MR TUTTLE: Well, good afternoon, everybody. What a fantastic turnout from Mission Panama. Really delighted. Give yourself some applause. (Applause.) Now, I know that ever since President Biden was inaugurated, there’s been a lot of buzz at this embassy about when the Secretary of State would be visiting, and it’s obviously with tremendous pleasure that I can – obviously I don’t need to surprise you. He’s right here next to me, right? (Laughter.)
So I mean – and I think what’s important to note – we all know what’s going on in the world today, right? There’s a lot of crises, a lot of issues we’re dealing with, some of monumental importance. The fact that Secretary Blinken has chosen to be here today in Panama with us – along with, not by coincidence, Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas as well – is an indication of not only the strength of our bilateral relationship with Panama but also the importance of the issues that they are here to address.
So Secretary Blinken became the 71st Secretary of State on January 26th of 2021, but he was obviously a familiar face to many of us in the department, having been the deputy secretary for a number of years during President Obama’s second term; prior to that, the deputy national security advisor; and in President Obama’s first term, the national security advisor to then-Vice President Joe Biden. That was a relationship that had continued on from their time at the Senate, where the Secretary was the Democratic staff director at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a committee that then-Senator Biden served on for many years and which he chaired for quite a time while they were there together.
So, Mr. Secretary, I couldn’t help but notice that when I was looking at your bio, we both had our first experience in the State Department in the 1990s in the same year. Now, I know what you’re all thinking – his career has progressed a little faster than mine. (Laughter.) But I’m a magnanimous guy, so no hard feelings, right? In fact, Secretary Blinken has a soft spot in my heart, because in your very first virtual meeting with all the chiefs of mission of the Western Hemisphere, I made a comment that I was hoping would be taken as humorous, and the Secretary actually chuckled. He did, right? (Laughter.) Now, just letting you know that you had me at a smirk, but thanks for going above and beyond the call.
So with that, hey, let me turn the microphone over to the man you’re here to see, Secretary of State Tony Blinken. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you all very, very much. It is great to be here with Mission Panama. Wow, and greetings all the way up there. (Laughter.) So I hadn’t realized that we started at the same time, but look, in fairness, the office that I started in was on the sixth floor of the State Department, in the front office of what was then called the European and Canadian Affairs Bureau. And if you go there now you can still see – I think they’ve changed it a little bit, but the previous occupant of that office, Stewart – the one right before me – was a large safe, which gives you some idea of what the office was like. (Laughter.) And as I say, basically over the course of about 30 years I managed to move up one flight of stairs and get some windows. (Laughter.) So I’ll take that.
But to Stewart’s point – and first let me start by thanking you so much for your leadership here at what really is a critical time. And the fact that we’re here is evidence that not only is this partnership important, it’s increasingly vital. We have – and we talked about this with the president today and the foreign minister. We’re at a time of challenge, where democracies are being challenged, and having a strong beacon of democracy here in Panama makes a big difference at this time.
We’re, of course, facing an incredible challenge when it comes to irregular migration not just in our own hemisphere but quite literally around the world. There are now more people on the move around the world, displaced from their homes, than at any time since World War II. And we’re feeling that here in our hemisphere. Panama has really stepped up in a big way to be a leader in making sure that we see this as a shared responsibility, which is really the focus of our trip here today.
But mostly I wanted to come by to say thank you to each and every one of you for the incredible service that you’re performing. I have a couple things I want to say about that, but let me just give some thanks. I caught the tail end of the dancers and percussionists. Really remarkable; thank you so much for that. And I am especially glad to see that we have obviously some first and second-tour members of the team here. (Laughter.) And I’m looking forward to talking to you guys when we get a chance.
But one of the things that’s really remarkable here is – we talk a lot about interagency collaboration back home. This is the model of it. By our count, there are 42 agencies represented here, everything from Ag to DOD to DOJ to Treasury, and so on down the line. To each and every one of you, if you’re here from one of our partner agencies, thank you for the remarkable collaboration. We can’t do what we do without that partnership, and this is really a model for the way that’s supposed to work.
You’ve been getting out and about despite the challenges of COVID. I know there’s been an Embassy on the Road program, visiting provinces west of Panama City – should I – actually, here, I’ll hold it. There we go, thank you. Sorry about that.
