Juan Gonzalez—a recognized foreign policy executive with over 15 years at the forefront of U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean—is a Senior Fellow at the Penn Biden Center and leads the Latin America practice at The Cohen Group, a Washington D.C. firm that provides global business consulting services, strategic advice and practical assistance in business development.
He previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, as Special Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2013 to 2015, and as National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2011 to 2013.
A native of Cartagena, Colombia, Gonzalez is one of the Global Americans New Generation of Public Intellectuals. We spoke to him to learn about his experience in foreign policymaking, his days at the White House, as well his vision for U.S.-Latin America relations in the context of the current administration.
Juan, you have extensive experience at the forefront of U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Currently, you serve as an associate Vice-President and leader of the Latin American practice at The Cohen Group. Give us some insights on your day to day at the Cohen Group and your activities as head of the Latin American practice.
For me, the most important difference between government service and the private sector has been the challenge of staying current. In government you’re at the center of everything and benefit greatly from the expertise of our embassies, which provide on-the-ground analysis. In the private sector you have to work constantly to stay up to speed on events and policy developments.
The Cohen Group is great because our work is at the intersection of policy and business. When I was thinking about leaving government, I didn’t necessarily want to work for one company. At the Cohen Group, I work for many companies in many sectors, so I’ll alternate between working on defense in Peru, infrastructure in Mexico, the health sector in Colombia, or energy issues in Brazil. That level of variety and the caliber of people at the firm is what attracted me the most to The Cohen Group. It’s exciting work, but I also make time to teach in Georgetown as an adjunct professor and I continue to advise former Vice President Joe Biden on Latin America.
Let’s go back to your experience in public service. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, you were responsible for U.S. diplomatic engagement and policy implementation in Central America and the Caribbean. As you know, Central America is currently in the spotlight, given the migrant caravan making its way to the United States. We constantly hear President Trump making pronouncements of insufficient cooperation with neighboring countries—Mexico included—in terms of migration and drug flows from Central America.
How would you describe policy making in a region as dynamic and challenging as Central America, especially as a Colombian American? What do we still need to work on?
That’s a really good question. The first thing I would say is that the job of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State is perhaps one of the most challenging jobs in government. My portfolio included Central America and the Caribbean, which has more embassies than any other in the Western Hemisphere, and each country has its own unique challenges that demand constant attention. I often felt like I was sprinting from the moment I arrived in the office, but I was also incredibly lucky to serve with an entrepreneurial, innovative, and hardworking team, which made my job a lot easier.
It also didn’t hurt that Vice President Biden was very engaged personally on Latin America. We were able to move mountains thanks to him. There are basically two directions from which to approach policy development. One is from the bottom up, which takes a lot of time and effort to get new initiatives off the ground. The other is from the top down, when the U.S. President, Vice President, and Secretary of State are personally engaged and negotiate face-to-face with other leaders. You can get a lot more done when someone like Vice President Biden is in the driver’s seat. We were able to go from helping countries develop the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, to the point of having the Vice President convincing members of Congress to appropriate $750 million for Central America in 2016. There’s no way we could’ve gotten all of that done in the timeframe that we did without the Vice President.
Once we knew that Congress would appropriate that figure, I moved to the State Department to lead the implementation of the Vice President’s game plan. At State, Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom and Under Secretary Tom Shannon were the most involved, and all of us were making regular trips to the Hill to ensure that we were making the case every day that investing in the security and prosperity of Central America was worth the taxpayer expense and in the national security interest of the United States.
In response to your question on what was it like to serve in the Obama administration as a Colombian American, I continue to believe that the United States is probably one of the only countries in the world where somebody like myself—born in Cartagena—can move to the U.S. and end up working for the President and the Vice President and contribute to policy toward the Americas. It’s been fascinating.
For example, when I was on the National Security Council I played a role in organizing the President’s trip to my city of birth. It was a highlight of my time in government to have such an incredible opportunity to help shape the U.S. relationship with the country in which I was born. For me, the U.S. is a place where there is broad bipartisan support in favor of a majority of foreign policy goals in Latin America, so I felt that what we were doing was contributing to the region’s prosperity and that made me feel very good as an American and as a Latin American.
As for what we need to work on, I think the challenge for policymaking—and particularly foreign policy making—is to look beyond the urgent issues and think strategically about U.S. interests. I think our understanding of the regional context is one that may be a little behind the region’s sense of identity and purpose. The Latin America of today is on the move: building bridges to Europe and Asia; embracing technology and developing innovative solutions to many of their challenges; trying new things and finding new ways to become much more global. Unfortunately, the U.S. is still playing catch-up, and we often revert to Cold War thinking. This is something Chris Sabatini has written a lot about–hence Global Americans–and I firmly believe that we need to be less parochial in our approach to Latin America, lest we get left behind.
Can you share with us a bit more about your experience at the White House? Any challenges, memories or lessons learned beyond what you just mentioned?
To anybody who has an opportunity to work at the NSC or the office of the Vice President, I would say absolutely go for it. It is the experience of a lifetime, but I am also careful to tell people about the amazing amount of sacrifice involved with working at the White House. There’s not much of a work/life balance: I regularly had to drop everything to address an urgent or important need. I was always the guy who was late for dinners, personal engagements, and was always glued to my blackberry. But that’s the job.
