On paper, John Estrada – who was born in Trinidad, became an American citizen and won a distinguished service medal after 34 years in the marines – is the perfect choice for US ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.
But more than two years after being nominated by President Barack Obama, the retired sergeant-major is still waiting to pack his suitcase.
Estrada is not alone in diplomatic limbo. About 32 ambassadors and senior officials are awaiting confirmation by the Senate, including Roberta Jacobson, whose prolonged hold-up leaves the US without an ambassador to Mexico, its third biggest trading partner. Her case is set to finally be voted on by the senate foreign relations committee on Tuesday but still requires full senate confirmation.
Analysts say such delays tarnish the US’s international standing and blame spanners thrown in the works by which ever party is out of the White House at the time. “It’s an easy target from either side of the aisle,” said one source close to the process, who did not wish to be named. “It sends a message that petty politics is more important than our bipartisan relationship. It’s a little bit embarrassing.”
Estrada, 60, was nominated for the Trinidad position in July 2013 and unanimously approved at the committee stage. Why he has still not received a Senate vote is a mystery.
“He was born in Trinidad,” the source added. “He was in the military. He’s the ideal appointee in many ways. If I was the Trinidadian government, I’d be asking, ‘What’s going on? Are we not important enough?’ At some point countries will take offence.”
It may be no coincidence that Estrada was a prominent supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Jacobson, meanwhile, is a long-serving State Department official who recently helped restore diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Two senators, Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez, have raised objections to her record. Rubio, currently seeking the Republican nomination for president, sent dozens of written questions to the State Department as a delaying tactic and last month put a temporary hold on Jacobson’s ascent.
In response six former US ambassadors wrote to the senate foreign relations committee insisting that her “qualifications, experience, and integrity are beyond reproach”.
Barbara Boxer, a member of the committee, agreed: “Roberta Jacobson is extraordinarily qualified for this critical position and she deserves an immediate vote. The Republican senate is purposely delaying filling critical positions such as ambassadorships and judgeships which is certainly damaging to the reputation and work of the US.”
Rubio and Menendez say they have concerns over Jacobson’s work on Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, which Rubio alleges was politically manipulated. “Cuba has never been top of the list,” said Tricia Enright, a spokesperson for Menendez. But at least one member of the committee believes that Obama’s effort to reach out to Havana is driving the hostility.
After presiding over a routine hearing for three African embassies last week on 3 November, senator Jeff Flake said the Mexico case had become a “proxy” for the Cuba issue. He added: “I’ve been troubled by the delay. There are commerce and border port issues in addition to immigration. Mexico is one of our biggest trading partners. She is eminently qualified and we want her there. We’re anxious to move forward.”
The ambassadorial nominees for the Bahamas, Sweden, Norway, Libya and Tajikistan have also been pending for months, but Mexico raises particular concern because of its pivotal relationship with the US. The countries share a border of almost 2,000 miles, requiring close cooperation on people and drug trafficking. Exports to Mexico sustain about six million US jobs.
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Published: September 11, 2015