With the recent nomination of Carlos Trujillo, the current U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, to be the top State Department official for Latin America, Cuban American Republicans from Florida would hold an unprecedented control over U.S. policy toward the region.
Along with the naming of Trujillo, the White House this week designated John Barsa, another Cuban American from Miami and a former aide to former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, to be the acting director of the United States Agency for International Development.
He is currently assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Past Republican and Democratic administrations have appointed Cuban Americans into key positions. Still, they have never had, at the same time, the top Latin America-related roles at the State Department and the White House.
In Trujillo at State, Mauricio Claver-Carone as senior director for Latin America at the White House’s National Security Council, and Barsa in charge of USAID, many see a team of like-minded Republican Hispanics who could push forward Trump’s policies.
This seems especially true regarding Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, experts said.
“The Trump Administration is making a change at U.S. Department of State that will result in a more robust advocacy for further expansion of constrictive policies towards the Republic of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua among other countries,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
All three have close links with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who chairs the Senate’s Western Hemisphere affairs subcommittee and, perhaps more crucially, has the president’s ear on important decisions involving Latin American issues, such as Trujillo’s nomination.
“Few individuals understand the ongoing complexities and threats our region is currently facing like Ambassador Trujillo,” Rubio said in a statement, noting he has closely worked with him for many years. Trujillo served as a Florida House Representative from 2010-18.
In the State Department and OAS circles, Trujillo is known as a quick study and a media-savvy official. To the Trump administration, he is the ambassador who rallied the votes to invoke a decades-old regional agreement, the Rio Treaty, to impose regional sanctions against the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
Barsa has also been involved in Venezuela policy and worked closely with the team of interim president Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. and close to 60 other nations recognize as the legitimate leader of the country, to “promote democracy,” said U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart in a statement.
“On policy, John fully appreciates the importance of outreach to those languishing under tyranny in places such as Venezuela and Cuba while maintaining tight sanctions on dictatorships,” Díaz-Balart said.
Before working at USAID, Barsa held positions at the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration. Some experts have voiced concerns about his being too partisan and a sudden change of leadership in a moment of crisis, but USAID Administrator Mark Green said Barsa would continue the agency’s “mission of furthering democratic values and human dignity abroad.”
“As Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID, John has focused on the President’s priorities of promoting democracy, standing up to tyranny, and advancing our national security and economic interests in the Western Hemisphere,” Green said in a statement announcing his departure from the agency.
The Miami Herald contacted the State Department and USAID regarding Trujillo’s nomination and the appointment of Barsa, but officials declined to comment.
Barsa will not take office until April 10, and it could be a while before Trujillo, who needs U.S. Senate confirmation, becomes the next assistant secretary of state.
News of his nomination, a possibility first reported by the Miami Herald months ago, were overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak. And the process — including a vote in the Senate — will likely drag for months as Congress’ efforts focus on containing the harmful effects of the crisis.
But even so, sending his nomination to the Senate in the current circumstances sends “a strong message” of the administration’s commitment to the region, a Senate Republican staffer told the Miami Herald.
“It does ratify the importance of Florida and the people that have been pushing for changes,” in U.S.-Latin American policies, the source added.
The Senate staffer said Trujillo, who is 37, might bring ‘fresh ideas” that could help revamp some of the Trump administration’s strategies that have yet to get concrete results, most notably regarding Cuba and Venezuela.
But some Latin America experts believe the promotion of two Florida Republicans just months before the presidential election could be perceived as too political. And having an all-male team of Cuban Americans might bring a lack of diversity to the debate.
“This absence of diversity may result in decisions lacking complete perspective,” Kavulich said. “The concentration of commonality may result in decisions absent of fulsome debate.”
Benjamin Gedan, a former South America director on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, praised the Trump administration for holding together an international coalition supporting efforts to achieve a democratic transition in Venezuela. But he believes “the latest appointments will deepen the perception that Venezuela policy is a domestic political tool in the run-up to the November U.S. election.”
“The president’s Latin America team has generally succeeded in keeping the Venezuela crisis on the front burner,” Gedan said. “But at home, the president’s Latin America team has fatally mixed Venezuela policy with domestic politics.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres