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The United States needs a career ambassador in Honduras

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Recently Foreign Policy reported that the Trump administration had decided not to re-submit the nomination of career diplomat Francisco "Paco" Palmieri to be the next Ambassador to Honduras ("Rubio Blocks Trump's Honduras Envoy", Feb. 6).  According to the article, Palmieri is being blocked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).  The article implies that Rubio wants to take a "a more hard-line approach" towards Latin America, and that he thinks a political appointee ambaassador would be better suited for the Honduras job.

This matters. President Trump rails against caravans of Honduran migrants whom he believes represent an existential threat to our security.  He has deployed the U.S. military to the border, waged his mid-term election campaign on the issue, and wants to build a wall to keep them out.  So why won't the president, the State Department, and Rubio approve a highly-qualified career diplomat to lead the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, and lead our efforts to get at the root causes of irregular migration from Central America?

I know Paco Palmieri, and I know Honduras. I was the last U.S. ambassador there, and I departed in June 2017, twenty months ago. The normal and optimal time between ambassadors is a couple of weeks, or a month or two at most.  I arrived in Tegucigalpa three weeks after the departure of my predecessor. This assures continuity of leadership, and assures that the United States is represented at the highest levels.

Mr. Palmieri was highly-qualified to be ambassador to Honduras.  He has over 30 years of experience in the Foreign Service, including in difficult assignments like Iraq; he speaks excellent Spanish; as acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs for a year and a half, he has a very broad and deep understanding of this administration's policy in the region; and he has served previously in Honduras, as the embassy's political counselor, the senior official responsible for day to day analysis of conditions on the ground.  

The administration's decision not to support the Palmieri nomination means that the process of selecting a candidate for the Honduras job goes back to square one. It also guarantees that there won't be a U.S. ambassador to Honduras until next summer, and maybe longer.  It means that as the administration claims that migrants from Honduras threaten our security, that cutting off U.S. assistance to Honduras will punish them for "sending" migrants, and as the administration apparently contemplates Rubio's harder line, there will be no U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa to provide honest and informed analysis for Washington, and to communicate the administration's policy to leaders in Honduras.

That is not to say that the embassy isn't currently in capable hands - it is. The Charge d'Affaires - the person who runs the Embassy in the absence of an ambassador - is an outstanding and capable career officer. But she would be the first to acknowledge that we need an ambassador in Honduras. I can tell you, and she can tell you, that even the most qualified Charge d'Affaires doesn't have the same clout, either in Washington or in Tegucigalpa. There is a reason why our ambassadors are presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed.

And what about Rubio's apparent desire to send a political appointee to Honduras? I have worked for outstanding political ambassadors during my career, and there is no doubt that our diplomatic system has a place for them. But Honduras isn't one of them. The next ambassador to Honduras should be a career diplomat who is deeply steeped in the history and culture of Latin America; who speaks excellent Spanish; who has long experience managing U.S. government assistance programs; who is familiar with the "push" factors that drive Central Americans to migrate to the United States, and the U.S. government programs designed to mitigate those factors; and most importantly, should be an honest broker, unencumbered by domestic U.S. politics, who can help sustain bipartisan support for our Central America policy.  

If you like irregular migration, then you'll love what happens once the United States cuts off the very assistance that targets it. Honduras will become more violent, the rule of law will deteriorate, and economic opportunities will dry up. Hondurans will vote with their feet in increasing numbers. Now is the time for a steady, experienced hand in Honduras.

James D. Nealon was U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017 and is currently a Wilson Center Global Fellow.

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