increasing the number of immigration judges processing cases—and granting green cards to DACA recipients and Temporary Protected Status recipients.

Though senators on both sides of the aisle spoke favorably of Mayorkas and his multifaceted approach to border issues, Josh Hawley (R-MO) put a hold on his nomination due to concerns Mayorkas will not continue to build Trump’s border wall despite the Senate allocating funds to do so. The Senate Homeland Security Committee still voted to move his nomination forward and rebuffed a request by John Cornyn (R-TX) and seven other GOP senators to have the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a second hearing to review a 2015 DHS Inspector General investigation into him. That report concluded that, while there were no criminal charges, Mayorkas did show “an appearance of favoritism and special access” for some visa recipients—findings Mayorkas disputed. In a Washington Post op-ed, four former DHS secretaries—two who served under George W. Bush and two under Obama—voiced their support of Mayorkas and the urgency of his confirmation.

The Senate confirmed Mayorkas on February 2.

Secretary of Commerce: Gina Raimondo

Biden’s nominee for commerce secretary is the governor of Rhode Island and a former venture capitalist. The department is responsible for overseeing a host of government programs, including trade enforcement, international fisheries, and intellectual property. In Raimondo’s congressional testimony, she highlighted the importance of fixing the domestic economic crisis before seeking to crack down on unfair Chinese trade practices.

U.S. Trade Representative: Katherine Tai

Biden’s nominee to head U.S. trade negotiations demonstrates a shift toward multilateralism and a prioritization of China trade policy. A lawyer, Tai is fluent in Mandarin and focused on Chinese trade enforcement at the World Trade Organization when working in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative under Obama.

Biden has stressed the importance of trade alliances as the most effective way to counter China. An early agenda item for Tai should she be confirmed is to ensure the proper enforcement of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Serving as an integral negotiator on the document as the House Democrats’ chief trade council in the Ways and Means Committee, Tai is well acquainted with the treaty and responsible for much of the Democratic demands included in the final USCMA. Her ability to find common ground in its unruly negotiations makes her a well-respected pick among Democrats and Republicans.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN: Linda Thomas-Greenfield

The U.S. ambassador to the UN will be stepping into a delicate situation after the Trump administration withdrew from the World Health Organization and cut funding to the UN population fund and UNAIDS.

To undertake the challenge, Biden restored the ambassadorship to the cabinet level (Trump demoted it in 2018) and nominated career foreign service officer Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Thomas-Greenfield was a 35-year member of the U.S. Foreign Service who rose to the rank of assistant secretary before being part of the 60 percent of career ambassadors who left the State Department early on in the Trump administration. While she spent much of her career in Africa, her first foreign service posting was in Jamaica. Thomas-Greenfield’s confirmation hearing took place on January 27.

Secretary of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack

One of Biden’s nominees will be hoping to get his old job back: Tom Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary for all of Obama’s administration. As secretary, Vilsack was an integral part of the U.S.-Cuba normalization strategy, traveling with Obama to the island in March 2016 and working to foster collaboration between the two countries’ agriculture sectors within the bounds of U.S. sanctions. He also led the successful effort to implement new trade promotion agreements with Colombia and Panama, which entered into force in 2012.

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee will hold Vilsack’s confirmation hearing on February 2.

NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs: Juan Gonzalez

Biden named Gonzalez senior director for WHA, a bump up from his role in Obama’s NSC. Gonzalez also worked closely with Biden and was his chief architect of engagement with Latin America from 2013 to 2015. Before that, the Cartagena native worked in WHA at State, and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala previously. In 2017, Senator Chuck Schumer appointed him to serve on the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission.

In a July 2020 piece for Americas Quarterly, Gonzalez emphasized the need for a Biden foreign policy to prioritize, among other issues, climate change, cooperation, and rule of law.

Coordinator for U.S. Southern Border: Roberta Jacobson

Few people in Biden’s cabinet have a longer track record in Latin America than Ambassador Jacobson. Tapped to fill a newly created role of coordinator for U.S. southern border issues, the career State Department official served for over three decades as a member of the department’s civil service, nearly all of it in Western Hemisphere Affairs. She resigned in 2018 while U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Jacobson served as assistant secretary for WHA from 2012 to 2016, during which time she led U.S. negotiations to normalize relations with Cuba. In protest of this work, Cuban-American Senators Rubio and Ted Cruz held up her nomination for ambassador to Mexico for 11 months. During the administration of George W. Bush, Jacobson led State’s Office of Mexican Affairs for five years, then was deputy assistant secretary for Canada, Mexico, and NAFTA issues for three, and briefly senior coordinator for State’s security initiatives until becoming assistant secretary. She also held postings in Argentina and Peru.

In a 2018 New York Times op-ed, Jacobson and her co-author argued for sending more judges to process asylum cases rather than increasing border patrol agents for enforcement. The Biden team has said that the administration will work on developing “a new immigration system that is fair, humane, and keeps families together,” but also noted that building such a system will take time and “there will not be immediate changes in processing at the U.S. border” since changing too much too soon could cause a new border crisis.

Special Presidential Climate Envoy: John Kerry

The appointment of Kerry to the newly created special presidential envoy for climate is a signal to the international community of Biden’s priorities. He served alongside Biden in the Senate for decades and also in the Obama cabinet as secretary of state. In the latter role, Kerry was lead negotiator in the Paris Climate Accords, which Biden had the United States rejoin on his first day in office. Kerry will also be seated on the National Security Council, the first position focused solely on climate to do so. While secretary of state, Kerry was charged with deepening relations with Latin America and the Caribbean and visited the region 14 times, including twice to promote climate cooperation at COP-20 in Peru, and the Our Ocean Conference in Chile. Kerry also visited Cuba to reopen the U.S. embassy after 54 years, and went to Colombia to meet with peace process negotiators and to attend the signing of the peace accords.

Regional dynamics on climate have changed since Kerry was last in office, particularly in the U.S.-Brazil relationship. Brazil’s rise in deforestation became a campaign issue for Biden, who suggested in a September debate using economic consequences to encourage Brazil to act. A staunch Trump ally and acolyte, President Jair Bolsonaro has chafed at foreign pressures for Brazil’s management of the rainforest. Nonetheless, in a January 19 letter to Biden, Bolsonaro expressed willingness to work with the incoming U.S. administration on “sustainable development and protection of the environment, especially of the Amazon.”

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