Portman Co-Chairs Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Questions Four Nominees for Diplomatic Positions in Latin America
WASHINGTON, D.C. – This afternoon, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) questioned nominees to diplomatic positions including the Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States, Ambassador to Brazil, Ambassador to Panama, and Ambassador to Belize at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Portman highlighted strengthening democracy abroad and asked the nominees about their priorities should they be confirmed. Senator Portman noted his END Wildlife Trafficking Reauthorization and Improvements Act and his Tropical Forest Conservation Act, two programs that Senator Portman has championed, which have helped Brazil address some of its most serious natural resource challenges: deforestation and wildlife trafficking. He also discussed support for Ukraine, increased Chinese economic influence, and the need for countries to move toward democracy and away from authoritarian pasts.
A transcript of Senator Portman’s opening statement and questioning can be found below and the video can be found here.
“Thanks, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to all four of you for your willingness to step up and serve our country in capacities that some of you have done before. This is an important opportunity for us to hear from you. I have been asked to do this at the request of Tim Kaine and I never say no to Tim Kaine, so we’re happy to have this hearing and then hopefully move you along quickly to the floor of the Senate and for getting you in place in these countries who are in need of someone badly. Brazil, as we talked about Ambassador Bagley in our conversation, has so much potential and so much untapped potential, so that will be an interesting opportunity for you having served in Portugal. I’m sure your Portuguese is up to the task. COVID-19 has hit Brazil so hard and reversed a lot of the economic gains that they had made. They will be having elections, as you know, on October 2nd. My understanding is those will be intensely contested and I’d like to hear what your priorities would be as Ambassador to Brazil, if confirmed. We have talked about some issues that relate to work in this committee, including the wildlife trafficking legislation we’re are trying to get passed and how it would be effective in Brazil and I’d love to hear more about that from you today. Ambassador Aponte, after 40 years, Panama is a strong example of a country that has thrown off its authoritarian past and moved forward with democracy in an impressive way, but they still struggle on a number of fronts, including controlling corruption, and I hope we can talk to you a little about that.
“In June 2019, the Financial Action Task Force added Panama to its ‘grey list’ of countries with weak Anti-Money Laundering provisions, as an example. Hopefully you can tell us how you would help with regard to that issue. Dr. Mora, in March, Senator Kaine and I signed a letter to Secretary Blinken urging him to work with like-minded countries to strip Russia of its observer status at the OAS. I was pleased to see the OAS finally take this step last month. What I said earlier, when Senator Kaine says something, people tend to do it – at least in this example. But that’s very positive – I think it’s precisely the kind of diplomatic isolation that must be occurring globally right now if we have any chance of getting Russia to pull back on its brutal assault on Ukraine and withdraw its forces from their sovereign territory. I would say Russia is not the only country of concern for me. With regard to the OAS, for example, I’m curious to how you think the OAS should address human rights challenges in Cuba, democratic backsliding, of course, in Nicaragua, also what is going on in Venezuela, and what you would do to support President Guaido’s efforts in Venezuela. Finally Ms. Kwan, I’m eager to hear about your plans and priorities as Ambassador to Belize – what a beautiful country and strong ties to the United States, but also a country that has challenges. Obviously on the economic front, COVID and tourism challenges still, but it also is a country, again, that we care a lot about and are strong allies of ours.
“One of my concerns about Belize today is what I hear about the traffickers, the drug cartels are now using Belize as a stopping point and that has not been, my understanding, a big issue in the past but it is now and I’d like to hear from you on that and what we should be doing. Also, I think it’s interesting that Belize is one of the few countries in the hemisphere that still recognizes Taiwan. I was just in Taiwan recently and they very much appreciate that and want to talk to you a little about that. I’m sure Belize is under a lot of pressure from the Chinese to change its allegiance and what can we do to support Belize as they support our allies in Taiwan, would be a question I would ask today. So again, thank you all four for being here. Three of you – a rich tradition of public service. For Ms. Kwan, you’ve been serving in your own way, representing the sport and representing us at the Special Olympics and other important ways to serve. So we’re, again, pleased that all four of you have agreed to step up and serve in these new capacities.”
