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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to the Cuban American National Foundation

Arturo Valenzuela
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Miami, FL
May 20, 2010


[Opening greeting in Spanish]

We recognize that Cuba is in many ways an outlier in a hemisphere that has largely embraced democratic politics, but the country is also an important part of the regional fabric of the Americas, and enabling the Cuban people to reach their aspirations for political liberty is a quest that remains very dear to the Administration and to the hearts of everyone in this room.

At the beginning of this conversation, it is important to recognize how much our growing inter-dependence makes the success of all our neighbors a compelling national security interest. That success, our common success, is what United States policy in the Americas is all about. Last night, President Obama hosted Mexican President Calderon at a State dinner at the White House. Behind the pomp and ceremony of a State visit are the powerful statements of mutual respect among vital partners, cognizant of the ties that bind us and the huge priority we place on common efforts to build, together, a free, safe, dignified, and successful relationship between neighbors.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we live in a very different world than the one 50 years ago—when the Alliance for Progress captured the imagination of the Americas with a bold vision, one which unfortunately fell short of achieving its objectives. With few exceptions, the countries of the region today are much more inclusive, prosperous, and democratic. Still, today, much of what we must help accomplish in this hemisphere hinges on a vision of an Inter-American community with shared values, shared challenges, a shared history and, most importantly, shared responsibility.

Advancing that vision will require sustained, informed, creative, and competent engagement. That engagement must be sophisticated and multi-faceted. We speak, accurately, of a “region,” and of big unifying agendas, but we know at the same time that our community comprises profoundly diverse nations and sub-regions. To be successful, our approach must carefully calibrate our diplomatic and development tools.

We need to help catalyze networks of practical partnerships, among all capable stakeholders in the Americas, focused on four over-arching priorities critical to people in every society: promoting social and economic opportunity for everyone; ensuring the safety of all of our citizens; strengthening effective institutions of democratic governance. The latter pointedly includes respect for human rights, and basic freedoms, as well as accountability by those who govern to their people. And finally, we are working with partners all over the Americas to advance our societies toward a secure, clean energy future, while protecting our environment, forests, and biodiversity.

We are all aware of the challenges. They capture headlines regularly. But they can miss bigger stories—and one of those is the strong sense of community in the Americas today. It will only get stronger with time. That feeling was nowhere more evident than in the extraordinary outpouring of support and assistance to the people of Haiti—from every society in the Americas—following the devastating earthquake. Or in the region’s solidarity with Chile after it, too, was hit by one of the biggest earthquakes the world has ever experienced.

In the Americas today we are joined together by many intersecting and overlapping interests, needs, and affinities. We share the common, though sometimes contentious, history of the Americas, developing from diverse European colonization, displacement of indigenous peoples, forced African immigration, assimilation of later immigrant groups, and the gradual coalescence of adaptable new societies. The populations of our countries reflect a particularly rich and largely harmonious racial and cultural diversity that differentiates this hemisphere from large parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. We share a common history of independence movements inspired by the human ideals of the enlightenment, followed by the long and difficult processes by which our peoples have struggled to build the just, free, inclusive, and successful societies envisioned by our founding fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, and Jose Marti. Many of our nations have followed policies in the past that have hindered this process, as when the United States put Cold War priorities ahead of efforts to support democratic aspirations in the region.

Despite the complex political and economic changes that continue to unfold in the Americas, the objectives of U.S. policy are straightforward. We support the consolidation of a Community of the Americas as a democratic, prosperous region at peace with itself and the world. The United States is a member of this community, recognizing that every country has its own special role to play and that all countries will need to exercise leadership both individually and collectively in order to transform this vision into reality.

Prosperity, Opportunity, and the Search for Competitiveness

Given the current troubles in the global economy, let me begin by focusing on the importance of generating economic prosperity. Over the last two decades, in much of the region, increasing exports and the success of key fiscal and monetary reforms spurred growth and helped many countries accumulate important reserves. As a result, Latin America generally has been less adversely affected than it would have been by the world economic crisis that began last year. Yet this picture is complicated by the harsh reality that poverty and inequality affect most countries—indeed Latin America has some of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. It used to be said that trade, not aid, would be the driving force in overcoming patterns of underdevelopment. Today we understand that trade is indispensable, as it lifts all economies by growing world prosperity. Yet, we also understand that trade is not enough.

