I am pleased to be with you today and am impressed with how many business, political, and civil society leaders from the hemisphere are at this important gathering. I applaud Matt and the founders of Concordia for their success in creating this important regional forum. It’s humbling and quite an honor to be the warm up act speaking just before Colombian President Duque! I have met with him several times – we had another great conversation earlier this morning; his leadership of Colombia, given many challenges, has been courageous.
Today is the third time I have been to Colombia in the last six months: this is more than a travel itinerary, it demonstrates the importance the Trump Administration places on this bilateral relationship. On these repeated visits, the United States has expanded cooperation on trade, innovation, security, counternarcotics, human rights, and democracy in Colombia while working to reduce coca production and dismantle transnational criminal organizations. Colombia is a model for the region today: it is a strong democracy, economic powerhouse, it trains other countries’ police and military forces, and it is a key leader in the Pacific Alliance and Lima Group.
Most recently, Colombia and Chile helped launch a new regional integration forum called Prosur to advance transparency and regional prosperity. These efforts have all occurred with Colombia bearing the brunt of a horrific humanitarian crisis caused by the former Maduro regime in Venezuela and while Colombia works to pursue a sustainable peace following its war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Amidst the crises we face – and we should not underestimate the seriousness of the tragedy in Venezuela – I believe today is also a moment of opportunity for the Western Hemisphere. This region is a strategic priority for the United States, and we believe the Americas have an incredible opportunity now to cement a future of democracy and prosperity. For our part, this involves deeper U.S. engagement, greater U.S. business investment, and stronger people-to-people ties.
The level of like-mindedness by our regional partners and sense of digging in together to take a new approach to deal with challenges are remarkable. In no other part of the world do we conduct diplomacy and build commercial relationships where the interests of our partners relate so directly to our own.
Throughout the hemisphere, there is significant movement bringing our countries closer to lasting freedom and democracy. Governments are making difficult but important decisions to build sustainable prosperity.
Brazil has taken bold steps to reform its pension system and loosen restrictions on business to drive growth. Colombia has seen more modernized, world-class businesses. Chilean leaders have embraced competition and a market economy, reducing poverty from 36 percent in the year 2000 to less than 9 percent today. Ecuador has taken steps to remove problematic restrictions on press freedoms. Peru is combatting corruption following the Lima Commitment signed at the 2018 Summit of the Americas. The Caribbean has also turned a new page – in particular, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and St. Lucia – to tackle tough issues and support democracy in Venezuela. This is how prosperity flourishes and how democracies thrive: voters opting for bolder visions and countries taking action to address challenges.
The United States recognizes these new opportunities and is deepening our engagement with the Western Hemisphere. Trade is a priority; the United States remains the top trading partner for over two-thirds of the hemisphere’s countries and has invested over $1 trillion in the region. Twelve of the 20 countries worldwide with which we have free-trade agreements are in this neighborhood. When enacted, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, will improve standards for all our workers, farmers, ranchers and businesses and result in more robust economic growth.
Another initiative I’m very excited about, The U.S. BUILD Act will modernize U.S. development finance capabilities, providing up to $60 billion in development finance globally under the new Development Finance Corporation. We will use this new tool to advance priorities in the Western Hemisphere and encourage more widespread U.S. business investment in the region. I was just in Buenos Aires and was fortunate to participate in the signing ceremony for the first OPIC deal in 15 years in Argentina. This reflects the U.S. commitment to Argentina’s path and our confidence in its future. The United States is also building efficient energy markets in the region through the “America Crece” Initiative by catalyzing private capital to lead to energy and infrastructure growth.
We also recognize that when education lags, economies will not prosper, and democracies cannot thrive. That’s why the United States is prioritizing people-to-people relationships through our 100,000 Strong in the Americas and the Young Leaders of the Americasinitiatives to help citizens create prosperity and innovation in their own homes and communities. We are also pursuing gender initiatives close to my heart that get to further empower women in Latin America – 2x Americas and Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative.
This is the vision in the hemisphere we believe in and are partnering with our neighbors to build: one in which governments uphold the rule of law and are accountable to their citizens; they invest in their people rather than line their own pockets; and they enable transparent, market-oriented policies and private-sector-led investment. We have huge opportunities to achieve these goals given the waves of democratization and anti-corruption movements we’ve seen sweep nearly every country in the region.
We all know the quote from the Inter-American Democratic Charter: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy, and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” The United States is working closely with our partners to bring those words to life in all corners of our hemisphere.
But there are clear outliers. The people of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua all continue to suffer from the oppressive behavior of authoritarian regimes.
