Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region. This is an on-the-record press briefing with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung, and National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez.
The three officials will discuss their recent travel to Ecuador as part of the presidential delegation to attend the inauguration of President Guillermo Lasso. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will give opening remarks and then all three officials are available to take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation in Spanish for this briefing. I request everyone to keep that in mind and speak slowly.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Thank you very much, and good afternoon, everyone. I had the privilege of leading a delegation to include Acting Assistant Secretary Chung and Senior Advisor Gonzalez on behalf of President Biden, to celebrate Ecuador’s elections and the inauguration of President Lasso.
Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of a democratic society like Ecuador, and they set a positive example for other democracies in the region and are the ultimate expression of the fundamental values that the people of the United States and Ecuador share. On the trip, in addition to meeting with President Lasso, we had the opportunity and the pleasure of meeting with other leaders from around the region who were attending the inauguration, including a number of foreign ministers as well as heads of state. We also had the opportunity to meet with humanitarian organizations and UN partners on the ground. We discussed the ongoing response to the refugee and migration crisis across the region. And of course I had the chance to meet with our wonderful staff at the U.S. embassy and consulate in Ecuador, who are serving our country admirably.
President Biden sent his very first presidential delegation to Ecuador to honor our shared democratic values and our commitment to working together to address the challenges and opportunities before us. We look forward to increasing our cooperation and confronting regional challenges in the days and weeks and months to come.
I would love to take a couple of questions from you, and I will leave Senior Director Gonzalez and Assistant – Acting Assistant Secretary Chung to answer further questions. Thank you very much for your attention.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question goes to Gabriela Castro of TC Television in Ecuador. The question is addressed to the ambassador. “In his presidential speech, President Guillermo Lasso referred to the free trade agreement. In that sense, what is your outlook on the economic relationship between Ecuador and the U.S., and what is President Biden’s opinion about the establishment of the new government in Ecuador?”
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Well, let me start with the last part of your question first, and that is how President Biden feels about the new government and the elections in Ecuador. I think the fact that he sent a delegation, and my serving as a member of his Cabinet, so a senior delegation, and this is the first presidential delegation that he has deployed, says everything about how he feels about what is happening in Ecuador – a free and fair election, democracy, a democratic government in the region is a huge, huge example for us, and I think I can say without a doubt that the President was delighted to have sent this delegation and to congratulate the president.
In terms of how we look to work with the government, particularly on its economy, we know that the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on countries in the region, on their economies, and certainly that is the case with Ecuador. So we do look forward to working with the government to help President Lasso address the issues that he will be facing, the challenges that he will be facing moving forward in terms of establishing a government – a transparent government, a government that attracts new investment, a government that creates jobs, and a government that addresses the needs of the people. These are all things that we value and they are areas that we intend to work with the government on addressing.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Jorge Agobian of Voice of America.
Question: Hello. Thank you for doing this. My question is related to the humanitarian crisis in the region, as you mentioned. More and more Venezuelans are arriving every day to the U.S. border. There are groups of up to 60 people coming to – all the way north from South America and escaping from the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Is the U.S. Government aware of this situation at the border, and is this something that you are assessing, and, if so, how? Thank you so much.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Good. Thank you very much for that question. I mentioned in my brief remarks that I had the opportunity to meet with humanitarian organizations, including the UNHCR, World Food Program, and the International Organization for Migration. And with those organizations I did discuss the impact that the migrants from Venezuela were having on the region as well as looking more broadly on how we might address those. So the answer to – the simple answer to your question is yes, we are aware.
A second answer is we are concerned and we are looking at how we work with countries in the region, particularly with Mexico but also the countries in the Northern Triangle to address some of the migration issues and the difficult situation that migrants are facing. We think that the best option for migrants is to let us try to assist them in place because their trek to the border is treacherous. I was hearing from one government that I met with that when people arrived in their countries, many of them were suffering from medical problems – they had snake bites, many of them were malnourished, and all of the humanitarian agencies working in the region are trying to address these difficult challenges that large numbers of migrants pose for them, but particularly for the countries that they are migrating into. So this is a huge priority for us and something that we’re working with the region to address.
