Several U.S. senators argued for pragmatic diplomacy in Latin America in the face of China’s influence at a hearing Thursday to examine the nomination of ambassadors to El Salvador, Uruguay and Nicaragua that angered the government in Managua.
25 years ago, the United States lived in a unipolar world but now it has as an adversary the Chinese Communist Party which “is a commercial, technological, geopolitical, diplomatic and economic rival” and also “a military threat to the country” with “an interest” in Latin America and the Caribbean, said Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
For Democrat Tim Kaine, Washington should avoid focusing solely on the “piles of problems in the region” and pay attention to the “success stories”, such as the Alliance for Development in Democracy, made up of Panama, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Ecuador.
And Uruguay, “a model in many ways,” he adds. The country “is working on a free trade agreement with Turkey and China” and its president, Luis Lacalle Pou, said he wants one with the United States and the United Kingdom but Washington “is not looking south.”
“Why not invest in these nations?” he asked. Kaine insists the message should be, “If you’re doing things right, the U.S. will be your ally.”
Heide B. Fulton, nominated by President Joe Biden as ambassador to Uruguay, proposed “looking for new tools to strengthen the relationship.”
El Salvador, led by President Nayib Bukele, and Nicaragua, governed by Daniel Ortega, whose re-election Washington considers fraudulent, are on the other side of the diplomatic scale.
Rubio called for a “pragmatic” relationship with El Salvador, without implying “applauding or celebrating everything people do.”
“It seems that their current president is, at the moment, very popular. That is a reality” but there have been events “that do not seem to be conducive to strengthening democracy,” said William H. Duncan, ambassador-designate for this country.
A response that prompted Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez to cry foul. “Hitler was popular. Putin is popular in Russia. It doesn’t mean that because a person is popular in his country, we don’t push extremely hard in the face of violations of human rights and democracy, do we agree on that?”
“We agree,” Duncan replied, who assures him that if confirmed in office he will defend “democracy, human rights and the fight against corruption and impunity.”
Republican Senator Rob Portman considered it striking that Bukele “treats the relationship with the United States in a way that would indicate that he does not want to cooperate”, when his country received more than 7,000 million dollars in remittances in 2021 from US territory, where two and a half million Salvadorans live.
The relationship with Nicaragua is by far the most problematic.
“They are increasingly becoming a pariah state within the region,” Ambassador-nominee Hugo F. Rodriguez Jr. responded to Kaine, who commented that during the Summit of the Americas several countries complained to him that Cuba and Venezuela had not been invited but none mentioned Nicaragua.
Rubio brought up another sensitive issue: expelling Nicaragua from the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA.
“Is Nicaragua a free nation?” And if it’s not then what’s the reason we have to continue to provide trade benefits?” he asked.
“Taking Nicaragua out of Cafta is a potentially very powerful tool and something we need to seriously consider,” the ambassador-nominee replied to him.
Bill Hagerty, also a Republican, touched on an issue of concern to the entire U.S. political class: the influence of China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
In 2021 Nicaragua re-established diplomatic ties with China, to the detriment of Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory. It also signed a cooperation agreement with Beijing and authorized Russian troops on its territory.
“Abandoning recognition” of Taiwan “deprives Nicaraguan citizens of a reliable democratic partner,” Rodriguez replied. Regarding Russia, “they are clearly following the Russian strategy manual.”