Trump administration considering Cuban American from Miami for top Latin America post

Carlos Trujillo, the current U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and former state representative from Miami, is being considered as the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the Miami Herald has learned.

Multiple sources confirmed Tuesday that Trujillo, a Cuban American and close ally of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, is in line for the role. A promotion would give significant diplomatic influence over Latin America and the Caribbean to Trujillo, already a strong voice for pressure against leftist regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

A congressional source told the Herald that Trujillo’s name popped up in recent email conversations regarding potential replacements for Kimberly Breier, who announced her resignation from the post on Aug. 7.

While the conversations did not state that Trujillo would definitely be President Donald Trump’s nominee for the position, no one else was mentioned as a potential replacement for Breier among congressional staffers and officials involved in Western Hemisphere affairs.

“He is a strong candidate,” a second congressional source said. “Given the fact the administration has prioritized Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, there are very few people who have the knowledge to take Kimberly Breier’s role.”

A former State Department official said the name of Ambassador Michael Kozak has also been floating around as a possible internal recommendation. The former official said that usually a political appointee candidate from the White House and a career diplomat are both considered in the case of high-ranking positions at the agency.

Kozak, currently the senior official at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, has been a career diplomat for more than four decades. He participated in efforts to end the civil war in Nicaragua and in negotiations with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega before the U.S. invasion.

Kozak was also head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana between 1996 and 1999.

A source familiar with the ongoing deliberations said Trujillo would accept the job if offered. It’s the same policy area that Trujillo has been dealing with, but in a bigger role since being named an ambassador a year and a half ago. As the U.S. representative to the OAS, he has been working on Western Hemisphere issues with a heavy focus on Venezuela. He has led two general assemblies at the Organization of American States, which was the first to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president in Venezuela.

The final decision on the top Latin American post is expected to be announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the coming weeks. Pompeo has committed to naming someone before Breier’s departure.

The White House and the State Department did not reply to a request for comment on Trujillo and Kozak.

Breier’s letter of resignation, which cited personal reasons, was the second departure announced in weeks at the State Department, which has lost a number of top diplomats since Trump came into office and has struggled to fill the positions.

Breier, who specialized in Mexico, was named to the post in 2018. She had come under fire, however, for her refusal to testify before Congress and for not advocating an asylum agreement between President Trump and the government of Guatemala.

The assistant secretary position “is an important one for any region,” said Otto Reich, who was assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere under President George W. Bush. “That person should be the principal adviser to the Secretary in that region. A lot depends on the knowledge of that person about the subjects and the issues in those countries.”

The job is also “a killer,” Reich said, adding that Trujillo has shown both the willingness to learn and work hard while representing the U.S. at the OAS.

“I have been impressed by how quickly he has learned,” Reich said. “He knew about the region well enough to do a very good job at the OAS, but on recent communications I was impressed on how much he has learned about those countries [in the region]. He has taken advantage of the position to learn.”

Following an official trip to the Colombia-Venezuela border, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio speaks to the press as ambassador to the OAS Carlos Trujillo, left, and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., accompany him during a press conference at Miami International Airport on Feb. 18, 2019. Emily Michot

Trujillo, who was confirmed by the Senate as the representative to the OAS in March last year, has proven skillful in maneuvering internal politics at the organization, a State Department source said.

Sources describe him as humble and open to the policy experts’ recommendations.

Trujillo was appointed to the OAS at a critical juncture when Venezuela was still represented in the group by an appointee of strongman Nicolás Maduro. In April this year, Trujillo secured the vote of 18 nations to recognize the ambassador appointed by Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó as the legitimate representative of that nation, which was perceived as an important diplomatic victory for the Trump administration.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Trujillo said that “backward slides in democracy” and corruption were the biggest challenges for Latin America.

“Ambassador Trujillo has been a strong voice of support at the OAS for the Nicaraguan people,” Rubio wrote on Twitter in July. “I’m thankful for his commitment and leadership in defending democracy and freedom of speech in Nicaragua.”

Earlier this year, in February, both toured a warehouse at the Colombia-Venezuelan border, where the U.S. Agency for International Development was positioning humanitarian aid for Venezuelans.

(From L-R) Gonzalo Koncke, chief of staff for OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro; U.S. OAS Ambassador Carlos Trujillo, Haiti President Jovenel Moise and Haiti Foreign Minister Bochitt Edmond at the president’s residence in Port-au-Prince for a meeting after the hemispheric organization was called in to help facilitate a dialogue.

While Trujillo has drawn praise as a standout on Venezuela, he has his critics, particularly in the Caribbean, which has been split on the Trump administration’s support of Guaidó. He also faced challenges on Haiti earlier this year when he attempted to have the OAS help Haitians find a solution to their brewing political crisis amid ongoing violent protests and hardened demands for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse.

A June visit to Haiti led by Trujillo as chair of the OAS Permanent Council received considerable backlash and protest from Haitian opposition groups and anti-corruption activists, and others in the region. Sir Ronald Sanders, the Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to the OAS, accused Trujillo of ignoring procedures and working on his own.

“The visit by Ambassador Trujillo’s delegation, which was always a risky endeavor because of its suddenness, does not appear to have assuaged the concerns that have motivated the recent riots in Haiti or to have promoted dialogue,” Sanders wrote in the June column published by Caribbean News Service.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley and Washington correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this story.

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Nora Gámez Torres estudió periodismo y comunicación en La Habana y Londres. Tiene un doctorado en sociología y desde el 2014 cubre temas cubanos para el Nuevo Herald y el Miami Herald. También reporta sobre la política de Estados Unidos hacia América Latina. Su trabajo ha sido reconocido con premios de Florida Society of News Editors y Society for Profesional Journalists.
Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.