Two things are to happen tomorrow in different parts of Miami.
- At Southern Command headquarters in Doral, U.S. and Central American leaders, along with high officials from Mexico and Colombia, are holding day 2 of the “Conference on Prosperity and Security,” an event put on largely by the Department of Homeland Security to discuss a new approach to Central America.
- At the Manuel Artime Theater, Donald Trump is announcing a partial rollback of ex-President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba. This will include a ban on individual travel (group tours are still OK) and stringent requirements that travelers record all expenses, among other restrictions.
Most of Latin America celebrated Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba. And most of Latin America opposes Trump’s reversal of it. This makes for an awkward situation for the high Central American, Mexican, and Colombian officials who will be at Southcom, a few miles away from Trump’s announcement.
So awkward that Colombia—perhaps after hearing concerns from Cuba’s government—even mulled pulling out of the Central America meeting, Politico reported earlier today.
“Colombia began to express misgivings about how Trump’s Cuba announcement in Miami would coincide with the two-day U.S.-led Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America that begins today, also in Miami, and suggested it might just skip out on the conference if Trump didn’t delay his announcement by a week, said an aide to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).”
Sen. Rubio responded by threatening post-conflict aid to Colombia.
“Rubio nevertheless counseled the White House to send a message to the government run by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos: The actions were jeopardizing the $450 million ‘Peace Colombia’ initiative that President Barack Obama pushed but that remains in limbo under Trump. …’Let me get this right: Santos is coming to us and asking for $400 million to fund his flawed peace plan, but he is threatening to pull out of an event that’s not even about them? It’s about El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,’ the senator told the White House, according to the Rubio aide.
(This report is partially inaccurate: last month Congress passed, and Trump signed into law, the budget including the $450 million “Peace Colombia” appropriation.) An aide to another critic of Obama’s Cuba policy and Colombia’s peace accord, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Florida), called the Colombian embassy, Politico reports, “to tell the country to stay out of the Cuba matter or face ‘consequences.'”
Put aside for a minute (just for a minute) the outrageous threats directed at Colombia, one of the hemisphere’s most moderate and staunchly pro-Washington governments. Whose idea was it to hold these two overlapping events in the same city at the same time? Isn’t this the sort of thing that diplomats are supposed to catch, and to stave off ahead of time?
The answer to the first question is that it was nobody’s idea for the events to strangely coincide: it just happened. The answer to the second is that the diplomats aren’t in the driver’s seat here. The people trained to ensure smooth international relations are an afterthought in this administration’s Latin America policy.
Here we are in June, and “assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs” is one of many empty diplomatic posts for which the Trump administration has not even sent a nominee’s name to Congress. The State Department’s profile on both the Central America meeting and the Cuba decision is low.
One hears much more about the Central America conference from the Department of Homeland Security, whose secretary, former Southcom commander John Kelly, has been the driving force behind the Trump administration’s intent to devise a new Central America policy. Just compare Homeland Security’s up-to-the-moment, video-filled site about the conference to State’s web page, which offers a backgrounder from a few days ago and a speech given by Secretary Rex Tillerson, who is only attending the conference’s first day.
When you cut out or demote the diplomats, you’re going to make rookie mistakes. Like, for instance, putting a close regional ally in a politically uncomfortable situation, then threatening it when its government dares to speak up.
Between this and Tuesday’s comments from Secretary Tillerson complaining openly about Colombia’s 2015 decision to stop aerial coca spraying, the U.S.-Colombia relationship is fraying. And Senator Marco Rubio is involved in both episodes.