The Secretary's Global Diaspora Forum

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
Washington, DC
May 18, 2011

Good afternoon! It’s a pleasure to be here. I know that you’ve been through an intense but productive two days here at the State Department and my mother raised me well, so I will do what any good concluding speaker does in this situation, I will be brief.

I want to thank our Special Representative for Global Partnerships, Kris Balderston and Thomas DeBass for convening this important event. The Secretary could not have chosen a better person to forge the new partnerships while strengthening the traditional relationships upon which our foreign policy is based.

As the Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs, I believe this is a great forum to share with you some of the ways in which we are integrating the diasporas into our policy making processes and programs. But it is especially fulfilling to share my personal enthusiasm for this partnership and its tremendous potential because I am a fellow diasporan.

Like many of you here today, I was born outside the United States. I can recall some of my earliest memories as a 5 year old boy living in Cuba, of the olive clad, bearded rebels who drove past our house on the road to Havana in the midst of the revolution.

Those memories were soon followed by those of family friends who disappeared in the middle of the night; condemned to the firing squads or escaping to Miami. My father was one of a handful of lawyers in our town, and it wasn’t long before he had to make the wrenching decision to leave the country he loved. I was 11 years old when we fled Cuba, spent 3 months in Spain, and settled in a strange place called New Jersey.

We didn’t know what the future held for us, but our family was together and we had comfort in the hope that our new home would fulfill its promise of freedom and opportunity.

My family’s story is not unique to Cuban-Americans. It is shared by the millions who came to begin a new life in America, whether to flee political persecution, escape the ravages of war, or pursue a better life for their children. The circumstances that determined our paths to America may differ for all of us, but we all carry the same scars that come from uprooted lives and a semblance of unfulfilled hope for the homes we left behind.

At the same time, as those who have lived a “life on the hyphen”, we have been enriched by the renewal and opportunity that comes from living in the freest, largest and most diverse democracy in the world. And we are grateful.

However, if you’re like me, the deep connection to the lands of our early lives only sharpens the sense of duty we have to help uplift those that remain there, and to do so in a way that benefits our new nation.

As President Clinton once said: “Americans speak every language, know every country. People on every continent can look to us and see the reflection of their own great potential, and they always will, as long as we strive to give all of our citizens, whatever their background, an opportunity to achieve their own greatness.”

Because of this belief, it has been especially rewarding for me to help the Secretary and the President implement a vision of foreign policy for the 21st century in which our ability to achieve our traditional goals of advancing global stability, ensuring our own security, creating jobs, and projecting our values and leadership is rooted in the need to improve lives, fight poverty, expand rights and opportunities, strengthen communities, and support secure democratic institutions and governance throughout the world. In other words, our strength and security are best ensured by increasing prosperity and opportunity in other countries. This is a principal cornerstone of this administration’s view of the world.

It is no coincidence that this policy, which places development on the same pillar as defense and diplomacy, speaks to the hopes and desires of millions of diaspora in the U.S. who want to make a difference. Yet this foreign policy recognizes that the vast global challenges are too big for one nation, even the United States, to meet alone. The scope and complexity of the challenges we face require new partnerships, innovative approaches, and the engagement of all sectors of society. What we are trying to do at the State Department is go beyond the traditional views of state-to-state engagement. Our approach requires the contributions and engagement of civil societies abroad and of diaspora here at home to ensure that we are living up to the challenge.

So let me briefly touch on two examples of how our foreign policy approach is not simply about talking with the diaspora, but incorporating their contributions as core components of our work.


First, the events in the North Africa and the Middle East have demonstrated that neither culture, form of government, nor geography can suppress the universal desire for economic opportunity, dignity and hope.

Upon taking office, the President and the Secretary made the reorientation of our engagement with the people in each country in the Middle East region, a priority of our foreign policy.

We here in State Department answered that call, and months before what we now call the ‘Arab Spring’ took hold, we had already launched a major effort.

