Trump's Colombia Ambassador Pick Remains in Limbo as Chaos Erupts in Venezuela

Conservatives remain opposed to Macmanus, renew push for political, not career ambassador

Joseph Macmanus / Getty Images
January 24, 2019

With the Trump administration focused on the crisis in Venezuela and efforts to undermine Nicola Maduro's grasp on power in Caracas, foreign policy hands are concerned that Colombia, one of America's strongest allies in the region, is not receiving the attention it deserves.

Colombia has absorbed more than a million Venezuelan refugees and is facing its own humanitarian crisis as a result. The exodus has destabilized the region and appears to have overshadowed, at least temporarily, President Trump's demands that Bogota work harder to curb its outflow of drugs.

Maduro cut off ties to the United States on Wednesday after President Trump announced that he was recognizing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of the country.

Meanwhile, Trump's original choice to become ambassador to Colombia, Washington's biggest ally in Latin America, remains in limbo after a group of Senate conservatives blocked his confirmation last year.

Joseph Macmanus's nomination officially expired at the end of last year. Congressional rules require Trump to re-nominate his selections for posts that require Senate confirmation, and Trump has yet to do so when it comes to Macmanus, a 30-year career foreign-service officer.

Conservative senators, led by Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Ted Cruz (R., Texas), objected to Macmanus over his lack of recent experience in the region, as well as his close ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his role in handling the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Macmanus served as a top aide to Clinton and was one of the members of her inner circle of aides who learned that the Benghazi attack was terrorism in the first hours after it occurred.

The current Obama-selected ambassador, Kevin Whitaker, remains in place in Bogota, which conservatives argue is hindering the Trump administration's goals of stopping the flow of cocaine and opioids out of the Colombia.

Macmanus's critics on the right are renewing their call to replace Macmanus with a political appointee who has deep knowledge of Colombia's drug and trade problems, is committed to fighting for U.S. business interests, and has a direct line to State Department and White House leadership.

"With a new Congress, President Trump has a fresh start to name a political ambassador to Colombia who shares his vision on stopping record illegal drugs flowing into U.S. streets and schoolyards," one foreign-policy expert told the Washington Free Beacon.

"For too long," the source said, "State Department career ambassadors simply checked the box when they arrived at their post in Bogota and didn't hold the Colombian government accountable for the rapid and deadly increase in cocaine production."

It's time to take action when it comes to curbing cocaine production and U.S.-Colombia trade issues, argue conservative Latin-American subject experts.

"Failure to get serious will represent a major stain on U.S. foreign policy and the war-against-drugs strategy the Trump administration likes to tout but thus far has shown little results and progress, especially with regard to Colombia," the source continued.

A National Security Council spokesman referred a question about the status of Macmanus's nomination to the White House, which did return the request for comment.

Colombian cocaine production hit record highs in 2017, according to a report last fall by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, rising 31 percent in one year. The country is the world's largest producer of cocaine, much of which ends up in the United States.

The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report in January arguing that the United States is grappling with one of its worst-ever drug crises, as more than 900 people a week are dying from opioid-related overdoses.

The report says the problem began with the over-prescription of legal pain medications, such as oxycodone, but has intensified in recent years with an influx of cheap heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, supplied by foreign-based drug cartels.

While most of the heroin coming into the United States is cultivated in Mexico, the report says that large quantities of heroin are also produced in South American countries, particularly Colombia, and trafficked into the United States by sea or air.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's appointment signaled a shift in Latin American policy. In recent months, the administration's focus has been confronting Venezuela with increasingly severe sanctions, as well as boosting dissidents and opposition forces fighting for democratic reforms in Caracas.

Over the past two years, Trump has repeatedly warned Colombia that he could yank U.S. aid over the country's leaders' seeming inability to stop the spike in coca cultivation. The dramatic increase in Colombia coca has undermined achievements of Plan Colombia, the U.S.-led effort to stabilize the country with $10 billion in aid.

With Colombia now absorbing many of Venezuela's refugees, the administration may be taking a softer stand on the threat to pull aid, conservative insiders suggest.

However, they argue that would be a mistake.

"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," one source said.

"No matter what presidential administration is in power in Bogota, each Colombian president wants a pushover career ambassador with no clout in Washington so they will not be held accountable. It's time to change this dynamic and pick a political ambassador with clout—one that is tied into the White House and at the highest levels of the State Department."

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom many blame for Macmanus's nomination, appeared to take his cues from career foreign service officers who played down conflicts and appeared content with gradual, window-dressing reforms and eschewed overt American intervention in internal Latin politics, critics said.

"Despite holding the post for a year, Tillerson failed to recognize that senior career diplomat Tom Shannon was out of step with President Trump's marching orders to challenge the narco-sate in Venezuela," Roger Noriega, a foreign and defense policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an essay published in March.

"Pompeo can reverse these shortcomings quickly by directing the State Department to cooperate with the efforts of Trump appointees in the National Security [Council] staff and in the Treasury Department to get tough on these South American hot spots."