Good morning everyone. I am very honored to be here this morning on behalf of the United States Government in celebration of Caribbean-American Heritage Month. To begin, I want to thank Dr. Claire Nelson, Founder and President of the Institute of Caribbean Studies, and all of the stakeholders involved in putting this event together . Given the passion and enthusiasm of this group, I have no doubt this year’s celebration will be another successful one.
Dr. Nelson and members of the Institute of Caribbean Studies are no strangers to advocating on behalf of the interests of the Caribbean, and have shown that nothing can get in their way. This includes Department of State transitions during which personnel rotate out and new teams take their place, changes in Presidential administrations, and even a global pandemic. Regardless of the obstacles, Dr. Nelson and her team continue to ensure that we recognize this important month and the countless Caribbean diaspora who have helped shape the United States into the strong, rich, and vibrant democracy it is today. Wherever you are tuning in from this morning, be it the United States, the Caribbean or other parts of the globe, I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy.
Throughout my career in the Foreign Service, long before my time as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, the Caribbean has captivated me. During my first tour in Venezuela, I spent as much time as I could exploring the beauty and culture of the Caribbean region. From the powdery sand beaches of Curacao, to the serene ocean views in Aruba, the gorgeous sea life of Bonaire, and the wonderful aromas of the spice isle, I took it all in with delight. I have returned to visit this special region often, always hungry to experience more. I mean that literally and figuratively. The food is amazing!
Some highlights for me were the spicy curried mango from Trinidad and Tobago and savory conch fritters from the Bahamas, but if I had to choose my all-time favorite, it would probably be the delicious, sweet plantains I found in various parts of the Caribbean. I ate so many over the years I am sure they are now part of my DNA.
Fortunately, I was able to burn off most of those well-earned calories by dancing to the beat of the incredible diverse music I found throughout my journeys. The unmistakable melodies of a lovely calypso in Port of Spain, the make-you-move rhythm of salsa and merengue when I visited the Dominican Republic, and the soothing beats of reggae will forever stay with me.
The wonderful thing is that while I had the very good fortune of living these experiences firsthand in the region, millions of Americans share the same love and passion for the Caribbean, its beauty, gastronomy, music, and culture without ever having set foot there. Why?…because these treasures have become ingrained in our cultural fabric through generations of Caribbean Americans who have shared them, helping to create a United States as beautiful and diverse as the Caribbean region itself. Our familial ties, our shared history, and our deeply rooted beliefs were forged through hundreds of years, millions of lives, and billions of experiences. This is now part of our collective DNA.
These remarkable contributions began even before our nation’s formal birth, influencing our founding fathers’ nascent hopes and dreams of creating the world’s greatest democracy. Barbados’ influence on an impressionable young George Washington, Nevis as the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton — these histories are well known. While they deserve the recognition they have earned, there are countless untold stories of Caribbean immigrants and diaspora who have dedicated their lives to improving our nation and who we come to celebrate today. Individuals like all of you at this event.
Today, Caribbean diaspora contributions are more pronounced than ever.
Perhaps the single brightest example is that of our Vice President Kamala Harris, whose honored Jamaican heritage serves as a beacon for all of us that the American dream is still alive and well. Others may point to the most decorated gymnast in history, Simone Biles, who could not be prouder to recognize her Belizean origins, and in turn we could not be prouder to have her represent the red, white, and blue. One of the highlights of my career was serving under Secretary of State Colin Powell. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Secretary Powell represented the best America had to offer and forever changed the State Department for the better.
For every Kamala Harris, Simone Biles, and Colin Powell, there are thousands of champions of Caribbean origin, etching their indelible mark into our nation’s fabric, and shaping its future. Entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers, lawyers, first responders – they come in many forms, but what unites them is their dedication to giving back and building a better world for us all and the generations to come.
My colleagues and I at the State Department, who represent the American people, share this mantra, and as public servants it is what we strive to do every single day, but it is not always easy. The challenges that we face today in many ways are more complex than ever. To overcome them, we focus on building bridges, creating and reinforcing partnerships, and working with likeminded nations to unite efforts.
That is why our work in the region is so important and why this Administration has made engagement with the Caribbean a priority. From assistance with combatting the COVID-19 pandemic to supporting access to financing, to pursuing our shared goals for security, resilience, and democracy, we remain committed to facing these great challenges together. Recent meetings of Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan with CARICOM representatives underscore this objective and the respect we have for our Caribbean neighbors.
Enduring efforts like the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and the U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership, and new ones like the Small and Less Populous Island Economies initiative, are just small pieces of a larger puzzle. While high-level policy engagements are needed, I want to emphasize real progress often takes place at the working level where active private sector, academic, and civil society engagement helps move the needle. My colleagues in the Office of Caribbean Affairs and the Office of Haitian Affairs conduct regular meetings with diaspora groups, as Dr. Nelson is aware, and we encourage building relationships among these groups to accomplish shared goals.
In closing, I want to echo words from Secretary Blinken. “The ties between the United States and the Caribbean are lasting, diverse, and deep. We are united by our history and our people, economic ties and cultural ties, values and principles. We are not just partners, but friends.”
Thank you again for your time and thank you, Dr. Nelson, for the opportunity to speak today. I wish you all a happy Caribbean American Heritage Month.