US President Donald Trump has announced that current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a move that may be aimed at bringing US policy toward Latin America more into line with Trump’s personal policy preferences.
Tillerson announced Trump's decision in a March 13 press conference. He will step down as secretary of state on March 31.
Tillerson’s removal has reportedly been in the works for months and comes amid what has been described as an "exodus" of senior State Department staff with experience in Latin America, including the March 9 resignation of US Ambassador to Panama John Feeley.
The former secretary of state and President Trump have in the past been at odds over many US policies, including in Latin America. Trump has strained US-Latin America relations by threatening to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and criticizing the efforts of regional allies that have accepted US anti-drug assistance, among other things. Tillerson tried to soften that rhetoric during a trip to the region last month, with only limited success.
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Moreover, Tillerson was frequently caught in the middle of conflicting viewpoints regarding the United States’ position on drug interdiction efforts in Latin America.
For example, in June 2017, Tillerson told Congress that Trump spoke to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos about bringing back aerial spraying of coca crops, which was banned in 2015 for its potential health risks, amid booming cocaine production in Colombia. Days later the State Department sent mixed messages explaining that Tillerson never spoke “specifically about aerial eradication,” while US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker later said that aerial eradication was a “safe and effective” method.
President Trump told reporters that he and Tillerson simply “disagreed on things” and “were not thinking the same.” The president added that he has a “similar thought process” as Pompeo.
In a tweet, Trump thanked Tillerson for his service and said that Pompeo, a former US army captain who served as a congressman before becoming CIA director in January 2017, would do a “fantastic job.”
InSight Crime Analysis
A number of experts consulted by InSight Crime said that Pompeo's replacement of Tillerson is not likely to signal a big shift in US policy towards Latin America, but it could be part of an effort by Trump to reorient US policy to more closely reflect his own views on policy.
“I think Pompeo potentially taking over could mean a secretary who would more enthusiastically embrace President Trump's agenda toward the region,” Dan Beeton, the international communications director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told InSight Crime.
Lisa Haugaard, the executive director of the Washington, DC-based Latin America Working Group, echoed these statements, and told InSight Crime that Pompeo will not be the type of “moderating force” that Tillerson was on Trump’s policy towards Latin America.
Haugaard expressed concern that “US policy could be steered further in the direction of ‘drugs, thugs and borders’ with no broader viewpoint” as it relates to addressing regional security issues and the many factors driving insecurity.
According to Eric Olson, the Deputy Director for the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, Pompeo’s appointment could have an effect on how the United States deals with the growing crisis in crime-wracked Venezuela, especially given the upcoming departure of Thomas Shannon, an experienced diplomat with decades of experience in Latin America.
“With Tom Shannon gone, who was a moderating voice on US policy in Venezuela, it’s possible that Pompeo and the White House will be more inclined to take a more aggressive position there,” Olson told InSight Crime. “That is certainly what the White House has wanted, [but that] could present a lot of problems with the region.”
Indeed, President Trump has threatened the possibility of a military intervention in Venezuela and has continued with sanctions against top officials in the country, including against President Nicolás Maduro.
Pompeo has noted the deteriorating situation in Venezuela in the past, and said in testimony given before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017 that the risk that Venezuela poses is “incredibly real and serious," which could be a sign that he is in favor of a more heavy-handed approach towards the country.
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However, Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, told InSight Crime that it’s still too early to have an accurate idea of what effect the appointment of Pompeo will have on US policy towards the region.
“Pompeo has hardly said a thing on the record about Latin America, and I don’t think the region is going to be a big focus for him at all,” Isacson said.
Olson echoed these statements, and told InSight Crime that “Pompeo did not have a clear record on Latin America either at the CIA or as a member of congress, so anything we could say at this point is mostly speculative.”
Haugaard told InSight Crime that the first glimpse of Pompeo’s views towards Latin America will likely come when President Trump makes his first trip to the region next month to attend the Summit of the Americas in Peru.
Pompeo is likely to be advising President Trump in some capacity while he attends, meets with President Santos in Colombia and participates in a series of other official engagements throughout the trip.