Under the banner of the Secretary’s initiative to engage the Muslim world, the Partners for a New Beginning, I launched the US North African Partnership for Economic Opportunity or NAPEO.

This project focuses specifically on the Maghreb region to address one of the most significant factors contributing to instability – the dire lack of jobs and economic opportunity, especially among youth.

NAPEO is unique in that its foundation is building and establishing people-to-people contacts, requiring the direct involvement of the diasporas from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania. And we’ve already reached out to them here. Before the Arab Spring even began, we were fortunate enough to have already established local advisory boards in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, ensuring this was a truly collaborative undertaking that responds to these countries’ unique needs.

Moreover, we had begun establishing platforms for entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders in the United States and North Africa to help train youth, create jobs through new start-ups, and foster entrepreneurship through mentoring. The uprisings have caused us to re-double our commitment to make NAPEO a success.

Just last week my staff was in Silicon Valley meeting with Maghreb diaspora entrepreneurs and investors, because we know that diaspora investors tend to have a higher risk tolerance and commitment to the development of their home country. We know that our diaspora can be our vanguard as we move to intensify our economic engagement.


We already secured significant commitments of time and resources for NAPEO, and I believe that this initiative can be a model of integrating views and contributions of the diaspora into our policies and programs going forward.


Another initiative I am leading is the Building Remittance Investment for Development Growth and Entrepreneurship – or BRIDGE – initiative.

There’s been much discussion here over these past few days about the power and development impact of remittances, and I’m pleased that this is another area in which the Secretary has put the State Department’s best foot forward.

We all know that remittances are among the largest sources of foreign exchange in the world today, more than $300 billion worldwide. But it’s more than mere numbers. Remittances have the potential to deliver an exponentially larger impact beyond the immediate relief and ability to put bread on the table for those who depend on them.

Simply put, BRIDGE is a partnership among State, USAID, OPIC and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and is creating partnerships with strong and reliable financial institutions to help close the gap to one of the biggest obstacles to sustainable development and economic growth in emerging economies: the lack of available financing for longer term investment, specifically in infrastructure; the power plants, roads and ports that developing countries need to lift their people out of poverty.

This project begins with the premise that the Salvadoran hairdresser in New York will send her children in San Salvador money each month to put food on the table, but that she would like to do far more.

She would like that money to have a double impact, helping at home and in the community, by putting lights in her children’s classrooms at school. Having worked in the private sector in Latin America for several decades enabling infrastructure investment, I know of the transformative power of simply building a road – for example –so that farmers can finally bring their goods to market.

But the scale of capital needed for these types of investments – in roads and electricity, for example – is beyond the reach of too many governments in the developing world. This initiative aims to close this gap by leveraging these remittance flows in a way that is innovative, tried and tested throughout the world, and – most importantly – safe.

Let me just close with a story that I think illustrates the potential of diaspora. My first as Assistant Secretary of State took me to Spain. And there, I met with our Ambassador, who started to show me around the Embassy. There were beautiful chandeliers and beautiful carpets and the like, and he asked me what else I would like to see. I told him I’d like to see the waiting room at the Embassy. He was puzzled. The waiting room is a nondescript room with government issued chairs, Formica tables and a glass partition. The glass partition separated the people waiting for a visa from everyone else.

I wanted to see the waiting room because after we had left Cuba, for six weeks straight, my father and I sat in that room, waiting. And we talked about what it would be like to be on the other side of that glass wall. The day we got our visa, my father was so proud and it was one of the happiest days of his life.

Diasporas help us break down walls, be they glass, brick, virtual, whatever. They build bridges to communities we need to reach. They are the best, you are the best, ambassadors of what this country has to offer and of how we can work with other communities.

With that, I want to thank you again for taking the time to attend this forum and for letting me share a little bit of my story with you. I hope this is only the beginning of a longer relationship among all of us, where we can continue to combine our ideas and passion for development in our native countries with the power of creative partnerships with our new homeland -- all while never losing site of the goal of making a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

Thank you, and now, let’s toast to this day!