Working for the Vice President’s team was an awesome experience. The National Security Council is pretty large, but the Vice President’s National Security team is smaller and we had an opportunity to interact regularly and develop a relationship with the Vice President. It was such a privilege—Vice President Biden is someone who is genuinely able to connect with people on a personal level. I’ve tried to emulate his style, both when I went back to the State Department and now in the private sector.
Given your experience as National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs coordinating U.S. policy development and implementation in the Andean region (Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela), I’m curious what your view is on Venezuela. What should the U.S. and the international community be doing, not doing, or doing more of to address the political and humanitarian crisis?
The current situation is different from my days at the NSC, but the overarching response is the same: the future of Venezuela has to be determined by the Venezuelan people. The U.S. can’t impose a solution, but the situation in the country has reached a fever-pitch that requires the region to work together to exert maximum pressure on the Venezuelan regime. Because that’s what it is—a regime; there’s no democracy or institutionality left in Venezuela.
The approach that we took during the Obama presidency—even after Hugo Chavez died in 2013—was to lower the decibel level of debate between the United States and Venezuela, because we wanted to avoid providing a distraction from the problems occurring inside the country. At the same time, we tried to create a space for other countries to step up and challenge the abuses taking place in Venezuela.
By the end of the administration the Vice President even made an effort to personally pressure Nicolas Maduro. I accompanied him to Brazil in January 2015 for the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff. On the margins, he approached Maduro to press him to engage in real dialogue with the Venezuelan opposition, to release political prisoners, and to take the difficult economic decisions in order to prevent the country’s economic collapse. Maduro didn’t listen, obviously, so when we came back from the trip, having analyzed and studied the situation carefully, his instructions were to make sure that from the Treasury we were doing everything necessary to investigate corruption, narco-trafficking and money laundering in Venezuela.
A lot of what the Trump Administration has been able to do in Venezuela is thanks to the Vice President’s initial efforts. Fast forward to present day, the situation has deteriorated such that increased pressure, including possibly expanded sanctions, by the Lima Group is necessary. At the same time, sanctions are insufficient in the absence of a broader strategy to help put Venezuela back together. Frankly, it’s foolish to think that either a coup or the coming elections will solve the problem. Unfortunately, I don’t think an easy, positive solution will come in the short term, but that is why I think all countries in the region should continue working together to address and add pressure to the situation in Venezuela.
Given our current political context, as well as increasing negative perceptions toward the United States, what would you say to young people exploring careers in foreign policy, particularly to those interested in Western Hemisphere affairs? How should they prepare? What should they be paying attention to?
I think the most important thing is to make sure that you have a sense of history. That is the one thing lacking from a lot of young folks that I meet. Most of us aren’t old enough to have been in the trenches—meaning fighting and combatting military dictatorship in Latin America—but we need to study and learn from those experiences, including in cases where the United States did not play a constructive role.
The most important thing to remember is that policymaking and foreign policy is constantly changing, and it is incredibly important to the future prosperity and security of the United States. Right now—despite a series of policies I don’t personally agree with—I would still encourage people to join government service because the American people will change the direction of the country, and will eventually elect either a future Democrat or future Republican who has the best interests of the United States front of mind. So the policies will change and those who are present will be on the front lines shaping the policy direction. There is nothing more exciting than working in policymaking from the U.S. perspective. That’s especially true if you have an interest in Latin America,
Would you go back to public service?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, maybe because I still have some memories of working seven days a week until really late at the White House, and now my wife and I are expecting our first child, so that is our first priority.
Thank you very much! But you know, I think that if I were to go back to government service, it would have to be for a president or vice president that I believe in and support as much as I did with Barack Obama and Joe Biden, because even though we were working long hours, the work itself was meaningful and I loved the team I worked with. The pay isn’t great, and the hours are tough, but we were doing something we believed in. To return to government it would have to be under a similar situation.
One last question. Global Americans has included you in its list of the New Generation of Public Intellectuals along with other prominent young voices from around the region. From the policy perspective and now in private practice, what does it mean to you to be a leading member of a new generation of public intellectuals?
I am truly honored. I’ve long-respected Chris Sabatini and followed his writings even before we had the opportunity to meet. Again, his view that the region is now a Global Americas is something I strongly agree with. I also need to recognize that anything I may have accomplished is the product of the amazing people with whom I’ve worked over the years. Any sort of impact or contribution I’ve had has been a function of listening to these people, recognizing when I’ve been wrong, and always trying to do the right thing.
The second thing I would say, particularly nowadays with technology-oriented younger generations, is that it is important to show up and speak up. There will be many people that say to younger people “your job is to be seen not heard.” I think it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in public service or the private sector, it is absolutely the duty of people to speak up, both when they agree with something and when they don’t. You could be wrong, but I also think that keeping your mouth shut is equivalent to doing nothing.
Juan this has been great. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your insights and experience. Safe travels!
Thank you and take care!
This interview has been edited for content and length.