On June 13th, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held hearings on three Department of State posts with implications for the Western Hemisphere: Kenneth George, nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay; John Mondello, nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago; and Kimberly Breier, nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
The nomination of Breier for Assistant Secretary is by far the most consequential for the direction of U.S. policy towards Latin America. (Sorry Trinidad and Tobago; we swear it’s not because you eliminated the U.S. from the World Cup.) The position for which Breier is nominated, the top State Department post for the hemisphere, has been held by two acting secretaries (most recently Francisco [Paco] Palmieri) since Roberta S. Jacobson left the post to serve as Ambassador to Mexico until May 2016.
Breier has worked for the State Department as a member of policy planning staff covering the Western Hemisphere. Prior to joining the State Department, Breier served as the Director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative and Deputy Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She has also served as a director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council Staff.
Below, read excerpts from Breier’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Among the highlights are a contentious exchange between Senators Menendez (D-NJ), Rubio (R-FL) and Cardin (D-NJ) and the nominee on the Trump administration’s decision to end Temporary Protected Status for many Latin Americans and discussion of the U.S. response to the escalating crisis in Nicaragua.
Excerpts appear in the order they were discussed. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL): “Our goal is the restoration of democracy to Cuba. The military-owned holding company GAESA owns pretty much every profitable company in Cuba… as part of the June 2017 executive order on Cuba, it fell on the State Department to determine which Cuban companies are being sanctioned. Despite progress, there are a series of companies that remain untouched. Will you commit to working with us and the administration to amend or add additional entities who should be on the list and are escaping sanction?”
Kimberly Breier: “It’s my understanding that this is a living document and amended in collaboration with the Department of Commerce. I’m happy to continue to review that list as new information comes to light.”
Humanitarian crisis in Venezuela
Senator Rubio: “We are now at a point where we are heavily sanctioning individuals in the Maduro regime in Venezuela. With respect to the migrant crisis—we’ve never seen anything like it in the Western Hemisphere—it poses a real and growing challenge to Venezuela’s neighbors. One of the things we’ve done is provide humanitarian assistance to neighboring countries. In your view, is the administration prepared to begin to develop plans to figure out how we can begin to deliver aid, distributed by NGOs, within Venezuela? And beyond the sanctions, what more can we do to help the people of Venezuela?
Kimberly Breier: “Broadly speaking, the administration’s strategy is comprehensive. The administration has gotten it right on what is a very complex situation in Venezuela. This is a man-made crisis that is the result of a small group of people taking a once-prosperous nation and destroying it. Our aid to neighboring nations and relevant institutions is now close to $40 million. We certainly need to continue to call on the government of Venezuela to accept humanitarian aid, which they’ve failed to do up to this point. If they continue to refuse, there’s plenty we can do to get aid into Venezuela as well as continuing to help regional neighbors—Colombia, Guyana, Brazil, and throughout the Caribbean—who are absorbing the impact of the mass migration out of Venezuela.”
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ): “Over the weekend the Prime Minister Trudeau took to Twitter to criticize Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Such language runs completely contrary to the close partnership that has existed between Canada and the United States for decades. Do you share President Trump’s views?”
Kimberly Breier: “I think this is an important question. The relationship with Mexico and Canada has been the focus of the bulk of my work over my career. I’m completely aware how important these relationships are across the board. What we’re witnessing right now is a disagreement over trade. In the 20-plus years I’ve been doing this, I can’t think of a time when we haven’t had a disagreement, either with Canada or with Mexico, on trade. I think these are the types of things that we’ve been able to overcome in the past. There’s a deep institutionalism in these relationships that will allow us to overcome any present difficulties.”
Senator Menendez: “But we can disagree without being disagreeable. Do you expect me to vote on your nomination when you can’t tell me that the president’s language is not acceptable?”
Kimberly Breier: “If confirmed for this position my job will be as the top diplomat on this file. I understand very well the need to adhere to proper diplomatic forum and will choose my words carefully.”
Senator Menendez: “Do you believe such comments help advance the U.S. national interest in this hemisphere?”
Kimberly Breier: “There are some things in trade that have not been fair and reciprocal and the administration has been focused on trying to right those issues.”
Senator Menendez: “You have extensive experience on issues related to Mexico and fully understand how important the U.S.-Mexico relationship is. We cannot expect to secure our border, address issues related to migration, address issues related to narcotic trafficking (which is contributing to the opioid epidemic plaguing our country) without cooperation with Mexico. If you make it impossible for a government official in Mexico to work with the American government because of the huge domestic cost, it’s not going to happen. As our potential principal diplomat for the Americas, do you intend to formulate a plan to make Mexico pay for the proposed border wall?
