Well, thank you very much and welcome to the State Department for this very important meeting of the Council of the Americas. I want to thank you, John, for the introduction. And I just had a chance to say hello to President Funes and his delegation, and I’m so pleased that he is here. And I understand that President Calderon will be speaking later, so you have some real all stars for the program of leaders who are making a real difference in the region. Susan, thank you for leading the Council of the Americas at such a vital moment in the history of this region.
And I want to take a moment of personal privilege to thank one of our own: Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela, who will soon conclude two years of service as Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere. The United States has had no greater champion for strengthening our bonds with our neighbors. And speaking for myself and all of our colleagues, I will say prematurely but very heartfelt that we’re going to miss you when you return to Georgetown this fall. Thank you, Arturo. (Applause.)
Now, some may wonder why our excellent Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is here, other than his deep interest in the region and his deep roots and family ties. Following this address, Ken and I will be flying to Greenland for the Arctic Council meeting, and it’s a significant attempt to make sure that we manage the Arctic at such a critical juncture in global history, so I’m delighted that Secretary Salazar could be with us.
It’s a pleasure as I look around this room to see so many familiar faces, Americans, of course, but so many others: business leaders and policy makers, academics and thinkers and leaders of all kinds. And I want to thank you because those of you here today and the many you represent throughout the hemisphere have made such significant progress on behalf of the people of our two continents. The Western Hemisphere has seen such tremendous progress, and it is due to thoughtful, effective leadership.
Changes like what we have seen in terms of economic opportunity and democratic reform do not happen by accident, they’re not a part of natural evolution. They happen when people decide that they want those opportunities and changes for themselves, and leaders are prepared to lead.
Now, I do see a few faces that were in the audience at CSIS in March when I spoke, and that was one of those occasions where I flew in the night before from a trip to Egypt and Tunisia, and then I had to fly out to Paris later that night. But it was important for us to really anchor President Obama’s historic trip in the context of what the United States is hoping to achieve in partnership with our friends. I wouldn’t have missed it.
This region is vital to our interests, and yet at the same time, despite whatever is going on elsewhere in the world, there is nothing more important than continuing our work to consolidate democracy, embrace smart economic policy, continue lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty, taking on a more active role in the world, and generally making it clear that we are in this together, that we will rise or fall together in the 21st century because we have so many interests that are at stake.
For our own economic interests, we are rebuilding our own economy and renewing our competitiveness, and we have no more important partners than those in this hemisphere.
For our security and strategic interests, we have to design an architecture of cooperation, and we are looking more and more to increasingly capable partners in the hemisphere. For our core values, as we promote democracy and human rights here and around the world, we can point time and time again to what is happening in our partners and friends in this hemisphere.
And for our society and culture, the growing connections between us make our relationship even more vital and innovative.
In short, as I said in March, there is power in our proximity—now, our geographic proximity to be sure, but also the proximity of our economic interests, our values, our culture, and the challenges we share.
So we’ve had a flurry of activity lately, highlighted by President Obama’s trip in March. In Brazil, he completed agreements for high-level dialogues on economics and energy, which we believe will promote cooperation, streamline regulations, and help us take concrete steps that provide tangible benefits to all of our people. In Chile, he laid out a framework of equal partnership, and in a speech to the entire hemisphere showed how much that partnership can deliver through our engagement with a strong democracy that is playing an increasingly active role beyond the region. And in El Salvador, he announced the Partnership for Growth, which is aimed at addressing the chronic constraints to development.
And he also announced a landmark citizen security effort to strengthen our work with partners throughout the region, to promote the rule of law, to fight the gangs and narco-traffickers that unfortunately produce the highest crime rate in the world throughout our area. As all of you know, rates of violence and crime are unacceptably high in too many places in our hemisphere. But when I look at the experience of Colombia in recent years, I see that we can overcome this threat, but we have to do it together.
So through this new partnership, we will focus $200 million on building up courts, civil society groups, and other institutions. But ultimately, as President Funes has advocated so eloquently, we want to help take on the economic and social forces that drive young people into a life of crime. And this partnership will create a chance for all of us to learn from each other about what works. Let’s quit doing what doesn’t work and let’s start doing more of what does work. And by connecting countries that are looking to step up their own efforts with partners who have valuable expertise on these issues—like Colombia and Mexico working together—and with donors like the U.S., Canada, Spain, and the EU, we can help every nation do more to protect its own people.
Now, the President took that trip about six weeks ago, but in diplomatic time it seems like eons ago because so much has happened since. But I’m pleased to report that we have kept our eye on this particular goal and we are making real progress on our priorities.
First, on trade and economic growth. One of our top goals is to complete free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. Now, I’m not talking out of school when I say that free trade agreements always raise hard questions and they spark a lot of healthy debate in our country. But today, I am happy to report we are making great progress on both agreements. We have worked with our Panamanian and Colombian partners to address key concerns and forge broader bipartisan support in the Congress, just as we did with the South Korean Free Trade Agreement. Panama passed important new laws on labor rights and tax transparency. With Colombia, we have established an action plan to address concerns about labor rights, violence, and impunity. And Colombia has already taken important steps to implement this plan, and we are working hard to execute the next phase by June 15. Thanks to President Santos’s extraordinary leadership, I have no doubt we will meet that deadline.
So this year – early this year – we intend to send Congress the legislation that would implement all three pending FTAs. (Applause.) In addition, we will be sending our broader trade agenda, including renewal of the Andean Trade Preferences and the Trade Adjustment Assistance. And with these steps, we believe we will be well on our way to reaching our goal.
