New Florida Sen. George LeMieux's first foray into foreign relations has drawn brickbats from former high-ranking State Department officials who say his effort to block the Obama administration's new ambassador to Brazil is damaging U.S. relations with Latin America.
"This continuing, prolonged vacancy sends an unintended signal that the United States does not consider Brazil an important relationship," the nine former assistant secretaries of state wrote in a letter to LeMieux, urging him to lift his opposition to nominee Tom Shannon.
Shannon had triggered the ire of South Florida Cuban Americans who believed he wasn't tough enough on the Castro regime during his tenure as a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush.
Senate staffers suggested Wednesday that LeMieux -- who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to fill the seat vacated by Mel Martinez -- could be trying to burnish his Cuba credentials to help Crist, who faces a Cuban-American opponent in the Republican primary for the Senate seat.
LeMieux said it was his responsibility as Florida's senator to vet the nominee, noting that he had heard concerns about Shannon's record from constituents and fellow members of Congress.
"I feel like I have a role and a responsibility far greater than other senators do in terms of anything that deals with Latin America, and I take that job seriously," LeMieux said. "This is about the entire hemisphere. This is about Venezuela, El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil and Cuba and the role that Mr. Shannon played . . . and the role he will play. We are burning the midnight oil here to make sure I'm doing the best job I can for 18 million Floridians, and that's my motivation."
His stance earned him kudos from Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who said Shannon played a "disturbing role" in lifting Cuba's expulsion from the Organization of American States. "George LeMieux is demonstrating tremendous leadership, knowledge of foreign affairs, and courage," Diaz-Balart said in an e-mail.
The director of the U.S-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which critics said plays an outsized role in U.S-Cuba policy, dismissed suggestions that his group influenced LeMieux.
"While we do not in any way support or oppose nominations, people in the community are greatly concerned about the trend Shannon has followed," said director Mauricio Claver-Carone, accusing Shannon of downplaying the role of dissidents and civil society in Cuba.
The nine former secretaries, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, noted that Shannon had been approved by the Foreign Relations Committee -- of which LeMieux is not a member. Shannon was confirmed by a 14-to-4 vote.
The letter to LeMieux follows a rebuke from Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who -- without naming LeMieux -- last week suggested "unnecessary delays" in confirming the "outstanding and highly regarded career diplomat" were hurting efforts to work with Brazil.
"He has every right, if he doesn't think this individual is qualified, to go to the floor and make his case, but why should one freshman senator with no background in Latin America, no background in Brazil, decide the Senate can't vote on the president's nominee?" said Bernard Aronson, who served as an assistant secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, and signed the letter. "It's really a slap in the face to Latin America. You don't see nominees to France, Germany, China, held up by a single senator. It would be an insult."
LeMieux called the letter "overstated," noting that he has had the hold on Shannon for less than two weeks. Using Senate rules that allow one senator to block nominations and legislation, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint had held up Shannon's nomination since July in opposition to the administration's handling of the crisis in Honduras. He dropped his hold Nov. 5, and LeMieux picked it up the next day.
Bloomberg News reported that the months-long delay could help France's Dassault Aviation SA beat Boeing Co. in a competition to sell 36 warplanes to Brazil, a potential loss of $7.5 billion to the U.S. company.
LeMieux met with Shannon last week and said he sent the nominee a list of questions based on the issues they discussed, including the situations in Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba. LeMieux's office last week said his concerns on Cuba included State Department official Bisa Williams' six-day trip in September to the island, presumably to talk about the resumption of U.S.-Cuba direct-mail service.
LeMieux said Wednesday he'll consider his next step after he gets Shannon's response.