Kimberly Breier: “The relationship with Mexico is one of the most fundamentally important relationships to the United States. Despite ongoing political differences, there are ongoing institutional processes that are strengthening the relationship. If confirmed, I intend to work very closely with the government of Mexico on securing the border and doing all of the things we can do cooperatively with Mexico to address threats before they get to the border.”
Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
Senator Menendez: “Over the last seven months the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with Department of State, has terminated Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, Salvadorans, and Honduran nationals. This program was designed to protect individuals who were unable to return to their homelands for reasons of their own safety. When then-Secretary Tillerson made the decision to terminate these programs, he deliberately disregarded the advice of our embassies on the ground, who were tasked with assessing the conditions on the ground. At the time the State Department made its decision not to extend TPS for the citizens of Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti, you were working as a senior advisor covering Western Hemisphere affairs for the office of policy planning at the Department of State. What roll did you play in this decision making process?”
Kimberly Breier: “The office of policy planning is part of the Secretary’s staff and it tends to be a strategy office. We oversee documents that are going to the Secretary on countries like Venezuela. In this particular case I was aware that the debate was going on and the discussions were happening, but I was not involved in the day-to-day decision making process.”
Senator Menendez: “So as the senior advisor covering the Western Hemisphere on policy planning in an office of twenty individuals at most, you were unaware of, and had no impact on, the decision?”
Kimberly Breier: “Senator, I didn’t say I was unaware. I said I was involved and overseeing….”
Senator Menendez (interrupting): “So when you say you were overseeing, give me a sense of how you were involved on this issue.”
Kimberly Breier: “When documents would come forward I would review them and sign off on them.”
Senator Menendez: “As we now know, those documents all said that TPS should be continued in the national interest of the United States. Is that not a fair statement?”
Kimberly Breier: “I did not see it evolve the way you’re describing.”
Senator Menendez: “[The members of the committee] have copies of those documents. Are you telling me those documents did not say that it’s not in the national interest of the United States to end TPS?”
Kimberly Breier: “What I saw was a vigorous debate that went on in the building. Another point I would like to make is I think there’s a tendency to separate political and career employees in the sense that career voices were not heard. I did not see it unfold that way. If confirmed, I would like to foster an environment where all views are heard regardless of whether you’re career or political. I witnessed a vigorous debate. and I don’t think that it’s entirely accurate to characterize this as an overriding of career officials.”
Senator Menendez: “Well I guess you I are going to have to go over the documents. A plain reading of the documents makes it very clear that those who are on the ground in our embassies… gave you the advice that [ending TPS] was not in the national interest of the United States and you rejected their advice because of other political considerations, I think that’s a bad process. So we’re going to have to go over the documents because I think what they say is pretty clear.”
Senator Rubio: “There were other parts of this debate outside of the State Department that were viewing it through the migratory lens or the view of the Department of Homeland Security. Ultimately the decision was made because of all of these inter-connected silos, so to speak.”
Kimberly Breier: “That’s correct senator. Ultimately the decision making authority on this issue rests with the Department of Homeland Security… The State Department simply informed as to whether the underlying conditions that justified the original designation continued to exist.”
Senator Rubio: “And that issue by the way probably deserves a broader fleshing out in terms of the rationale. I too believe that [ending TPS] would have a very significant impact on countries that we’ve invested in significantly, such as Honduras and Haiti.”
Senator Ben Cardin (D-NJ): “Ms. Breier I’d like to follow up on this because I’m confused now. Senator Menendez has accurately portrayed the information that we have reviewed, which shows that the U.S. missions on the ground recommended the continuation of TPS. The vigorous debate that you’re referring to, did that happen within the State Department or did that happen within DHS?”
Kimberly Breier: “To my knowledge that happened at the State Department, sir.”
Senator Cardin: “So you’re saying that the State Department itself recommended the termination of TPS?”
Kimberly Breier: “I’m saying, senator, that there was not a unified view within the Department on this and then [Secretary Tillerson] made a decision.”
Senator Cardin: “So the ultimate recommendation from the State Department was to terminate TPS?”
Kimberly Breier: “That’s my understanding sir.”
Organization of American States (OAS)
Senator Cardin: “As it relates to OAS, there’s interest in this committee to strengthen the parliamentary dimension of the OAS. Will you agree to work with our committee on strengthening the OAS?”
