SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, this is really a moment to just drop the mic and leave because – (laughter) – a few things I wanted to share with all of you, but I think the first and most important is this: Moments like this are important. We don’t usually take the time, even half an hour, 45 minutes, to just press pause and reflect on something that we’ve done, because there’s just too much to do. And the inboxes are overflowing, and it’s always move, move, move. But it is important to do that because when we’re at our best, as each of you has been in this extraordinary chapter, it really is worth reflecting on. And I hope that it inspires, energizes, encourages each of us to keep going, to keep doing this, to keep with this calling that has drawn all of us together in this incredible enterprise.
Erin said something that is I think very powerful and it’s that we get called upon to do lots of things in our careers here at State, other agencies. But there’re not that many moments when you can really say and see directly that something you have done has actually changed someone’s life, and changed it for the better. There’s usually too many points of connection along the way to really see it and really feel it, but the experience that each of you has had – in this instance, I hope really makes that connection, makes it powerful, and is something that you’ll take with you throughout your careers and throughout your lives no matter what you do going forward. It’s simply the most powerful thing that we occasionally have an opportunity to do, and it really is worth reflecting on.
Tressa, my friend, my travel companion, colleague, this is the epitome of the person here who runs into the burning building every single time, no matter how challenging it is, and gets the job done. And we’ve seen that again and again. I’m so grateful once again to you for your incredible leadership in this instance.
The extraordinary team of volunteers – and that was a hugely important word, volunteers – that Mike shared with us. That just inspires me tremendously because, again, I’ve seen it time and again in this department. When we’ve had an urgency, when we’ve had an emergency situation, when we’ve had a daunting challenge, people have been raising their hands. They’ve been standing up. And they’ve been running – you’ve been running – into the building, and that makes a huge difference. Your determination, your skill, your heart, which is also very apparent in the stories that we’ve heard from Katherine, from Marta, from Josh, from Hannah, from Gail, from Michael – that truly is inspiring to me as well.
And to everyone who is joining us today, including folks who are online, as well as everyone here in person, thank you for everything that you’ve done; and thank you for sharing the stories. We know that for each of the six stories, seven stories that we just heard, there are hundreds more – from across the U.S. Government, from across NGOs – from people who stepped up to welcome the 222. And I hope that in some way, as well, we’ll find a way to collect some of those stories and maybe share them with colleagues because – again, I think it’s going to be incredibly inspiring to them.
But these doctors, these political leaders, these journalists, these priests, these others who all came together and found themselves together – as a result of your work – on that plane, they had one thing that connected them, one overriding aspiration, and that was to simply exercise their fundamental freedoms and to try to safeguard the freedom of their fellow citizens. Tragically, in Ortega’s Nicaragua, that’s a crime. It’s why these activists were imprisoned for months and sometimes years; denied visits from their loved ones. Many were held in harsh conditions, little access to sunlight, to fresh air, writing materials, books. One prisoner recalled reading and re-reading the label on a tube of toothpaste.
And as you’ve heard, living with that constant fear that you could be pulled into another cell to be beaten up, to be tortured – the constant fear that you might even be executed. Living with that, every single day, is its own kind of horrific torture.
But it’s precisely because of the power of their message, their actions, the alternative vision that they have for their own country and the way it should treat its own people – it’s exactly why the regime stripped them of their citizenship soon after they came to the United States. That too speaks volumes. But it’s also why we felt compelled to do what we could to bring them to safety. And it’s why the work that all of you did – and did together – was so important.
Now, that work began, in large part, with our colleagues in Embassy Managua who negotiated with the Nicaraguan Government, creating a system to ensure that each of 222 prisoners was accounted for, and – when the moment finally came, during the early morning hours of February 9th – physically escorting them to the airplane and then to their freedom.
Katherine talked about the – waiting for that final confirmation, and I know that’s excruciating. And as this was all happening, and Brian and Erin and others were keeping me informed of what was going on, I have to admit, I wasn’t so sure this was really going to come together. I had a funny feeling, oh, this is going to fall apart. It seems almost – almost too good to be true, but too good to be true because so much work actually goes into this. These things don’t just happen. It takes the incredible effort that started in Managua to actually get it done.
From there, more than 350 – more than 350 of our colleagues from the U.S. Government, as well as partners from the state of Virginia, NGOs – you all took over. You worked around the clock, you worked through the weekend, reuniting prisoners with their loved ones. You interpreted for them. You provided them with food, with clothing, with healthcare. You helped them through the jarring process of starting a new life far from their homes and their communities.
And what I heard also in the stories that were told is I think you all responded in a powerfully human way, because I imagine as you’re there with someone who has just had this absolute sea change in their life, you’re thinking and feeling and understanding how totally jarring and disorienting that is – even in this incredibly positive way. And the humanity that you showed as fellow human beings in helping them navigate this particular passage – that in and of itself was hugely important.
And indeed, it wasn’t just what you did, it’s how you did it: with care, with compassion, by asking each of our Nicaraguan friends how are you doing, are you okay, what do you need – probably a question they hadn’t been asked in a long, long time. By arriving at the tarmac with American colleagues that they knew from the past, they were welcomed by familiar faces. And Marta, I know that must have had a powerful impact on them as well.
As one of the volunteers put it, “The whole operation was successful because we all cared too much to accept anything less.”
Now, because of this work, our Nicaraguan friends are beginning new lives across more than two dozen U.S. states, some now moving on to other countries as well. Some have already jumped back into activism – no surprise – rallying international support and pressure for a better future for their country at the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Summit for Democracy just this week. At the summit, we heard some of these voices. Others are starting the process of opening new businesses, continuing their studies, getting on with their lives that were so violently interrupted by the Nicaraguan regime.
Now, in the months ahead, we have our NGO partners that will continue to support the recent arrivals’ relocation. We have our embassy colleagues who will work to reunify family members in Nicaragua with their newly settled family members in the United States. So, this process goes forward. It carries on.
And at the same time, for us, a government, we’ll join our partners across the hemisphere and around the world to continue to push for a return to democracy and respect for human rights in Nicaragua, while also using all of the diplomatic and economic tools that we have to try to promote accountability for the widespread abuses from the regime.
So, in a very small period of time, in a very intense way, you gave us a reminder of who we are when we’re at our best – which is not every day, but it was in the days that you were engaged in this mission: a country that stands with those on the side of freedom and human rights, and fights for our democratic values around the world. You’ve demonstrated that with your service; you’ve demonstrated that with your dedication.
So, I’m so glad we just had a few moments together, again, to press the pause button, to reflect a little bit on what each of you has done, and to take that with you going forward because this career that all of you have been called to in a variety of ways, I know a lot of days can be frustrating. I know we pile on the work. The inbox gets higher, the resources seem to get – to shrink, and we’re working on all of that. And I know there are days for each of us when we say, is it worth it? Maybe I should be doing something else.
I hope and I believe strongly that this experience is a reminder of what an incredible pursuit this is, what an incredible responsibility we all have, but also what an incredible privilege it is to actually work for, represent your country, and try to make sure that the country that we love and share and the department that we love and share is actually operating at its best. In this instance it was because you were. And I just wanted to thank you on behalf of the President and as a fellow American. Thanks for exemplary work. Thanks for your service to our country. Thank you.