The Inter-American Dialogue, one of the nation’s most prestigious think tanks on Latin America, is getting a new president: Rebecca Bill Chavez, PhD. She replaces Michael Shifter, who’s stepping down after 28 years at the Dialogue.
Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Chavez lived in Latin America at various times in her career, developing an expertise in the region. She was a full professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis for 11 years before joining the Obama administration in 2013 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Her new appointment at the Dialogue, where she’s long been a senior fellow with the Rule of Law Program, took effect April 18.
“I have pursued my career at the intersection of academia, public policy and international affairs. And there’s been a critical constant throughout all these various roles, and that has been my deep commitment to Latin America and the Caribbean,” Chavez told the Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. “One of the reasons I’m really excited about the Dialogue is its commitment to democratic governance and the rule of law. That’s something I’ve spent most of my career thinking about.”
Chavez, 51, first visited the region as a Fulbright scholar, spending most of 1994 in Argentina. She went back in 1999. and again in 2000. Subsequent research led to her doctoral dissertation and, in 2004, her first publication, The Rule of Law in Nascent Democracies, by Stanford University Press. Her work has been published in The Oxford Handbook of Law and Politics, Courts in Latin America (Cambridge University Press), Comparative Politics, Latin American Politics and Society, and The Journal of Latin American Studies.
Her opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Policy and Defense One.
“I have been a longtime fan of the Dialogue. It was where I pointed my students as the source of information on current events in the region, but also for analysis on issues of democratic governance and economic challenges,” she said. “One thing that makes the Dialogue special is that it’s truly hemispheric in nature. It’s not US-centric, and I think that makes it really unique.”
Chavez is an advisor to various organizations including the Truman Center for National Policy, the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, the Princeton University Institute for Regional and International Studies, and the Foreign Policy for America. She lives in Washington with her husband Pablo and their two children, Oscar and Penelope.
‘A terrific choice,’ says Mike Shifter
Asked about his replacement, Shifter called Chavez a “terrific choice.”
“She’ll bring fresh energy and a new vision. I’ve always been impressed with her,” he said. “Of all the people I’ve been associated with over the years, no one has been more enthusiastic about the Dialogue’s work and the role it’s played in inter-American relations than Rebecca. Way before this position was open, she always expressed to me and others the high regard she has for the Dialogue.”
Shifter, who led the think tank for 12 years as president and CEO, started in 1994 as a program director. He will stay on as a senior fellow, and starting in September, he also plans to teach a master’s course on Latin American politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
“I love this job and it’s been immensely rewarding and gratifying for me,” he said. “But I’m a strong believer that after 10 years, it’s important to move on and give space to someone else.”
Coinciding with the Dialogue’s change of leadership is the release of a new report, “The Case for Renewed Cooperation in a Troubled Hemisphere.” The key findings of this 52-page study were presented in a March 31 online event by the Dialogue’s co-chairs, former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a former US ambassador to Brazil.
Among other things, the report offers eight recommendations on specific issues, ranging from climate change, corruption and migration to health, education and economic development. These proposals recognize that, while this is not the moment for ambitious initiatives, incremental progress can and should be made through partnerships involving government, the private sector and civil society.
“It’s not a very encouraging outlook, frankly,” Shifter said. “The economy is bad, there’s lack of growth, erosion in the rule of law, and increasing organized crime. The next couple of years are going to be very difficult. That’s true of the world, but this region in particular was really ravaged by the pandemic.”
Asked to name the most urgent problems facing Latin America today, Chavez didn’t hesitate.
“It troubles me that the Venezuelan refugee crisis is not getting the attention it deserves. It’s not on the front page,” she complained.
Venezuela still region’s biggest regional threat
At the center of Venezuela’s long-simmering crisis, she said, is President Nicolás Maduro, who has turned the country into a dictatorship and sparked a refugee crisis that’s about to pass Syria’s in sheer size.
“This is a man-made disaster that he created,” she said. “It was a great step when the Biden administration granted TPS [Temporary Protected Status] to Venezuelan refugees. But the United States needs to do a lot more than it’s done.”
More than four million Venezuelans have fled their once-prosperous country, sparking xenophobia and resentment in countries that have taken in these refugees, including Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
Another issue that concerns Chavez is general democratic backsliding throughout the region.
“The obvious ones are Venezuela and Nicaragua, but Brazil is also incredibly worrisome,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges for the Biden administration is El Salvador. The government of Nayib Bukele is assuming more and more power. It has subverted all government agencies, and Guatemala is the same.”
Chavez added: “It’s much harder now than it was even during the Obama administration to address the root causes of migration. Rising crime and violence is becoming a major concern, as well as the militarization of law enforcement in places like Mexico.”
Chavez says it’s ironic that the US government officially recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president—not Maduro—yet in early March sent a high-level delegation to Caracas to discuss the easing of sanctions against the Maduro regime shortly after another dictator, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, invaded neighboring Ukraine. The visit sparked an angry backlash from both Democrats and Republicans—and rightly so, according to Chavez.
“We’re condemning Putin for his human rights abuses, but Maduro is also guilty of gross violations. He is one of the worst authoritarian dictators out there,” she said. “Turning to Venezuela to replace Russian oil is not wise.”