Now, I think this is good news for the people of all our countries. In the United States alone, these three agreements – Colombia, Panama, the Andean Trade Preference renewal – could add more than $10 billion to our economic output, and that would translate into some 70,000 new jobs for American workers. And by adding Colombia and Panama to our existing FTAs, we will create an unbroken chain of economic integration from the start of the Rockies in Canada all the way to the end of the Andes.
As we move forward on these free trade agreements, we’re also making other progress in other aspects of our economic relationships. With Mexico, thankfully, we have adopted a coordinated action plan with concrete steps that we believe will make the border both more secure and more efficient, and we are successfully resolving our differences over the cargo trucks that cross our border. Under the trucking plan that we’re now finalizing, we will make it safer, cheaper, and easier to move goods across our common border, and Mexico will remove the retaliatory tariffs they placed on more than $2 billion of our goods.
And in the weeks since President Obama’s visit to Brazil, the array of agreements he announced—on infrastructure for the World Cup and the Olympics, on aviation and maritime transport, on biofuels, R&D, and so much more—is spurring a serious acceleration in our economic relationship.
Second, beyond expanding trade and economic opportunity, we are building flexible multilateral partnerships to help us address the strategic challenges we face. Pathways to Prosperity and the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas are promoting inclusive growth and sustainable energy security. Mexico’s leadership in Cancun late last year was absolutely crucial in putting the world on a path toward greater cooperation to confront climate change, and it was a Mexican proposal for the Green Fund that will serve as the vehicle for assisting developing countries in meeting their climate needs.
In addition, every nation in the hemisphere has sent food, people, or money to help Haiti recover from last year’s earthquake. Members of the OAS and the Caribbean community helped to set up electoral polls, monitor the presidential election, and supported the national electoral authority. And this Saturday, when the Haitian people inaugurate a new president, they will know they had the support of their neighbors in ensuring that their votes were counted and their voices were heard.
Third, we continue to work to advance our shared democratic values. Now, Latin America has undergone a stunning transformation over the past few decades, but we cannot afford complacency. We have to keep working on institutionalizing democracy and preserving and protecting fundamental freedoms.
Now, in Honduras we have seen how effective that kind of common approach can be. And now that the obstacles to former President Zelaya’s return to Honduras have been removed, I am confident that we will soon welcome Honduras back as a full member of the inter-American system. That is a step that is long overdue.
Finally, all of these opportunities are going to require leadership. We still face a huge inequality gap in Latin America. In fact, from the United States south we do, because if you look at developed, advanced economies, unfortunately, our country has one of the largest gaps in inequality as well. So we’ve got to continue to focus on how we help equip people with the skills and tools they need to make the most out of their God-given potential.
Now, the United States, I believe, is blessed to have one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the world. And Latinos are the fastest-growing group in our country. We are interdependent, and we have to deal with the real questions that interdependence poses. Take immigration, for example. I know that makes some people anxious, but it has long been a source of our vitality and our innovative spirit. And that’s why, as President Obama said yesterday in El Paso, we are committed to comprehensive immigration reform.
We’re also committed to greatly expanding the connections between people in our country and people throughout the hemisphere. That’s the idea behind our new initiative called 100,000 Strong in the Americas that will greatly increase the number of Latin American students who study in the United States and American students who study in Latin America. And I would welcome your support for this project. We launched the 100,000 Strong program in China and we have already raised more than enough money to assist in making sure we have the opportunity to meet our goal of 100,000 Americans studying in China, more Chinese students studying in America, overcoming some of the visa obstacles that, unfortunately, were quite difficult to navigate since 9/11. And I would hope we can do the same, Arturo, that we’ll have 100,000 Strong in the Americas with many of you on our steering committee, focused on how we’re going to do this, because we want to make it absolutely clear that this is our home, and we want to be sure that our young people are making those connections and those lifelong friends and networks of relationship.
Now, we’re putting a particular focus on people-to-people connections in Cuba. From the very beginning, the Obama Administration believed that the best way to advance fundamental rights in Cuba – in fact, to advance them anywhere – is to support exchanges and constructive relationships. And there’s no better ambassador for our values than a teacher or an artist or a student or a religious leader, a Cuban American who has made a new life in the United States. That’s why we have eased our restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. We could do more if we saw evidence that there was an opportunity to do so coming from the Cuban side because we want to foster these deeper connections and we want to work for the time when Cuba will enjoy its own transition to democracy, when it can look at its neighbors throughout the hemisphere and the people in Cuba will feel that they, too, are having a chance to choose their leaders, choose their professions, create their businesses, and generally take advantage of what has been a tremendous, great sweep of progress everywhere but Cuba.
So we’ve accomplished a great deal on all of our priorities, but there is one final point I wish to make at perhaps the risk of being less than welcome. Let’s admit we face real shortcomings in the region. Now, many people say that this is the Latin American decade, and I agree. There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to.
But let’s be honest; there are still weak education systems, there are still weak democratic institutions, there are still inadequate fiscal policies, there are still too few people of means paying their fair share of taxes to their government in order to support services for those who will otherwise be mired in generational poverty, and there is too much violence. If we don’t face up to these challenges, we could waste this historic opportunity. But I have a lot of confidence that we will, because if one looks at what has worked in those countries that are leading the change, it’s because they’ve made these tough decisions.
I’ve been in several of the countries in the region. As John said, I had lost count – 17 and 18 months – but in many of them, I drew the comparison between what was happening inside their own countries and what was happening in the rest of the region or in a nearby country, where governments and leaders made the tough decisions to invest in their own people and not merely to take advantage of the economic opportunities that can flow to those of us already at the top. I’m confident that we’re going to face up to the problems that remain and make the most of people’s energy and talents, and we are excited about the work of this council. I look forward to hearing the results of your discussions, and I hope that we will continue to work toward what certainly can be a Latin American century of hope, potential, promise for all. Thank you. (Applause.)