By Nicholas Casey
Washington has long seen Latin America as its "backyard," a region where American diplomats often interfered in local politics and even helped topple governments. But a raft of political disputes in Washington and the region has left many countries without a U.S. ambassador and American influence at a low point.
Things could worsen this week. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is the ranking member of a Senate subcommittee that oversees the region, plans to hold a confirmation hearing Tuesday on a number of the posts and give the State Department an ultimatum: Change some of its key policies, or face blocks against some diplomats from going abroad.
Mr. Rubio, who is Cuban American, says he wants to bargain with the administration on promoting democracy, especially in Cuba, and will use the diplomats as leverage to get concessions there like stricter travel restrictions to the island. Mr. Rubio also says Washington should be doing more to defend democratic institutions he says are under threat in countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela.
"All nominations in the Western Hemisphere I reserve the right to object to," Mr. Rubio said in a recent interview. "The administration has long neglected Latin America. Too often America agrees with stability over democracy."
The White House countered that it had "restored U.S. standing and leadership in the Americas" and that further efforts to do so "would be strengthened by the Senate acting to confirm all pending Western Hemisphere-related nominees."
Republican lawmakers have been blocking many of the Obama administration's Latin American nominations for three years now, saying the White House is being soft on hostile left-wing leaders. Other ambassadors have been caught up in disputes between the U.S. and host countries. Six countries in the hemisphere don't have ambassadors--Barbados, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela, whose anti-U.S. leader, Hugo Chávez, is up for re-election.
The region's top post--a State Department job that oversees the entire Western Hemisphere--has been temporarily filled by assistant secretary Roberta Jacobson since May when Arturo Valenzuela left the post to return to academia. Ms. Jacobson is also waiting to be confirmed.
While nominations to diplomatic posts have long been used as political football, analysts say the Latin America situation is stark--no other region has the same number of vacancies.