Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs: Who Is Mari Carmen Aponte?
From May 5, 2016 to January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump took over the presidency of the United States, the nation’s top diplomat for relations with other Western Hemisphere nations was Mari Del Carmen Aponte, who received a recess appointment from President Barack Obama to head the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Born in 1946 and raised in the Santurce district of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Aponte earned a B.A. in Political Science at Rosemont College in 1968, an M.A. in Theater at Villanova University in 1970, and a J.D. at Temple University in 1975. In the years between her M.A. and J.D., Aponte taught school in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey, where, in 1972, students seized control of their school as part of a protest demanding more relevant educational opportunities. Sparked by the student protesters and inspired by Latino lawyer-activist Nelson Diaz, who eventually became a state judge and general counsel at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Aponte decided to go to law school.
Aponte served as a White House fellow from 1979 to 1980, assigned to the Department of Housing and Urban, where she worked as special assistant to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Moon Landrieu. When Jimmy Carter was replaced as president by Ronald Reagan in 1981, Aponte left government for the private sector. She practiced law for the next 20 years in Washington D.C. and New York. She was an associate at Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy and a partner at Alexander, Gebhardt, Aponte & Marks.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton nominated Aponte to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic, but Republicans used rumors that she had been recruited by Cuban intelligence to kill the nomination. In actual fact, from 1982 to 1994 Aponte had dated a Cuban-born insurance salesman named Roberto Tamayo, who was alleged to be working for Cuba, but may have been working for the U.S. The FBI reviewed the matter, eventually clearing Aponte of any wrongdoing and giving her a high-level security clearance.
After the withdrawal of the ambassadorial nomination, Clinton made Aponte a special assistant in the Office of Presidential Personnel, where she had volunteered during 1993.
From 2001-2004, Aponte served as executive director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration, representing the governor of Puerto Rico on all matters to state and federal agencies, as well as to Congress and the Executive Branch. Aponte ran a consulting business, Aponte Consulting, and worked as a strategic consultant to the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network (HITN) in New York.
President Obama nominated Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador on December 9, 2009, and she was confirmed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee April 27, 2010. However, Republicans resurrected the debunked Tamayo rumors and put a hold on her nomination, so Obama gave her a recess appointment on August 19, 2010. Aponte had to leave El Salvador at the end of December 2011 when her recess stint expired—but then the Senate reversed course in June 2012 by finally confirming her nomination. Aponte returned to El Salvador in June 2012, serving as ambassador until January 2016.
Aponte caused a stir in El Salvador in 2011 when, in response to a general State Department initiative to support gay rights, she wrote an opinion piece in a local newspaper stating, “No one should be subjected to aggression because of who he is or who he loves. Homophobia and brutal hostility are often based on lack of understanding about what it truly means to be gay or transgender. To avoid negative perceptions, we must work together with education and support for those facing those who promote hatred.”
In July 2014, Obama nominated Aponte to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, but Republicans in the Senate blocked the appointment. In 2016, Obama gave her a recess appointment to the Western Hemisphere job.
Aponte has served as a member of the board of directors of the Oriental Financial Group (1998-2001), the National Council of La Raza and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (now known as Latino Justice). She has been a member of the boards of the University of the District of Columbia and Rosemont College, and a member of the District of Columbia Judicial Nominations Commission. She has served as president of the Hispanic National Bar Association and the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia. She has never married and has no children.
-Matt Bewig, Noel Brinkerhoff
To Learn More:
Interview with Ernesto Londoño of The New York Times (Spanish audio)
The Ghosts of Boyfriends Past (by Gail Collins, New York Times)
Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte: Latina Blazes a Trail in Diplomacy (by Patricia Guadalupe, NBC News)
Senators Grill Obama Nominee Mari Carmen Aponte’s Ties to Cuban Officials (by Gautham Nagesh, Daily Caller)
State Department Cables and Related Emails (WikiLeaks)
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