Expanded opportunity is critical to building prosperous, safe, democratic, and just societies. In a competitive and globalized world, expanding opportunity requires two things: investment in infrastructure and investment in people. There is no shortcut. Without adequate roads, bridges, port facilities, power plants, and airports, goods simply can’t get to market at home or overseas. Without training and education, for all, not just elites, people are left behind; societies are deprived of their talent and industry, and countries lag. And that lag can quickly become an unbridgeable chasm in an ever more competitive world in which countries in other latitudes are sustaining the right policy choices and equipping their people, and societies to play to win. But, to close the gap no amount of foreign assistance can make up for the lack of commitment at home.

This is why, as the Alliance for Progress underscored 50 years ago, it is essential for governments to implement reforms and put into place fairer taxation regimes that generate the necessary resources to invest for the future. This means that traditional elites must understand that they can no longer simply seek to safeguard their own parochial interests or use the state simply to benefit the privileged, but be must willing to invest in the good of the community as a whole.

We are working with regional partners in many ways to expand social mobility and justice, create a wider foundation for economic growth, and ensure that the benefits of growth and trade are distributed more equitably—particularly among women and traditionally marginalized groups. These are American priorities, and they are priorities of people in every country in Latin America. Let me cite just a few specific examples:

In May 2009, the Secretary Hillary Clinton joined Pathways to Prosperity counterparts to re-launch the initiative and sharpen its focus on spreading the benefits of economic integration more widely in our societies, particularly among groups that have been traditionally excluded. In Washington, we hosted a conference of women entrepreneurs from Pathways countries to launch a mentoring network for sharing best practices. In March, Costa Rica hosted a Pathways ministerial that the Secretary attended, highlighting issues such as women’s economic enfranchisement, customs reform efforts, secured transactions, and the importance of tourism in promoting economic opportunity. Long-term economic growth, so critical to our citizens’ well being, requires sustainable access to credit—especially for small and micro-businesses. To get that credit flowing, the President joined with the Inter-American Development Bank to create the Microfinance Growth Fund for the Americas last April.

Promoting opportunity takes sustained investment, but also ideas. As they work to meet their peoples’ needs many Latin American leaders are trying innovative policies and getting strong results. Mexico and Brazil have pioneered new conditional cash transfer programs that are reducing poverty, expanding access to opportunity, and catching attention worldwide. All our countries face social challenges, and we should learn from each other’s experience. One way we are doing so is through participation in the Inter-American Social Protection Network that was inaugurated last fall in New York—essentially a clearinghouse for innovative policies, many born in Latin America but applicable more widely.

The Importance of Citizen Safety

We must remember that economic prosperity cannot be truly enjoyed unless citizens also live in a safe and secure environment. Our efforts to increase Citizen Safety also encompass a multi-dimensional set of partnerships that broker cooperation and help build institutions to fight transnational crime and assure a secure daily existence for people throughout the Americas. To get sustained buy-in, it is vital that people understand our security partnerships as responsive to the very local insecurity they face—(crime, human trafficking, drug addiction), and not simply a means of securing the United States regardless of the cost to others.

This week’s set of meetings between President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon demonstrates how the United States and Mexico have forged a strong partnership to enhance citizen safety and fight organized crime and drug trafficking organizations through the Merida Initiative. Our joint efforts entail expanding the border focus beyond interdiction of contraband to include facilitating legitimate trade and travel; cooperating to build strong communities resilient to the corrupting influence of organized crime; disrupting organized crime; and institutionalizing reforms to sustain the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Beyond Merida, our other main security partnerships, with Central America, the Caribbean, and Colombia, are also strengthening societies’ ability to fight transnational crime, protect themselves, and prevent the spread of illicit goods and violence to the United States. In the process these partnerships are transforming relationships, brokering growing cooperation between those countries and the United States, and between the partner nations themselves. In the Andes, it remains in our national interest to continue to help the Colombian people achieve the lasting and just peace they want, making irreversible the gains they have sacrificed so hard to achieve while expanding our cooperative engagement with Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