In Venezuela, the Maduro dictatorship has destroyed a country and created a devastating humanitarian, political, and economic crisis. His isolated former regime clings to power – its weakness on display and increasing by the day. It cannot solve its problems legitimately, so it imprisons its opponents. Trying to silence the voices of freedom is a strategy that never prevails. According to Foro Penal, there are nearly 780 political prisoners in Venezuela. One month of food for an average family costs more than 100 times the monthly minimum wage. Almost 90 percent of Venezuelan hospitals lack basic medicines. Hospitals cannot operate critical electronic devices during chronic nationwide blackouts, and deaths have resulted. More than 3.7 million Venezuelans have fled Venezuela since 2015, and these numbers increase daily. These are devastating statistics by any measure. And it’s why the international community must come together to end the suffering of Venezuela’s people.
Fifty-four countries support interim President Guaidó and the democratically elected National Assembly’s efforts to reclaim their democracy. The United States is keeping the pressure on the regime by sanctioning over 150 individuals and entities in Venezuela, and we have provided almost $260 million to support the regional humanitarian response.
Just in Colombia, the United States has given about $130 million to respond to the influx of Venezuelans since 2017. I have seen the efforts of regional governments up close during my visit to Cucuta on two separate occasions. I have seen first hand the human tragedy and the generosity of the Colombian people. The Lima Group countries have shown the world an incredible example of what is possible when we partner together. We are seeing a new trend in the region with Lima Group countries augmenting the efforts of the Organization of American States and Inter-American Development Bank, coupled with Prosur’s signal of pragmatism and results-oriented leadership. This new regional leadership is a fundamental shift for the region and will be one of the defining issues of this time for the history books.
In contrast to the new reality of leadership in the region, we are seeing a clash with the old ideas. In Cuba, the regime has not fundamentally changed, and it continues to aid and abet the Maduro regime in Venezuela. This is unacceptable for the United States and for the region. The U.S. Administration has been unwavering in our focus to promote freedom in this hemisphere. We seek a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. We will not turn a blind eye to the ongoing and systemic human rights abuses and repression by the Communist Cuban regime against its people or tolerate Cuba’s indefensible support for Maduro in Venezuela.
So we are taking action. The State Department’s historic decision on Title III of the LIBERTAD Act recognizes the reality of Cuba today, which is no closer to transitioning to democracy and freedom than it was over 20 years ago. We have also continued adding entities to the Cuba Restricted List to strip the regime of support to its security services and have increased efforts to assist democratic actors, small businesses, and Internet connectivity on the island.
Old ideas also manifest in the Ortega regime’s authoritarianism and dismantling of democracy in Nicaragua. The ultimate resolution to the crisis lies with the Nicaraguan people, and the United States strongly supports their efforts to achieve early, free, and fair elections and a return to democracy. To that end, we have sanctioned Nicaraguan government officials for human rights abuses, undermining democracy, or corruption as well as a venture between Nicaraguan state-owned oil company, Petronic, and PDVSA, BANCORP; and we have revoked visas of people involved in repressing peaceful protesters. We urge our neighbors to exert similar pressure to urge a return to democracy in Nicaragua.
Amidst the clash of old ideas and new regional leadership, I believe China is the big strategic question for the hemisphere. The U.S. Administration has taken a closer look at China’s engagement in the Americas given significant U.S. interest. China is and will remain a significant trade and investment partner for the United States and for many other countries. We welcome fair competition with China; but Chinese companies must operate on a level playing field, in ways where they play by the rules, and respect environmental and labor standards.
However, far too often China has departed from international best practices; and when it does, its opaque methods have enabled corruption and eroded good governance. I believe the region is now recognizing that the way China operates is not compatible with the system in the region. In the Western Hemisphere, all countries expect – and should demand – that infrastructure development projects feature a transparent procurement process, uphold environmental and social safeguards, and foster inclusive growth in line with the standards of international financial institutions. We all have much at stake at getting this right, as investment in the region – by China or other countries – will have a generational impact on our citizens.
Let me conclude by underscoring my confidence in this new era in the Americas. Governments are rooting out corruption and developing dynamic economic systems. Partners are stepping up to support democratic norms. New regional leadership with the Lima Group and Prosur; fascinating changes with Mercosur; and greater interconnectivity with the Pacific Alliance offer significant opportunities for us all. As Secretary Pompeo said in Santiago, “the Americas have an incredible opportunity, the chance truly to cement a future of democracy, prosperity, for all of the people of all of this hemisphere. It’s not an impossible dream, although a few years ago we might not have believed it. Today we all can. Nor is it a forgone conclusion that it will take place. We’ll have work to do. But the chance is ours collectively to seize or to squander.”
I know we will seize this moment, and I look forward to working with all of you to create an ever more prosperous, secure, and democratic Western Hemisphere. Thank you.