Let me thank you very much. I’m going to have to drop off the line now but I leave you in the good hands of Juan and Julie, and I look forward to meeting and working with you again.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question comes from Lenin Artieda of Ecuavisa in Ecuador. “Did you talk about a possible visit by President Biden to Ecuador?”
Mr. Gonzalez: Well, we talked about a conversation that was led – this is Juan, by the way – the – as the ambassador mentioned, the conversation with President Lasso was really focused on how the United States could support his priorities to address obviously the impact of the pandemic, to support and promote the country’s economic recovery, and really to also back the vision that President Lasso has to ensure that Ecuador’s economic prosperity is something that is broadly shared. The words in his speech, his inauguration speech, on being a president that works not just for the few but actually for all Ecuadorians is something that really resounds with us.
And so that’s something that we’re going to seek to do at every level of engagement across the Biden-Harris administration. And just underscoring it’s the first – as the ambassador mentioned, it’s the first presidential delegation led at the Cabinet level that we did anywhere in the world, and I think it was appropriate to do it in a country like Ecuador.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Gustau Alegret of NTN 24.
Question: Thank you, Juan, and thank you for doing this. Thank you, Namita, for this opportunity. A quick question regarding to the vaccines. President Lasso mentioned in his speech the – his inaugural speech that he has a commitment to vaccinate almost 9 million Ecuadorians in the next 100 days. I was wondering if the U.S. is going to help Ecuador and also maybe many other – any other Latin American countries, but particularly Ecuador, in his objectives, sharing vaccines or donating vaccines in that particular topic? Any commitment from the U.S.?
Mr. Gonzalez: So, Gustau, I think the – so what the ambassador mentioned to President Lasso, and we’re very aware of his commitment, was that obviously you’ve seen the President’s announcement that we’re going to provide 80 million vaccines, and of course Latin America is one of the most affected if not the most affected region in the world, is going to be a focus of our efforts to combat the pandemic.
What the administration has rolled out – and much of this you can find in the fact sheet – is that there’s going to be an approach that is obviously sharing vaccines through the COVAX facility is going to be a priority, make sure that we’re upholding international norms. We’re going to share some of these vaccines also bilaterally and looking at countries that have the – have the highest cases, highest cases [inaudible] and/or spikes in contagion is going to be the focus of the global response that the United States will lead.
Beyond that, really, a lot of this has to do with preparing for future pandemics, and so making sure that we’re expanding manufacturing and production capability around the world. That was done out of the President’s announcement following his meeting with the Quad, but also looking to make sure that the hemisphere has the production capability given that, that is one of the constraints that has been facing other countries.
So certainly in the conversation with President Lasso we talked about how there is a genuine national security interest in the United States supporting Ecuador and the rest of the countries in the region being able to successfully combat the pandemic.
Ms. Chung: And I’d like to add, apart from vaccines, the United States Government has of course provided $20 million dollars to Ecuador in COVID-19 assistance. That includes State and USAID on transportation logistics, emergency food assistance, community outreach, supporting refugees in the communities, in addition to mobile health clinics and two field hospitals. So this is, again, an ongoing effort. And as Juan has referred to on addressing preventing future pandemics, we’re also committed to helping strengthening health systems in Ecuador and the region in order to address these kinds of pandemic challenges in the future.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Mariano Beldyk of Diario Perfil of Argentina.
Question: Hi, Mr. Gonzalez, Ms. Chung. Thank you very much for this opportunity. My question is related to the topic you mentioned recently, the one about vaccines. One of the meetings you hold there when you were in Ecuador was with Foreign Affairs Minister Felipe Sola from Argentina. He then tweeted about that meeting that there was a proposition from Argentina to use airplanes for logistics [inaudible] of the vaccine. I would like to ask you if the – if it’s possible to know any more data – details, sorry – about that talk with Felipe Sola and about that offering of Argentina airplanes.
