Good morning. Thank you very much, Susan. And thanks, of course, to Eric and John and Arturo. And it is a special personal pleasure to have my neighbor, David Rockefeller, here. He has been such a leader on behalf of so many important causes, but I know how close this one is to your heart, David. And I’m very pleased that you could join us for this Council of Americas meeting, and I’m delighted to not only welcome you back to the State Department, but to invite you to use today and the format of this meeting to share with us your thoughts and ideas about the way forward.
I know I speak for many colleagues in the State Department and USAID, as well as the rest of the Obama Administration, when I thank so many of you in this room as I look around and see all these familiar faces – Mack McLarty and others who are here for everything you’ve done to transform our hemisphere, to create broader markets, to promote trade and to spread opportunity and prosperity.
I was looking at the GDP numbers. That’s unfortunately part of the job that I have these days, because diplomacy doesn’t stop with meetings between elected officials. But of course, what’s happening in the economy, particularly during this period of global challenge, is critical. And this hemisphere, particularly Latin America, is doing better than average if you look at the world as a whole. So for that, we are very grateful and many of the companies, as well as countries and their leaders represented here today, are – really do a lot of the credit for having navigated through a very difficult time.
But I know that we have so much more work ahead of us. And I’m looking forward, Director General Insulza, to being in Peru for the OAS General Assembly. And for – my priorities, Latin America and the Western Hemisphere always remain at the top of the list. I can’t stay long today because, of course, I have to go meet President Karzai and meet with the President on our agenda there, but I always am thinking about what more we can do to enhance our partnerships, to make more progress together.
And I wanted to just talk about three issues. One, I see my friends from Colombia and Panama, and I hate seeing them, I have to be honest. (Laughter.) We are, as President Obama said, committed in the State of the Union to our free trade agreements with both countries, but we are also facing very difficult political challenges. But I am absolutely here to reiterate that commitment. Both Panama and Colombia have worked very hard to deal with some of the questions that were raised by this Administration and certainly by our Congress, and I think that we are going to pursue this. I can’t predict the outcome, but it is something that the President and I in particular feel strongly about. You’ll hear from U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk later in the program.
But our commitment to trade is one that we feel strongly about. We just have to deal with the political winds and we need more help from the private sector. We need more strong advocacy on behalf of the importance of trade and why it is good for the United States and American workers. My friends from Mexico, who will be here in great numbers next week, know that we have some challenges on that front as well. I don’t want to ignore that because we have some outstanding trade issues. But again, we are trying to work through those and bring those to resolution, and we’re very excited about President Calderon’s visit.
We also have made a big commitment to energy security, new forms of energy, the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas that we rolled out at the Inter-American Development Bank. I don’t see Director Moreno here, but I know he’ll be here later in the program.
We believe that we can do so much more on both energy and climate, and we need your help on that front as well. The United States is prepared to invest government funds to solicit private sector funds to try to develop the energy sectors. We are particularly concerned about how so many countries in the Caribbean and Central America are dependent on imported oil at great cost to their economies. I believe that we will see oil start to go back up in price and that will further impinge upon the budgetary choices in the Caribbean and Central America, and we need to get ahead of this and not see the consequences that will inevitably flow that will hit the hardest on the people least able to manage those costs. So, trade and energy investment, that’s one big basket of issues that I know you’ll be addressing. We need your ideas, we need your constructive criticism, and we need a strong, deep partnership on the way forward.
Secondly, security – you can’t go anywhere in Latin America without hearing about the challenges to security. Our friends from Colombia have waged a heroic and largely successful struggle against the drug traffickers, but it isn’t over. It’s not over in Colombia and it is certainly not over anywhere else in the hemisphere. The countries bearing the brunt of it today are in Central America and Mexico. The brutality, the barbarism of the drug traffickers in Mexico is just beyond imagination. And we need smarter, more effective strategies to deal with this continuing threat to civil society, to governmental legitimacy, to the writ of government out into areas that need to be controlled. We have some good examples of what does work, but we are nowhere near what I would consider to be an effective strategy.
We have invested a lot, as you know, in Plan Colombia. We’ve put a lot of funding into the Merida Initiative. Arturo was recently in Central America talking about the partnership that we are working on to assist those countries that are particularly vulnerable. But this is a huge threat. It’s a huge threat to the governance and the economies and the quality of life throughout Latin America, but particularly in Central America and Mexico. So again, the United States is committed, we’re going to do everything we can to help, and we want to be smart about the help that we provide.
And finally, the issues of inequity, of immigration are ones that are particularly important and they are linked to everything else. While I think that we can take a lot of joy in the positive GDP growth, our income disparity continues to grow. And that is not good news for anybody. That is a source of social and political instability. It feeds a lot of the criminal activity that unfortunately is now dominated by the traffickers of drugs and arms and people. And we have to do a better job.
Now, we’ve seen successes in Colombia, in Mexico, in the cash transfer programs. We are working hard under one of our principal deputy assistant secretaries, Craig Kelly, in the Pathways to Prosperity. We are really trying to work with governments and the private sector to increase economic opportunity. But this must be at the core of everything we do. We cannot be successful and produce the kind of sustainable growth and progress without economic opportunity being more broadly spread.
And there are a number of issues that are at work here. I have been speaking with my colleagues throughout the hemisphere and with heads of state and government about the need to increase revenues for governments. And that’s just another way of saying taxes. If you look at the tax revenue to GDP rate in Brazil, it’s one of the highest in the world. It is not an accident that Brazil is booming and that it’s beginning to decrease the inequities in that society. And that’s a complex, big society. But they are making progress. It has been a policy going back several decades which has been pursued with great commitment and it’s working. Too many other countries, you look at the tax revenue to GDP percentage, it’s among the lowest in the world. That is unsustainable.
So while we talk about what we need to do in Latin America, we need to stay focused on how we empower and how we create mechanisms within the public sector that are going to be able to lift up those who are on the bottom. We don’t have the poorest people in the world in Latin America, with the exception of Haiti, but we have the most inequity. And therefore, we’ve got to have a partnership among the public and the private sector to address this.
And let me just end with a word about Haiti. I am so grateful to every country represented here, because every country in the hemisphere contributed something to Haiti after the earthquake. Even those that were small and themselves coping with difficult social and economic conditions have made their contributions. And we have to stay united on this effort.
Some of the countries that are represented here, particularly the Dominican Republic, which has been a great neighbor when their neighbor was in need and overcome a lot of past history, but so many others have done just an extraordinary job in getting through the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. More people in Haiti are now getting clean, safe drinking water than they got before the earthquake. So we have to build on that progress and try to build back better, as my husband has famously said about his role at the United Nations and working with the Haitian Government.
So we’ve done a lot. We have a lot to be proud of in this hemisphere. But I’m not satisfied and I don’t think that any of us should be, because there is still a big agenda before us. But I’m grateful to this council, the work that you’ve done, the example you’ve set, keeping the focus on the Western Hemisphere despite whatever trouble spots were springing up elsewhere in the world, and I am committed to doing everything I can to have this hemisphere be a model and to combine our strengths, overcome our weaknesses, work in a real spirit of partnership and friendship, and I welcome your thoughts and ideas about how we in the Obama Administration can be more successful in doing that.
Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
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