Senator Portman: “Thank you Mr. Chairman and I thought your answers to those questions that the Chairman posed were very succinct. I’m not going to ask you to be quiet that succinct in response to these, but try to be succinct because I am going to attempt, in five minutes, to get to everybody. First, Ambassador Bagley, you and I talked about the END Wildlife Trafficking Act and Brazil has been designated as a ‘focus country’ by the U.S. government’s Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. As you know, we have legislation to try to make that permanent, Senator Coons and I, before this committee in fact. Will you commit to working with this Presidential Task Force and ensure we have an effective strategic plan with Brazil and help facilitate U.S. efforts in Brazil to address the illegal wildlife trade?”
The Honorable Elizabeth Frawley Bagley: “Absolutely Senator. And thank you for all of your work and all of your efforts on that and also on the tropical rainforest bill that you authored and continue to sponsor. I believe you’ve succeeded in having more funding for that as well, renewal. So absolutely, I will do that. Wildlife trafficking is a huge problem in the Amazon especially.”
Senator Portman: “I think with your commitment to this, Brazil could be a model country.”
Ambassador Bagley: “I hope so.”
Senator Portman: “And with regard to Tropical Forests Conservation Act, which is a debt-for-nature swap, we have done deals with Brazil under that legislation. We cannot any longer because they don’t have any other concessional debt from the United States. However, would you work with us to look at other debt, including IMF debt?”
Ambassador Bagley: “Yes, absolutely.”
Senator Portman: “I think that could be an interesting opportunity, too, to make Brazil a model country on preserving tropical forests. You and I have talked about Russia and its presence in Brazil. We appreciate Brazil voting with us at the U.N. to condemn Russia’s assault on Ukraine. They do still get a lot of stuff from Russia, including fertilizer. Will you work with Brazil to try to be even tougher with regard to sanctions on Russia?”
Ambassador Bagley: “Yes, absolutely. In fact, there we are working with them on the fertilizer issue and there’s, at the U.N., a conference today that’s headed by Secretary Blinken on food security and the agriculture minister of Brazil is attending – so they are already working and I will continue.”
Senator Portman: “Great, thank you. Ambassador Aponte, one of the concerns I have about Panama is the increasing presence of China. I’ve noticed that President Varela switched the diplomatic relations from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. What are your views regarding China’s presence in Panama, particularly the Panama Canal and Central America in general? And why should the average person in Panama care about Chinese behavior in their country?”
The Honorable Mari Carmen Aponte: “Well I think that pursuing and making sure that the United States’ influence is preserved Panama as a reliable partner, based on the shared democratic values as well, as the long track record of working on projects together is important. The PRC is being seen now as being more fluidly, not only in Panama, but all over. The reason why Panamanians should care is because as the PRC comes in and starts working on infrastructure projects, which will be used by all Panamanians, they need to take a look and be vigilant as to the quality of the construction and the quality of the projects and compare that to the quality of projects that are built with the United States. I also think that, in general, if confirmed, I will keep a very close eye as to whether the PRC is following through in all the promises that make. They seem to overpromise but not necessarily to deliver on what they’ve promised.”
Senator Portman: “Well, thank you. I agree with that also, the debt that is incurred and ultimately affects the people of Panama. Dr. Mora, I have lots of questions for you, but no time to ask them so I would just say, Would you agree that Russia should not become an observer again until they are out of Ukraine altogether?”
Dr. Francisco O. Mora: “That is correct. Thank you Senator, and in fact, the resolution that was passed by 25 members is clear that is one of conditions under which possibly they could come back. But it is unlikely. There is a broad coalition within the OAS to condemn – it says something about the hemisphere and about the number of states who have stood by the Ukrainian people in their struggle.”
Senator Portman: “Thank you for continuing to help them stand strong with our ally in Ukraine. Ms. Kwan, we have 17 seconds – I had three questions for you, but not I’d like to ask just one that I wasn’t going to ask: why Belize?”
Ms. Michelle Kwan: “Well I am honored to be nominated by President Biden to Belize. If confirmed, I will ensure that I will continue to build better bilateral relations between the two countries and ensure that Belize continues to be a champion of democracy. And I know we only have 11 seconds but border security, citizen security, ensuring the safety of American citizens and residents, reinforce and strengthen the rule of law. I’ll combat transnational criminal organizations and build commercial ties between the United States and seek opportunities for Americans to invest in Belize, that are eco-friendly, sustainable, and pro-growth to tax and investment laws in Belize.”
Senator Portman: “Great, and you didn’t even mention you’re interested in increasing cooperation in the sports world so it sounds like you’ve done your homework and we appreciate your willingness to step up and serve in this capacity. Thank you Mr. Chairman.”