When I say partnership, I’m not just using the world as diplomatic shorthand for something made in the U.S.A. Our security initiatives in the region are truly joint in their development, increasingly multilateral in their implementation, and multi-faceted in their impact. As countries strengthen their internal capacity to address security challenges, they are forming their own separate partnerships with neighbors in ways that multiply the effectiveness of programs. Canada is an increasingly important and committed security partner with regional countries; Mexico and Colombia are sharing vital capacity and experience; countries such as Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil are showing notable leadership in international security initiatives such as MINUSTAH in Haiti.

Promoting Partnership in Clean Energy and Climate Change

The United States also recognizes and welcomes the enormous contribution that Latin America can make to the efforts to develop new forms of clean energy and combat the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. While the region has great potential to develop cleaner sources of energy, ranging from biofuels to hydropower, and includes some of the world’s major producers of fossil fuels, many countries remain dependent on imported oils and subject to the great political and fiscal uncertainties that it entails. These conditions accord us a uniquely compelling political, economic, social, and environmental stake in regional and global advances toward a secure and clean energy future—a process in which several countries in the Americas are key global players.

In particular, the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas is an important and innovative initiative worth highlighting in this context. The search for, and production of, alternative energy represents potentially vast opportunities; opportunities for research and development; opportunities for countries to move up the value chain, creating jobs and generating growth. The biofuels partnership between the United States and Brazil is an important element of our broader energy strategy to develop new energy sources that create new opportunities for our citizens and advance our economic interests. I also want to specifically highlight the new clean energy dialogues the President launched with both Canada and Mexico.

Strengthening the Institutions of Governance

If facilitating regional prosperity, citizen safety, and a clean energy future are fundamental goals of U.S. policy in the Americas; we must recognize that building stronger institutions of governance is perhaps the single most critical component. Capable and legitimate institutions, including a vibrant civil society, are vital to successful societies that meet their citizens’ needs. Very little of what we might help accomplish in other areas will be sustainable, or bring full benefit to people, unless they are based on the firm foundations of capable, legitimate, and responsive institutions. Our strong support for democratic governance and human rights is rooted in this fundamental fact.

Values of democracy, respect for human rights, accountability, tolerance, and pluralism are increasingly ingraining themselves into practice throughout the Americas. So many of the Americas’ leading democracies have recently gone through, or are preparing for, peaceful electoral transfers of power. Alternation in power, increasingly effective institutions, responsible fiscal policies, open trade policies, and greater accountability—exemplified by the vast majority of Latin American and Caribbean nations—embody the hemispheric reality.

All of us know that there are a few governments in the region will not embrace this approach. Or that even try to undermine it. In these cases, working together with others, we need to be clear-eyed and proactive in countering efforts to undermine our common agenda. These can include attempts to expand authoritarian or populist rule at the expense of effective democratic governance based on the rule of law and representative institutions. They can also include the ill-conceived embrace of dangerous or problematic external actors.

We are concerned about the persistent erosion of democratic institutions and fundamental freedoms in several countries, particularly freedom of the press. These freedoms reflect the regional consensus and are enshrined in fundamental instruments of the Inter-American system.

Our response to the coup d’état in Honduras last June shows that our interests are served by leveraging multilateral mechanisms, in concert with our partners, to support the implementation of principled policies. Together with all of the other members of the Organization of American States we condemned the coup d’état that led to the expulsion of the country’s president. By continuing to engage with the Hondurans to encourage a process of negotiation and resolution of that country’s internal crisis we helped to strengthen the “collective defense of democracy” as a cornerstone of the Inter- American System.

Today, elected leaders who are moving quickly to promote national reconciliation and their country’s return to the fold of hemispheric democracies govern Honduras. As Honduras moves forward, we will continue to maintain a vigilant eye on the human rights situation there in light of serious concerns that have been raised. In this regard, we support the mandate of the Honduran Truth Commission to investigate the causes of the coup and its aftermath and provide recommendations for institutional reform and clarify the abuses that were committed.

