Maria Otero, ex-United States Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human RightsFriday, January 6, 2017
‘Trump is trying desperately to find one Latino cabinet appointment’
In 2012, US President Barack Obama renamed and realigned a position in his administration, forming a new post: US Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. The first holder of that post was Maria Otero. Appointed in January 2012, she served for more than a year, in the process becoming the highest ranking Hispanic official at the US State Department, and the first “Latina” Under Secretary in its history. Born in La Paz, Bolivia, Otero moved to the United States aged 12 and has held high-profile posts with USAID, ACCION International, the Kresge Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, Oxfam America and Bancosol, a microfinance bank in Bolivia.
WASHINGTON DC — Maria Otero was the first Hispanic Under-Secretary to be appointed by US President Barack Obama, making her the highest-ranking Hispanic official in the State Department’s History. She later took an active role in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and if Clinton had won, would most surely have made it on the short-list of potential cabinet candidates. Those hopes were cast aside with Donald Trump’s victory.
The unprecedented win of Trump, a Washington outsider with no policy experience, has made Otero and other Beltway insiders anxious, as no one knows what really to expect.
In an interview with the Herald from her house in Washington DC, just two weeks before the presidential inauguration, Otero reflected on her time serving as Under-Secretary of Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, and what the new government could mean for Latin America.
You had an active role in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Would you have been appointed to a cabinet position if she had won? What type of policy would have been enacted towards Latin America?
I have no idea what position I would have been offered. One of the greatest honours for me was to serve under Secretary Clinton. She was a woman of principle and values, who was turned into a caricature during the campaign. There was already a great deal of attention given to Central America by Obama. US$750 million were allocated fairly recently to it. I think Clinton would have given a lot of emphasis in trying to build its democratic institutions, strengthening its law enforcement, and providing education opportunities. The problems you have in Central America also reverberate in the United States. When you have thousands of minors escaping their countries it is because they feel such high levels of risk and lack of safety, leading them to our borders.
I think she would have continued Obama’s Cuban policy, with the general sense of shared responsibility we have to Cuba and Latin America as a whole. Not like a big brother telling you what to do, but on issues we share with the environment, population and trade. It has the largest inequality in the region.
Latin America, not Central America. Brasil, Columbia, Peru, and even in Argentina you can really see huge differences. There is also a sense that Latin America is in a very different position from where it was when Clinton left her position as secretary of State. Just four years ago with the exception of some of the ALBA countries, such as Venezuela that was experiencing enormous difficulties, you really did see a lot of countries that were having a lot of economic growth such as Brazil. And so we would focus on strengthening the democracies, where there are vulnerable sectors of the population. I think that Obama and Clinton really saw Latin America as those countries that could really demonstrate how by using democratic principles — especially in South America — you could be a real beacon for other countries.
And now with the upcoming Trump administration could these policies be abandoned?
We have no idea what is going to happen in the next administration. Trump has said everything under sun about all the different issues ... (but) they have said almost nothing about Latin America, except Mexico.
You’re talking about deporting?
Yes the deporting, the building of a wall and now recent efforts to create closer relations with billionaires such as (Mexican billionaire) Carlos Slim. My feeling is that they are not going to pay much attention, and Latin America would be well served by that because this administration is going to be pretty tough in the way it is going to deal with other parts of the world and it is probably going to focus more on Asia and Europe, but obviously Russia and China.
For Latin America, the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) will die and that does affect several of the Pacific countries. But aside from that I do not know what will happen with Cuba. It will probably be put on hold, but it cannot be pulled back or undone, it is already out of the Pandora’s box. (Venezuelan President Nicolás) Maduro will continue to take Venezuela down. It is in really dire straits. It will probably need the rest of Latin America to bring it back up.
So far do his appointments deviate a lot from previous Republican administrations?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. We have voices in the Trump administration that are far right and that are giving a voice to parts of the political spectrum in this country that really never had a voice before — voices that really see the world as right or left.
You know that his major strategic person in the White House is chief strategist Steve Bannon who worked with the alt right, which is the far right? He isn’t drawing people from the moderate right. And these people will define the role the US will play.
Do you think they will be more hawkish in the sense of them being more supportive of coup attempts in Latin America?
Republican administrations have been more interventionist and there is every reason to believe that these guys would be too.
But he also has this discourse that makes him seem isolationist.
Yes, and I see his interventionism to be far more to the Middle East to the forces that are causing potential threats to the security of the United States which is basically terrorism...
The only reason that I believe that the Trump administration is going to pay particular attention to Latin America is if there is any indication there is any terrorism in those countries that could form a threat.
In terms of his plan for massive deportations, could that not add to instability in Central America?
It is not feasible. You know that he has gone back and forth now, so I have no idea what he will end up doing. One of the difficulties with Trump is that I do not think he knows what the policies are themselves. I do not know if he knows that Obama had deported over a million undocumented felons back to Central America during the years of his administration. Obama was pretty strong in deporting people who had criminal records in the United States, and who were here illegally so he (Trump) said that is what I am going to do.
In the case of Latin America, I think his level of ignorance is probably really high. I do not know even whom he would be putting in as the National Security advisor on Latin America. It probably will be some business person or somebody who knows Latin America to some degree, it is certainly not going to be people with high academic and thoughtful understanding of the relationship between the US and Latin America.
Argentina recently opened its economy to the US with a more business-friendly approach. Do you believe that the progress that has been made on that front could be reversed?
I have no idea, but what I do think is that they are not going to be priorities. I do not think that they will be paying very much attention. One of the difficulties is that in Latin America one of the factors that have really held back democratic institutions is corruption at the highest levels. In quite a number of Latin American countries there are institutional processes being carried out by the judicial system so that the indictments reach a trial and go through a process of conviction ... certainly that is the case in Argentina right now, and in Brazil, though you could question it because it is the corrupt accusing the corrupt... (As for Macri), he is a businessman and that will work in his favour because Trump believes that businessmen should run the whole world. So you know that could help. It is not going to help (Michelle) Bachelet. On the other hand, (Peru President) Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will do fine in Peru and he will be able to interact with this… I do not know what will happen with Colombia. You know the peace treaty in Colombia is one of the greatest accomplishments in our region in decades... Trump does not care about this stuff.
Are there any Hispanic appointments that Trump has made?
He is trying desperately to find one Latino cabinet appointment.