The big question in Washington's Latin American diplomatic circles is who will be the Obama administration's top policymakers for Latin America and the Caribbean. At least half a dozen names are being mentioned.
The first name that comes up is that of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Mexican American with an impressive diplomatic resume' whose early support for Barack Obama was critical to help the president-elect win the Hispanic vote.
Richardson and former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry are leading contenders for secretary of state in the Obama administration, several sources close to the transition team told me this week. Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican who earlier this week was also cited as a leading contender, is now more likely to be appointed as special envoy for Russian affairs or special envoy for energy security issues.
Supporters of Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, cite his extraordinary credentials and the fact that it's time for the United States to have its first Hispanic in that job.
Kerry supporters, in turn, cite his strong congressional ties and the fact that – according to them – he would be more of a team player, a key quality considering the Obama team's near obsession with discipline and team work.
One well-placed Washington insider tells me that Obama is likely to strengthen the job of White House national security advisor, who would work with Vice President-elect Joe Biden and play a larger-than-usual role in the next administration. If that happens, former Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke or former NATO commander Gen. James L. Jones might get the White House job and Richardson might be appointed secretary of state.
Regarding Obama's Latin America advisors, the top two are Frank Sanchez, a former Clinton White House Latin American aide, and Dan Restrepo, a young attorney and former congressional staffer who headed the Obama campaign's Latin American advisory group.
Sanchez, from Tampa, graduated from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and served in the office of the special envoy to the Americas and later as assistant secretary of transportation during the Clinton administration. He was one of the early members of the Obama campaign – he was already at Obama's side in February 2007 – and was a key figure in Obama's national Hispanic outreach campaign.
Sanchez, who speaks fluent Spanish, is being mentioned as a possible special envoy to the Americas or as an assistant secretary at the State Department.
Restrepo, an attorney who before heading Obama's Latin American advisory group worked for Obama transition team co-director John Podesta's Center for American Progress, is being mentioned for a senior State Department or National Security Council job. The son of a Colombian father and a Spanish mother, he is also fluent in Spanish.
The second tier of Obama's Latin American advisors includes Robert S. Gelbard, former top State Department anti-drug chief and ambassador to Bolivia; Jeffrey Davidow, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico; Arturo Valenzuela, a former NSC Latin American chief and campaign advisor to Sen. Hillary Clinton; and Vicki Huddleston, former chief of the U.S Interest Section in Cuba.
Other Obama advisors include former State Department Latin American affairs chief Pete Romero, former Ambassador to the Organization of American States Luis Lauredo and former Ambassador to Chile Gabriel Guerra-Mondragón.
My opinion: While Latin America will rank far behind the economy, the Middle East and Iraq among Obama's top priorities once he takes office Jan. 20, he will have little choice but to map out a Latin American policy in the first weeks of his administration: On April 17, Obama is scheduled to attend the 34-country Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where he will be expected to lay out his regional agenda.
Richardson would be a great choice for secretary of state. (In the interest of full disclosure, he wrote a blurb for my book, Saving the Americas, but I would have rooted for him anyway.) And both Sanchez and Restrepo are fresh faces that could help re-energize U.S.-Latin American relations.
The good news is that most of Obama's Latin American advisors are centrists, and most of them know the turf. That's good news for the United States – and for Latin America.