While the U.S. has welcomed the return of Honduras to democratic rule, some governments have instead chosen to continue isolating the Honduran government. Recently, several threatened to boycott the 6th Summit of the European Union and Latin American and Caribbean countries, which is took place this week in Madrid, if Honduran President Pepe Lobo participated. Their concerns centered on the alleged validity of the November 2009 elections that brought Lobo to power, despite the fact that these elections have been widely viewed as credible, fair, and representative of the views of the Honduran people.

It is a double standard to object to the participation of Honduras in an international gathering on grounds that its democracy leaves much to be desired while not objecting to, and indeed encouraging, the participation of Cuba in that same gathering—a country that has not had a true, open, and free multiparty election in more than fifty years, where prisoners of conscience are deprived of their liberty, and where brave marchers like the Damas de Blanco are harassed for daring to call for political freedoms. By contrast, President Lobo has prepared the groundwork for the normalization of constitutional order and the restoration of Honduras to the Organization of American States. Those efforts should be commended and supported by all the countries of the Americas.

In this regard, we must also work together with other member states to strengthen the role of the OAS in this vital area. We have learned much over the last three decades on how to improve government capacity, how to extend the rule of law, how to strengthen representative institutions such as political parties, and how to make for more effective democratic governance through improvement, for example, of better executive-legislative relations. Working together in sharing best practices we can encourage the consolidation of institutions that are essential to channel competition for power, while also forging and implementing public policies to move forward and create better standards of living for all citizens.

This brings me once again to Cuba, where we seek to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. When President Obama addressed this gathering in May 2008, he emphasized the desire to move Cuba further down the road toward freedom and made clear his commitment to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future. The President also laid out his openness to direct engagement when, and I quote, “we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

During the first 16 months of the Obama administration, we have begun to make progress on the vision that the President has outlined. First, we have taken measures to increase contact between separated families and to promote the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba. We believe that the reunification of the divided Cuban family is a positive step toward building a better future for Cuba. In addition, we have engaged Cuban authorities on key bilateral matters like migration and direct mail service and will continue to do so to advance U.S. national interests. In the wake of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, the United States worked with Cuba to expedite the arrival of critical supplies to victims and survivors of the worst natural disaster in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere.

We have also increased artistic and cultural exchanges between our countries, consistent with our long-standing support for freedom of expression. The “Peace Without Borders” concert in Havana and performances in the United States by noted Cuban artists such as Carlos Varela demonstrate in concrete terms our desire to promote greater communication between the people of the United States and Cuba. In 2009, there was an 80 percent increase in travel licenses issued to U.S. persons under the public performances, athletic, and other competitions and exhibitions category; a 25 percent increase in religious licenses; and a 16 percent increase in licenses issued for academic travel to Cuba. Additionally, non-immigrant visa issuances for Cuban citizens have more than doubled in the last year, including visas for more Cubans to travel to the United States for cultural academic and professional exchange. This engagement has not generated overnight change, but it has advanced U.S. interests and in conjunction with our efforts to reach out to the Cuban people helped lay the foundation for a more robust civil society and increased the chances that Cuba will make a successful transition to democracy.

We remain deeply concerned by the poor human rights situation in Cuba, which contributed to the recent death of prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata as a result of a hunger strike. We are also focused on securing the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who was jailed in Cuba in December—a matter of great importance to the United States. And the unhelpful rhetoric of the Cuban government will remain a constant feature of the relationship almost irrespective of what policies we pursue.

Again, we are committed to continuously evaluating and refining our policies in ways that will empower the Cuban people and advance our national interests. This does not, however, mean that we will shy away from condemning the Cuban government’s repressive ways—far from it. Just last March, President Obama stated, “Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist.” That response is discouraging, but will not deter us from pursing the policy approach the President has laid out and which we have been working hard to advance since January 20, 2009.


In closing, let me say that we are optimistic about the state of U.S.-Latin American relations. We are forging a new narrative for U.S. foreign policy that is dynamic, respectful, and responsive. We are building a true partnership that can become the basis for a Community of the Americas where the citizens of all our countries can live more prosperously and freely than at any point before in history. I thank you for your attention. Muchísimas Gracias.

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