Mr. Gonzalez: Thank you for the question. So in the conversation with Foreign Minister Sola, we talked about – the ambassador talked about a range of issues from – obviously from the pandemic. Right now Argentina has the highest rate of infections in the world, and so that’s what we talked about – the need to work together to respond to the pandemic.
Certainly one of the challenges is going to be the delivery of vaccines. So they made that offer and we committed to consulting closely with them as we – as the President moves forward with the administration’s decisions to share vaccines and to, as you mentioned, create capacity for future pandemics and to expand production capability.
I would note that Argentina also has an agreement with Mexico to produce AstraZeneca doses in Mexico. So there are a lot of different conversations that are taking place about how to make sure that we are supporting the regional response.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Carla Angola of EVTV.
Question: Thank you so much, and thank you for talking with us today. Mr. Gonzalez, I wanted to take the opportunity to ask you if you spoke about the situation in Venezuela since President Lasso spoke of the end of the era of the caudillos. I would also like to know if the negotiations with the Maduro regime were discussed with President Lasso, also if you can tell us where we are in that negotiation. We understand that the regime will present a proposal now – what proposal – or what proposal would be sufficient for the United States and if this negotiation attempt has been set a time limit for it to be successful? And if it fails, what would be the next step? Thank you so much.
Mr. Gonzalez: Great. Thank you for that question, Carla. So with President Lasso, we did talk about – briefly about Venezuela, but more – so we talked about how the pandemic and its economic impact is aggravating some of the existing inequalities that exist in our societies, and I include the United States among that. Obviously, a lot of the protests that are taking place in Colombia today are a result of a year of lockdowns where people are frustrated. And so we talked about how we need to work together beyond just the vaccination to make sure that governments are delivering and that democracies are delivering. So that was the main topic of conversation.
But I’ll tell you that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield raised the issue of Venezuela in I think every meeting that she had, and you may have seen that she met with Julio Borges and Leopoldo Lopez to talk with them about what they saw as the way forward and to reiterate and reaffirm U.S. support for the people of Venezuela and for Venezuelan democracy.
So look, I can’t speak to the specific conversations that are taking place between the interim government and the regime with regard to negotiations. We’re not involved in any sort of preparations that are taking place between the regime and the government. I understand Norway is playing a role. What we have made clear is what the President has said from the campaign trail and has been consistent since his inauguration on January 20th, which is he believes that the May 2018 elections were illegitimate, and so therefore, we do not recognize the government of Nicolas Maduro; we recognize Juan Guaido as the interim president, as the head of the democratically elected National Assembly. That’s the first point.
The second point is we see a negotiated process that leads to free and fair elections as the way forward, and the United States is going to focus on expanding international support for that. We have made clear that we are going to be very focused on humanitarian actions and so anything that is something that is supportive of the Venezuelan people is something that we’re going to do and that includes the decision by the President to extend temporary protected status to Venezuelans already in the United States, but obviously, providing humanitarian assistance wherever possible, including to Venezuela’s neighbors.
The other is that in terms of just a time limit, is that any sort of negotiations need to be serious, they need to be concrete, they need to be irreversible, and they need to be timebound. That – those are the criteria that we’ve been very clear about. And that the United States with the international community is going to continue to increase pressure on the regime until there are concrete steps in that direction. And so if the talks – that is true if – to ensure that we’re supporting a negotiated outcome, but if talks fail, the policy remains which is that we’re going to continue to work with the international community to pressure the regime to take concrete steps to – towards free and fair elections, and those are – there are many things that are – that that includes. I’m not going to list them all now. But it’s something where we are working actively to make sure that we are broadening international consensus in favor of democracy in the country.
Moderator: We have time for one last question, and the last question goes to David Alandete of ABC.
Question: Hi there. Thank you so much for taking my question. I wanted to ask you about how concerned are you about the [inaudible] of China supporting, like, interfering in several economic aspects about the [inaudible]? They’re [inaudible] economy problems, and there have been some reports about China getting into other areas of Ecuador, like [inaudible] investments, like infrastructure, technology. And we’ve seen, like, some warnings coming from the administration towards, like, what China is doing in other parts of the world, but I just wanted to know specifically if there is any concern, like, about the situation of, like, China entering some markets in Ecuador? Thank you so much.