Meeting community, business leaders; folks from all walks of life; visiting schools, touring farms, reaching diverse populations. And that kind of outreach is vital, and I’m glad you’re doing it.
I’m also incredibly glad to know that the Peace Corps is on its way back, volunteers coming back in July after the COVID-19 pause. So Peace Corps, welcome back to Panama.
And then, of course, we have a remarkable security partnership here with our partners. Together you are doing, we are doing, search and rescue missions, stopping illegal fishing, fighting drug trafficking. All of that happening out of this embassy.
But what I really wanted to focus on just for a minute is the culture of this mission and what each and every one of you is bringing to it. We’ve all been through, and you’ve been through, an incredibly challenging time with COVID-19 over the last couple of years, and I know that’s had a profound effect on people’s professional lives, in many cases on your personal lives. Some of you have lost family members, loved ones, gotten sick, and you’ve had to do your jobs in a different way, a much more difficult way, and yet you kept doing it. And you’ve also kept the spirit alive, and that’s so important, making sure that you had each other’s backs as we worked through COVID. And I know that everything from virtual cooking classes to virtual bingo – it sounds funny, but it really is a powerful way of keeping people connected when they were forced to part, so thank you for doing that.
And I’m grateful as well to all of you for engaging in service, service to this country and this community. The Green Team with beach clean-ups, embassy volunteers working with local schools. The last event, I am told, had some 200 volunteers. That’s a powerful bit of diplomacy, too. It really shows us connecting with our Panamanian friends and addressing issues that actually have an immediate impact on their lives as well. So I’m thankful for it.
And then I was told that you had your own special version of the Winter Olympics. (Laughter.) So interesting events that I had not realized were normally part of the Winter Olympics. Dodgeball. (Laughter.) Trivia – a lot of training has to go into that. (Laughter.) Musical chairs for section leaders. (Laughter.) And then my personal favorite, a sack race in the diplomatic pouch. (Laughter.) Now that is a very good use of the diplomatic pouch. (Laughter.)
But in all of these ways, and everything you’ve done, spring garden parties. By the way, I heard that there was a lamb that made a repeated escape from this, showing that the lamb understands that one of our most sacred values is freedom. (Laughter.)
But in all these ways big and small, this is how you build, this is how you keep a community together, especially during challenging times. And to you, Stewart, to the entire team here, to the acting DCM, everyone – thank you for coming together and for pulling together.
Finally, wherever I go there are two groups of people that I especially want to give a special shout-out to. The first – and I saw some of our colleagues as we were coming in – are Marines. Every embassy that you go to, no matter where it is in the world, the very first person you’re likely to see walking into an embassy is a Marine. We can’t do our jobs without them doing their jobs. This partnership is something that’s truly sacred to our institution. And to our Marine brothers and sisters, we are grateful for you every single day. Thank you. (Applause.)
And second – and all of you who are Americans here know this so very well – the lifeblood of any embassy everywhere in the world is our locally engaged staff. And I know that there are a number of you here. I want to say thank you to you for what you do every single day to bring our countries closer together. And there are a few people I just want to mention by name because this is really extraordinary.
Roberto Ortiz. I don’t know if Roberto is here. Forty years of service. So Roberto, thank you. (Cheers and applause.)
Mirtha Arhona. I don’t know if Mirtha is here. Right there. Thank you. (Cheers and applause.) It can’t possibly be right. It – this can’t be – it can’t be right. It says 50 years of service. Is that possible? That can’t be right. (Laughter.)
And then I have here Mabel Camarena. Mabel, are you here anywhere? (Cheers and applause.) Back there. So is this even possible – 52 years of service? Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Applause.)
But whatever your contribution, whether you’re a direct hire, whether you are Foreign Service, Civil Service, a contractor, locally employed staff, whether you’re here from any of our fellow agencies and departments, thank you for all that you’re doing. Thank you for all that you’re doing for your country. Thank you for all that you’re doing for this partnership. I am grateful for it every single day. And I know that a lot of work goes into these visits, even one that’s relatively short. So to anyone who took part, thank you for doing it, thank you for bringing us here, thank you for the incredible support, and have a great wheels-up party tomorrow. (Laughter.)
Thank you. (Applause.)