Kimberly Breier: “Yes senator, I continue to believe that the OAS is the premier institution in our hemisphere and we should do everything possible to strengthen it.”
Senator Kaine: “Give me a sense of how you see the OAS right now.”
Kimberly Breier: “I do think the OAS should be the central institution in the hemisphere… We’re the only region in the world bound by a democratic charter. I think that we need to continue to focus on building out the capacity and institutionally of the OAS, as well as its ability to enforce its existing charters and conventions. Those include the conventions on corruption, which were highlighted in Lima recently, as well as in the inter-American Democratic Charter. We have an excellent ambassador to the OAS (Carlos Trujillo). I think moving forward it should be a high priority to reinforce the institutionally of the body, including its role in Honduras on corruption, where I think it’s playing a very important role.”
Senator Kaine: “Part of wanting the OAS to be stronger is supporting the OAS when they take a position of strength. For example, after the 2017 Honduran elections, the OAS concluded that the elections were fundamentally unfair and that the country should hold new elections… When the OAS reaches this conclusion, they don’t reach it lightly. Talk about why the administration decided to say ‘No, the election should not be re-run and we should just move forward.’”
Kimberly Breier: “The OAS report was very critical of some of the underpinnings of how the election was carried out, but the report itself did not call for new elections, it just pointed out irregularities. We also had input from the European Union, who were present in Honduras as observers. We didn’t have any evidence that the outcome of the election had been changed. So the administration did in fact support Honduran institutions that had concluded after much review and reconsideration and recount that the election should stand.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH): “If you’re confirmed as Assistant Secretary, how will you work with SOUTHCOM to combat the drug trade that is coming through the region and support drug interdiction efforts?”
Kimberly Breier: “One of the things I’ve witnessed in my career, particularly in my experience at the White House from 2005-06, is the importance of coordination between government agencies to make sure we’re in sync on our priorities in terms of addressing the challenges we face. I think this administration has taken the opioid crisis very seriously, both on the supply side and the demand side. Clearly SOUTCHOM leads the fight on the supply side, working with regional governments in trying to develop strategies on maritime interdiction, eradication, and other strategies relating to the supply side problem. If confirmed, I will certainly continue to support those efforts.”
Senator Rubio: “It’s my view that that Nicaraguan government has lost legitimacy and its ability to govern under current conditions… Probably the only path forward at this point is early elections, but the Ortega government doesn’t have the benefit of time in my opinion. At some point the administration is going to look very closely at using the Global Magnitsky Act and other options for going after individuals who have been violating human rights and are guilty of corruption. There’s an additional factor: I have strong reason to believe that in the next 60 days Nicaragua is going to face a currency crisis… Could you describe what you think the appropriate role for the U.S. is with regards to Nicaragua in the months to come?”
Kimberly Breier: “I want to go back to something both you and [Senator Menendez] said in your opening statements. One of the glaring exceptions to the progress we’ve made in recent years to democracy across the hemisphere is Nicaragua. But we’ve seen Nicaraguans of all stripes—students, business organizations, and the church—rising up to say ‘enough.’ In terms of the U.S. role, clearly we’re following the situation very closely, and it’s a priority. We recently announced that we’re withdrawing visas from top officials for their participation in suppressing the protests. We’ll also be looking at all possible tools—including the Global Magnitsky act—for pressuring the regime to come to the table and move this toward quick resolution. I agree with your characterization that there isn’t much time, and the government probably needs to move very quickly to schedule elections and move forward.”
Collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry and Petrocaribe
Senator Rubio: “As the Venezuelan oil industry continues to collapse from self-inflicted wounds, is there an opportunity for the United States to engage with the U.S. private sector, not just to make up the loss of energy that Petrocaribe countries desperately need, but also to make sure that no other geopolitical competitor could step in the void and try to fill it at our expense, because there seems to be an opportunity to leverage our U.S. capacity to meet that need.”
Kimberly Breier: “In terms of Caribbean nations that may be coming off of Venezuelan oil, this is something the administration has been looking at in cooperation with our partners in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean to see exactly what opportunities there may be to backfill on supply. We also have vigorous programs in the Caribbean focused on energy security, looking at alternative forms of energy, and ways that the U.S., through our development finance and other tools, can assist the Caribbean in getting off of oil entirely and looking at other forms of energy supply. As you know the electricity costs in the Caribbean remain very high so I think this is a priority regardless of the Petrocaribe situation.”