Mr. Gonzalez: Yeah, so I’ll say something, and then I know Acting Assistant Secretary Chung, who’s been I think one of the – kind of one of the champions on this issue throughout the hemisphere can speak to some of the specifics.
What I’ll say is – the first point I’ll say is the United States – China is one the United States’ largest trading partners. So we don’t look down upon trade with China, and other countries will pursue their economic interests, and that is something that I think any country that supports the security and prosperity of their country and region they’re actually supporting kind of the U.S. – the interest of the United States.
The question is not the quantity, but the process, and so it is incredibly important for the United States to make sure that we have transparent and accountable procurement systems that – for example, when we are actually working as an international community to respond to the pandemic, it is not with the intent of imposing political pressure on a country, but rather because it is in our interest to combat the pandemic around the world, that when either – whether it’s governments or even private actors, that they’re being held to a certain standard. That’s why we have the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It actually creates a clear bar so that when U.S. companies are investing abroad, they have to follow certain standards because, ultimately, there’s a lot of – there’s a problem with corruption throughout the hemisphere. And that we – it is in our interest to actually work to make sure that we are, I think, working all together to combat corruption, to create transparency, and to ensure that governments are responding to the needs of their people.
So again, it’s not about the commercial dimensions of that investment, but rather, the characteristics of that investment. Julie, anything you want to add?
Ms. Chung: Sure, I’ll add to that as well. We are Ecuador’s largest trading partner, and China is Ecuador’s second-largest trading partner. So of course, the United States, we all have trading relationships and investment relationships with China and a number of countries around the world. I think as Juan has emphasized, what’s important when looking and considering trade and investment decisions is to look at environmental standards, labor standards, procurement transparency, good governance. Those are all things that all of us, each of our countries need, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic to be able to rebuild and to attract more private sector investment and to grow our economies in the months and years ahead.
So we are committed to working with Ecuador to build – to help build out capacity, to build those measures and investment screening measures, and looking at technology in that way and whether it’s data integrity or illegal fishing, to make sure that the needs of the people of Ecuador and the region are met, and that these decisions really reflect a long-term benefit to the people of Ecuador.
Moderator: Thank you. I want to offer our two officials the opportunity to make any remarks in closing, if you’d like.
Mr. Gonzalez: Look, what I’ll say just briefly is this was the first – again, this is the first in-person presidential delegation by the Biden-Harris administration. And so the first point I would make is that there is a very big difference between virtual diplomacy and in-person diplomacy, and so the Ambassador had a great opportunity to interact not just with the Government of Ecuador, but she met with the foreign ministers of Argentina, of Costa Rica, of Guatemala, Chile, met with the president of the Dominican Republic, the president of Haiti. And I think the chorus and the consistent theme throughout was that the countries of the region are welcoming re-engagement by the United States, number one, that the challenges – the most pressing challenges that we are facing as a region and, frankly, as a – as a world are shared challenges. The need to combat the pandemic, which does not respect borders or ideology or economic status, but also climate change which is something that is impacting all of us – the United States and the countries of the region. And it was a really kind of energetic exchange of ideas of how the United States and the countries of the region could really work together. And I think that really sets the stage for the conversations and the plans that we have going into the Summit of the Americas which the United States will host next year at a date to be announced.
Ms. Chung: Yeah, and I’ll add that not only was this the first presidential delegation by this administration, but it was Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s first trip abroad as our ambassador to the United Nations, and since the past year because of the COVID pandemic, she has not been able to travel. So I think that brings extra significance for her first international trip in her role, to go to our region, to go to Ecuador, and to really underscore the importance of democracy and good governance and freedom in this hemisphere.
I think it was very emotional for all of us to see that, see the transition of power, and to hear from the new president his commitment for helping the people of his country and for us to work in close coordination as we face some of the greatest challenges I think our hemisphere has faced at this current time. So we were very energized by all the meetings not only with Ecuadorian officials, but officials from throughout the region and to underscore, again, U.S. commitment to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I want to thank our officials for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a good day.