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Sources: Biden to tap career diplomat as Latin America envoy

February 2, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this April 6, 2017 file photo, U.S. ambassador to Peru Brian A. Nichols speaks at an Air Force base in Callao, Peru, regarding support for ongoing disaster assistance to communities devastated by floods. Nichols, the current ambassador to Zimbabwe, will be nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere by the Biden administration, according to two sources who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly on the matter prior to his nomination. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)
FILE - In this April 6, 2017 file photo, U.S. ambassador to Peru Brian A. Nichols speaks at an Air Force base in Callao, Peru, regarding support for ongoing disaster assistance to communities devastated by floods. Nichols, the current ambassador to Zimbabwe, will be nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere by the Biden administration, according to two sources who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly on the matter prior to his nomination. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)
FILE - In this April 6, 2017 file photo, U.S. ambassador to Peru Brian A. Nichols speaks at an Air Force base in Callao, Peru, regarding support for ongoing disaster assistance to communities devastated by floods. Nichols, the current ambassador to Zimbabwe, will be nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere by the Biden administration, according to two sources who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly on the matter prior to his nomination. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)

MIAMI (AP) — President Joe Biden intends to nominate as his top envoy for Latin America a veteran African American diplomat who while on a sensitive assignment in Zimbabwe spoke out against police brutality in the U.S. following the death of George Floyd, according to two people familiar with the decision.

Brian A. Nichols, the current U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, would be the first Black assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs since Terence Todman in the late 1970s.

Biden is expected to name him as his choice for the post as early as this week, said the two people, who were briefed on the decision. They insisted on speaking anonymously to discuss the matter before its formal announcement.

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Nichols has a long history of working in Latin America, where he served as ambassador to Peru and as a consulate officer early in his career. He also oversaw relations with Caribbean nations and served as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, the largest in the region. He has also served in Mexico and El Salvador as well as the State Department’s anti-narcotics office.

Neither Nichols nor the State Department responded to a request for comment.

Last summer, amid the surge of protests by the Black Lives Matter movement following Floyd’s death, Nichols broke with his bosses in the Trump administration and spoke passionately about race and repression in the U.S.

“As an African-American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own,” wrote Nichols, who grew up in Rhode Island the son of a college professor who founded Brown University’s Africana program.

“In a long unbroken line of black men and women, George Floyd gave the last full measure of devotion to point us toward a new birth in freedom,” added Nichols.

It’s rare for a high-ranking American diplomat to speak out about events at home in such a critical or opinionated way. But Nichols’ comments drew unexpected fire from Zimbabwe’s government,- which prides itself for having shaken off white rule in the 1980s , because they were coupled with sharp criticism of the African nation’s own human rights record.

Zimbabwe’s government at the time was still fuming from an accusation leveled by Trump’s National Security Council director, Robert O’Brien, that the country along with China were trying to stir anti-racist protests in the U.S.

After Nichols’ statement was issued, he was denounced as a “thug” by Zimbabwe’s ruling party and accused of funding anti-government protests.

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Citing that event, Christopher Sabatini, a specialist on the region at Chatham House in London, said the U.S. having Nichols in the Latin America post would send a message of solidarity to minorities in the region, where descendants of the Atlantic slave trade have traditionally been underrepresented in positions of diplomatic power, as in the U.S. Foreign Service.

“This is a man who spoke truth to power. In the middle of the Trump administration, he posted a personal letter showing his solidarity and empathy for Black Lives Matter protesters. He will now head up our diplomacy towards Latin America, a region that has been marked by marginalization, and racism, division,” Sabatini said.

Sabatini said that among Nichols’ achievements was negotiating on behalf of the U.S. a free trade agreement with Peru that he characterized as among the most progressive in existence, with strong protections for the environment and labor.

“I think it’s a courageous and inspiring nomination,” he said of the reported nomination. “Now, we get to see the values of what the Biden administration stands for and what it will stand for in the hemisphere.”

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story in Miami and AP writer Claudia Torrens reported from New York.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman