THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Hello, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing with Senior Director Juan Gonzalez. My name is Wes Robertson, and I’m the moderator for today’s briefing.
Senior Director Gonzalez is the White House lead for U.S. policy towards Latin America. He will speak on how the U.S. works with countries in the region to advance democracy, human rights, and prosperity. He will also discuss how the upcoming Summit for Democracy will present a forum for the United States and its allies in the region to develop plans for continued cooperation on combating corruption and improving opportunities for people throughout the hemisphere.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript and video of this briefing on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. Please make sure that your Zoom profile has your full name and the media outlet you represent.
Senior Director Gonzalez will make an opening statement, and then we’ll open it up for questions. Over to you, Senior Director Gonzalez.
MR GONZALEZ: Great. Thanks, Wes. And thank you everybody. I apologize for keeping you waiting a few minutes.
Look, as you know, the President is going to host the Summit for Democracy on December 9th and 10th. He has said that this is the challenge of our time, to demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people, and by addressing the greatest problems facing the wider world. From the first day in office and every day since, the Biden-Harris administration has taken decisive action to restore and strengthen American democracy. It reflects the President’s deeply held belief that in order to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, democracies – we democracies must come together, stand together, and ultimately act together.
I’ll say a couple things on just the three principles of the summit, a little bit on the agenda, and in the regional context, and then I’ll be happy to take your questions.
The three principal themes are, obviously, strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism; the second is fighting corruption, and promoting human rights in our nations around the world. And the idea is that the U.S. Government and other participants will really use that opportunity to engage, to listen, and to speak honestly about the challenges facing democracy in the world. And we the United States are going to have an honest conversation about our challenges in the United States and abroad around this area, but also how likeminded governments and civil society can really work together on these issues, work with the private sector, and make meaningful commitments on an issue.
As you have probably heard, this is going to be a virtual summit, and then the idea is that the summit next year will be in-person. And it’ll be a function of some what we hope are ambitious and concrete commitments, and an invitation to come back will be a measure of how we’ve actually lived up to those commitments.
The virtual forum will bring together 110 governments as well as civil society and private sector leaders. We’re going to have the President, U.S. Cabinet officials, civil society leaders, and foreign leaders. We will have a head of state session. There’ll be a thematic session with governmental and nongovernmental leaders, and it is particularly noteworthy to include given just the diversity and range of actors.
So look, as it relates to Latin America and the Caribbean, I think those of you who follow the region know that the – I think the skepticism with democracy has increased from 50-something percent to 70 percent during the pandemic. This has a lot more to do with the ballot box and a lot to do with a once-in-a-century economic crisis as a result of a pandemic that is leading a lot of the population of the hemisphere to ask whether governments can really deliver the goods.
And so when we think about this issue as it relates to the democracy summit, it has as much to do about the affirmative agenda that the United States can have in terms of the pandemic response, promoting a green and equitable recovery, finding a collaborative approach to addressing migration flows, and then thinking about specific issues related to democracy. And I would kind of say that areas about how you can actually support journalists who are – I see El Faro is on the call – that actually know that they don’t stand alone when they are actually facing challenges against freedom of the press. And those are things where we’re actually trying to mobilize some ambitious commitments and deliverables around each of those issues.
So I’ll leave it there, and I’m happy to answer any questions, expand on any topic.
MODERATOR: All right. We’ll now go ahead and enter our Q&A portion of the program. If you have a question, please go to the participant field and virtually raise your hand. We will call on you, and you can unmute yourself and ask your question. You can also submit questions in the chat box. If you’ve not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet.
So I see we have a number of hands raised. We’ll go ahead and just go in order of how they were raised. The first question will go to Raquel Krahenbuhl from TV Globo. If you unmute yourself and ask your question, please.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Wes. Can you hear me? Yes. Hi Juan, thank you so much for this opportunity. So U.S. officials, one, are saying that Brazil should have a seat on the table because the Brazilian institutions are strong and there is a lot of the Brazilian democracy can teach other countries. But do you think the current president, the Brazilian president, should have a seat since he’s constantly testing Brazil’s democratic institutions? Why is it important to hear from President Bolsonaro? Do you believe he has credibility on this topic?
MR GONZALEZ: I think that – we’re – the list of invitees is broad and diverse, and it includes not just government but civil society leaders and other representatives. The conversation here is about having a very candid discussion of some of the challenges we’re facing. Here in the United States we face our own challenges to democracy, and we want to look inward and make commitments about the way forward.
I think it’s an opportunity for Brazil, which – I think I would argue Brazil’s institutions have endured challenges over time, have demonstrated their robustness, but I think we can always have a conversation about how each of our own democracies can be better. Frankly, I think if you look at the – I think Brazil definitely needs to have a seat at the table because if you look at the trajectory of Brazilian democracy, I think Brazilian democratic institutions have a lot to teach the world about democracy. And I would say that we have participants beyond just the government that can speak to the issue of democracy in Brazil and other parts of the world. I think it’s important for leaders to hear from journalists and civil society on – and help them make their own commitments on how governments can actually be – respond to some of the command signals they’re getting from the population.
QUESTION: Can I just do a follow-up very quickly? Do you believe that President Bolsonaro has credibility on this topic of democracy? And will President Biden ask Brazil and the Brazilian president directly to respect the democratic institutions like the elections, for example? Will the – what will be the message to Brazil?
MR GONZALEZ: What I would say on Brazil – and these are, I think, views that the President has about his relationships with other counterparts in other countries around the world – I think number one is if we are having a debate about how to make sure that voting is more accessible to more people, we make sure that – we’re making sure that every vote counts. If we want to have that conversation and we want to be as supportive as possible, I think the premature and unfounded criticism of an electoral process is something that, to us, strikes a nerve, given what happened here on January 6th.
So I think we’re going to want to have a conversation about how we can make sure that democracy delivers. And we’re not going to agree with everybody. We’re going to be very direct on where we see some of the opportunities and some of the challenges, and that’s going to be true of countries we disagree with as well as countries that we agree with. But frankly, the United States, we’re having our own debates about how to make sure that we’re constructing a more perfect union and a more effective democracy.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Juan.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to José Díaz-Briseño from Reforma.
QUESTION: Thank you to the Foreign Press Center for doing this, and thank you, Juan, for responding to questions. My question, obviously, deals with Mexico. Both critics inside and outside Mexico are worried that the increasing empowerment of the military in Mexico, which has taken over more than 200 functions from civilian hands during the past three years, is a threat to accountability, democracy, and transparency. Is this a trend, militarization in Mexico, that worries the Biden administration?
Also, why is Mexico at the table, given all the violence against journalists that is happening in the country? Are we going to talk about this topic specifically on Mexico?
MR GONZALEZ: Well, look. To answer your second – second part of your question, our hope is to have a very open and candid debate and conversation about these sorts of issues. And so I think what you will see, and I don’t have the full list, you’re going to see not just leaders participating – I think in the case of Mexico it will be Foreign Minister Ebrard that will participate on behalf of Mexico – but we’re going to have an opportunity for journalists to speak about particular challenges in several countries. We’re going to hear from civil society leaders, and we’re going to hear from governments. So the participants have a very open and candid conversation. I don’t think there are any issues that are not on the table, and I think that’s how we should be having these conversations as democracies.
I think the question of militarization, as you know, in Latin America is a historic concern. I think there’s a question about – when you’re talking about Mexican democracy, it is – particularly since 1996, there’s been several advances in how Mexican society has blossomed, how transparency has increased, and I think now the Mexican people, in my own assessment, if I can be so bold as to make an analysis, they’re – they like their democracy. And I think what we want to promote, whether it’s Mexico, whether it’s the United States, or anywhere, is to prompt it to be about where we think our democracies can best deliver and really hold ourselves accountable to our own citizens, make commitments that we will self – we will hold ourselves accountable and be public in the commitments that we’re going to make.
QUESTION: So to be clear, militarization is nothing that worries the White House at all?
MR GONZALEZ: As a general topic, I think we want to evaluate the impact that it has on Mexican society. But I think it’s more important for the Mexican people to make that assessment and I think for us to have an open conversation and I think to have guarantees so that journalists can do their work and provide their analysis and have an open debate about how Mexican democracy can best deliver. It’s not something that the United States can impose on Mexico. Mexico has to decide that for itself. But we should have an open conversation about how broadly democracies really should – and governments have a responsibility to guarantee certain fundamental freedoms, how we can actually do that better, where we feel like we’re potentially falling short.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Our next question will go to Mariana Sanches from BBC News Brazil.
QUESTION: Hi, Juan, thank you so much for having us today. So my question goes back to Brazil. The Brazilian president has already made some comments about alleged fraud in the Brazilian electoral system. What does the White House expect to hear from him now? And also, to which degree are the U.S. concerned about the president respecting the election’s results next year? Thank you.
MR GONZALEZ: Well, I would say that we have confidence in Brazilian institutions and Brazilian democracy to carry out a free and fair election. I think that’s our perspective. I think that we’re always willing to support any country that wants to make sure that they have an electoral system that is making sure that all votes count. And what message do we have for Brazil on this issue is that I think that whether it’s Brazil, whether it’s Nicaragua, whether it’s, frankly, the United States, if we are going to make sure that democracy can deliver and that democracies can endure, we have to stand with those who are working in defense of human rights; those journalists that are making sure that the reporting – have the opportunity to report the news objectively; make sure that people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that duty; and most importantly, that the population of these countries are the ones that determine their future.
I think we have exceptions to that in Latin America and the Caribbean. We saw a recent, quote/unquote, “election” in Venezuela; Nicaragua, where candidates were arrested and jailed to guarantee an outcome in favor of Ortega. And we had our own challenges to democracy here on January 6th. So we need to have this conversation out in the open, as democracies do, not as autocracies do, which is to spin and lie and to misrepresent the actions of government. I think we will hold ourselves open and to account, and I think I would urge the journalists here to really evaluate the conversation and report on it, whether it actually delivered what we hope it will deliver, which is ambitious commitments.
QUESTION: Juan, just to make it clear, do you see any chance that the Brazilian will repeat a January 6 next year after the presidential election?
MR GONZALEZ: Look, I think the United States and our fellow democracies are always going to stand up for democratic values. We have full confidence in the robustness of Brazilian democratic institutions to carry out a free and fair election.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Our next question will go to José Luiz Sanz from El Faro.
QUESTION: Hi, Juan. Thank you for doing this. Sorry for the abuse, but I have three questions. The first one is while my colleagues from Brazil and Mexico asked why their presidents have a spot in the table, my question is why El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua are not invited or present or will not be present at the meeting.
The second one is related with the remarks of the Senator Menendez two days ago asking Ambassador Nichols to consider the possibility of applying sanctions against El Salvador and Nicaragua through CAFTA – I mean applying commercial sanctions against not only Nicaragua but El Salvador.
And the third one is: Has the White House something to say about the possibility that the Salvador Government is illegally spying journalists in El Salvador?
MR GONZALEZ: Thank you, José Luiz. I really want to just applaud the work of El Faro always really being one that is reporting on issues of corruption, but also kind of objectively reporting the news. It’s not always an easy task, but I really admire the work that you all are doing. And I think journalists throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and other parts of the world often put their lives at risk just to make sure that (inaudible) reporting the facts.
Look, I think we would have loved to have the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador at the democracy summit. But we’re – we’ve seen some concerning actions I think with El Salvador specifically. I think confusing popularity with a mandate to change democratic institutions has undermined them, including using the legislative – sending out armed soldiers to kind of the legislative assembly, illegally dismissing judges and replacing them with loyalists, and essentially shutting down access to public information, refusing to take action on corruption. And I would say what we have seen within a – an active and government-sponsored disinformation campaign, including against our ambassador, are just elements of why we don’t think that El Salvador is – is perhaps either ready or will contribute productively to the conversation that we’re going to have. And we would continue engage constructively and wanting to make sure that we can get there with all of the countries.
And Guatemala as well. I mean, you all – you know the actions by Attorney General Consuelo Porras’s office and the threats against civil society we have seen publicly; decided to pull her visa. We’ve passed legislation that makes it easier for the United States to actually suspend the visas of officials that are involved in corruption, and these are tools that we are using. But we are very concerned about widespread corruption in Guatemala and one where judicial institutions are facilitating or even protecting it, particularly, I would say, Consuelo Porras.
And look – and though Honduras had a – we recognize Honduras as a democracy and a longstanding partner, I think we had some serious concerns about matters that have been unaddressed on corruption. I would say maybe look forward to welcoming Xiomara Castro next year if we’re seeing some progress. We’ve heard some initial positive signals like the invitation of MACCIH to come back to help Honduras combat corruption. We see that as a very positive signal and look forward to engaging with that government once it’s inaugurated in January.
Look, on the matter of sanctions, I think this is a question, if we step back, of sanctions as a tool to promote a change in behavior or an outcome. The Treasury Department recently undertook a review of sanctions policy, and they pointed out that often sanctions are for us a tool of first resort without really an analysis of what the strategy is and what the outcome that we want to provoke is – promote is. And I think the most important thing here – and I think when it comes to Nicaragua, I would look at it as emblematic of what our approach is and will be when it comes to these sorts of concerns around the hemisphere.
The first is mobilizing a broad international coalition around these issues. The widespread condemnation of what happened in Nicaragua is overwhelming, received probably the highest vote in the Organization of American States in recent memory given just the widespread concern. And that happens because the U.S. isn’t acting unilaterally. It’s actually engaging our partners and consulting to make sure that we are kind of moving forward together when it comes to kind of using carrots and sticks to encourage constructive behavior.
When it comes to CAFTA sanctions, look, we are looking at all these tools and we’re doing it in a way that will allow us to move forward together with our international partners, which is much more important, but more importantly in a way that does not punish the people of a country because a small group of individuals is engaged in corrupt action. So I think really prioritizing focus and narrow sanctions that target particular individuals who are involved in activity as opposed to a broad net that can punish people that – whose really only crime is living in a country with – in, like, for example, Nicaragua with an autocratic leader.
So this is an approach that, of course, we consult with Congress on, and we’re going to continue to have conversations with Senator Menendez, whose views are incredibly important to us. And ultimately, whatever outcome is something we’re going to be talking to him about, but we want to make sure that we’re actually having – working toward an outcome and having a strategy that is coherent and coordinated across the international community.
It’s a long response to your question. I apologize.
QUESTION: No, thank you. And about the possibility of illegal wiretapping or espionage against journalists?
MR GONZALEZ: Well, look, that is incredibly concerning. Any sort of reports of that anywhere are incredibly concerning and I think show, as I mentioned, I think a fear of the truth, right, and of the work of journalists to just do their job. So we take those matters very seriously, and obviously we’ll respond to what have been a myriad of just concerning actions by the part of the government, including, as I was saying, government-sponsored disinformation campaigns directed at political enemies but also at our ambassador, whose only interest really is on advancing a constructive and positive relationship with El Salvador based on a shared respect for democratic values.
MODERATOR: All right. Moving along, our next question will be from Rafael Balgo from Folha del São Paulo.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for this briefing. My question is: How the U.S. will act to stimulate and to help other countries to reach the goals they will do in the summit? And if you can talk a little bit more about consequences. You mentioned right now that sanctions that will be more narrow, but do you have other tools to act against countries that do some wrong things in democracy?
MR GONZALEZ: Thank you. Look, the first thing I’ll say is that – and the United States as it relates to the Western Hemisphere, we have a national security interest in promoting the region’s development as free and fair democracies. You’ll recall, I mean, as opposed to other parts of the world, we’re a region that has not been at war in a very, very long time, and we resolve our issues and our disagreements through disputes – through dialogue. That for us is seen as a strategic reserve where we have a hemisphere that resolves and collaborates and argues.
And so – but for us to be able to advance that effectively and to kind of defend this international consensus in favor of democracy – as you know, next year is the 20-year anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter – the first thing we have to do is make sure that we’re not applying – exercising selective moral outrage on matters of democracy. If somebody was elected that we don’t necessarily agree with, we shouldn’t compromise on those values. We should recognize that the people of those countries have made a decision to vote.
Number two is I think we – if we’ve learned anything from the Cold War is that the United States is not a political actor in these countries, and there are limits to what the United States can do unilaterally, particularly when it comes to matters of democratic breakdown, and that there are often no immediate solutions to some of these challenges.
And so what I would say in terms of commitments, we are mobilizing – I’m not going to get out ahead of the President’s announcements, but we are going to really look to mobilize resources to do things, for example, to defend journalists as they obviously are often attacked judicially solely for just reporting, finding a way to really make sure that we can help expand the support for the work of journalists. And we have several other initiatives that are going to come out to support civil society and the democratic process, but also one of the areas where we’re increasingly concerned about in Latin America is the use of disinformation to shape outcomes other than those that have been determined by voters.
So we’re going to encourage ambitious commitments. We want those to be public. One of the eight ways that we’re going to enforce that is I think by making sure that those who get invited back to the in-person meeting are ones who have actually lived up to those commitments. The other is particularly as it relates to Latin America and the Caribbean is mobilizing, I think, the international community around these issues. The other is always working actively to support democratic actors inside of these countries, including journalists. And yes, we also have sticks – issues of sanctions policy and other elements – but we have to use them in a way that they actually have impact, not just because they make us feel like we’re doing something is, I really think, an important distinction.
QUESTION: Just one quick follow-up. You mentioned disinformation. Do you have any plans to work with companies’ technologies to address this problem such as the big tech?
MR GONZALEZ: Yeah. So you’re – at this point you’re getting out of my kind of expertise, but I know this is an area where we not just in the Western Hemisphere but around the world we are going to look to scale up and do as much as we can. And I think that will include probably some conversations with technology companies on this.
I’ll mention there’s been increasing concern as Colombia goes into its own electoral cycle the increasing amount of disinformation that is coming from outside of the country that is intended to disrupt the democratic process. For a key ally, that’s an area where, for example, we’re going to really take a special look to try to make sure in Colombia we’re supporting an environment where it’s the Colombians that decide who votes and that they’re not manipulated by external forces.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right, our next question will go to Juan Merlano from Caracol.
QUESTION: Thank you very much to the Foreign Press Center and to Director Gonzalez for this press briefing. Director, talking a little bit about sanctions, I’m looking to the actualization of the OFAC list regarding FARC and the names that you are dropping. There is one name – Géner García Molina aka John 40, John Cuarenta – the thing is that this individual is a dissident. He’s member of Segunda Marquetalia. He even is, according to Colombian authorities, one of the persons that manages the finance of the Segunda Marquetalia. Was this a mistake?
MR GONZALEZ: Let me get you more information, because I know – I’m familiar with John Cuarenta, but I don’t have the background because it’s – the list that was announced was a long list of names that included people from around the world, and so we can get you more background on that.
QUESTION: All right. The other thing is just to follow up about what you just said regarding Colombia. Does the U.S. has any information regarding a possible, I don’t know, interference from foreign actors in terms of the – who are looking forward to the elections next year?
MR GONZALEZ: So we have seen, I think, an increase in not – I mean, throughout the hemisphere, I mean, active disinformation campaigns, but I think increasingly we’re starting to see troll farms and social media efforts to kind of shape perceptions in Colombia. There – so it’s something that we’re looking into and we’re working with Colombians to make sure that we’re responding to those and that we’re assuring the accurate reporting of information and that you actually have a debate based on the facts.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question will go to Susana Samhain, Arias.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for taking my questions. I would like to know within the long list of participants if you could please, Juan, explain this a little bit more about which was the criteria to select the participants. And also, can we assume that the countries that have not invited are considered by the U.S. non-democratic countries or authoritarian regimes? Also I would like to know if also reading this list of participants, how can we expect to hear from any specific commitment and also that – if the participants are going to comply with those commitments? How is the U.S. going to invite them or pressure them to fulfill those commitments? Thank you.
MR GONZALEZ: Okay, thanks, Susana. And I will have to get you more information on specifically how we’ll follow up, but the idea is that each leader will have an opportunity to kind of do a video, and I believe that – to be able to kind of lay out publicly what some of their commitments are going to be. So part of it will be obviously the work of journalists, but I think we’re going to formalize how we’re going to track some of those commitments that are going to be put forward. But I think we can get you more information on how we will kind of formally put out there all the commitments that not just the United States but other countries have made and how they’re being kind of measured.
The – I would say that no, there – some of the countries that were not invited may be democratic, but they have some very concerning activities that have led us to exclude them from this round of elections. I would say obviously Cuba’s not invited, Nicaragua’s not invited, obviously Nicolas Maduro is not but Juan Guaido is. And – but at the same time you have democracies I think that are facing some challenges in places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. So I wouldn’t cast it as a broad kind of assessment of what countries have chosen and which ones were not.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I think we – I know we have more hands raised, but I think we’re out of time. So if you would like to make a closing statement, sir.
MR GONZALEZ: Great. Look, at the end of the day, look, this democracy summit is about not just governments and how we make sure that we’re responding to the needs of our people, but frankly it’s about – it’s about you all and I think an important role that you all play to making sure that we have robust and vibrant democracies where we can have an open debate. We hope that some of these commitments are ones that will help you do your job even if sometimes you report on things in a way that is critical of us. I think democracies should lay that open so that we can be held accountable by our own people. So I would ask you to do the same of what is announced at the summit, kind of do your own evaluation and your reporting on whether it actually is going to hit the mark.
Secondly, I would say that for us the objective is to use that summit as a springboard to some of the conversations we’re going to want to have in the run-up to the Summit of the Americas, which we – the United States will host next summer. And what comes out of those conversations we want to really have them feed into everything that we’re doing to prepare for the Summit of the Americas. So it’s not the end of a conversation. It will be the beginning for us of a long – of a sprint toward the summer of 2022.
We have a couple things that I think we’re going to get back to folks on that I wrote down. And so, Wes, through NSC press we’ll try to make sure that whatever we can share we’ll circle back with folks. But I really want to thank everybody for their time, and I look forward to maybe having a conversation on the margins or after the summit so we can kind of take stock of what was accomplished.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. This concludes our briefing. I want to give special thanks to our briefer for sharing his time with us today and those of you that participated. Have a good day..