U.S. Policy in the Caribbean

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Washington, DC
June 27, 2011

Thank you Cheryl for that kind introduction.

As you just heard, I am the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. However, following the recommendations of the first ever Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, QDDR, my position will be transitioned into the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights -- recognizing the importance of civilian security not only in our words and deeds, but in the very way we are organizing our foreign policy establishment.

The central theme I would like to talk about today is opportunity -- how we can seize it and use it to build the future that we in the United States and our neighbors and partners in the Caribbean countries want to achieve.

Just last week, Secretary Clinton and I traveled to Guatemala to show our commitment to working with the Central Americans on a strategy to promote civilian security.

We underscored the necessity of a comprehensive regional approach to these challenges so we don’t merely push violence from one country to another or from one region to another. If you follow what has been happening in Central America, you know exactly what I mean. The successful work in Colombia to overcome criminal gangs and the increasing effectiveness of the Mexican Government have squeezed the drug traffickers, shifting their destructive and destabilizing activities to Central America.

When she left Guatemala, Secretary Clinton traveled to Jamaica, where she reiterated her commitment to citizen security at the High Level Caribbean-U.S. Dialogue. She emphasized the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative as one part of a broader regional security approach and announced a 70% increase in funding for fiscal year 2011 for this initiative.

I’d like to take a moment to discuss how we can stop this cycle of civilian insecurity. How do we move from bold ambitions and weak institutions to strong rule of law and stable communities?

I would argue that, much like the negative trends I just mentioned, our efforts toward civilian security in the Americas do not exist in isolation from one another. We cannot succeed in addressing citizen security over the long term without addressing the underlying causes of social dislocation and disaffection that lead to violence, drug abuse, and corruption.

Indeed, our success depends on many moving parts—many antidotes to the overall weakness we seek to displace.

Today, I would like to talk about three of those antidotes. The first is what we would call institutional reform -- or investing in the building blocks of the security sector to secure rule of law and protect human rights. The second is another kind of investment -- in our youth. We must identify and promote alternate opportunities for our young people so they can make good choices for themselves and for society. And third, we must recommit to ourselves human rights for all people -- including the traditionally marginalized and abused, such as women, ethnic minorities and LGBT communities.

On the first point, we must continue to invest in the institutional framework that provides accountability for criminals and recourse for victims. Without this basic structure, our pursuit of societies governed justly through rule of law is like a skeleton without a backbone.

Our investment must take several forms -- from basic equipment and infrastructure to extensive training and curriculum development.

In the Caribbean, the Department of State and other U.S. agencies work through the CARICOM member states and the Dominican Republic, and other regional security organizations to strengthen national and regional capacity to address the challenges and priorities of member states. Security programs range from logistical support to control maritime borders to capacity building for law enforcement regional data sharing, police professionalization, border security, and other justice sector reform efforts.

We have also worked hard in the Caribbean region to fight the scourge of human trafficking. Just an hour ago, Secretary Clinton released the 11th annual Trafficking in Persons Report, and we are pleased to see the progress Caribbean nations have made to combat the problem of modern slavery within and among the islands.

We were especially delighted to honor Sheila Roseau of the government of Antigua and Barbuda as a “hero” in recognition of her innovative leadership and perseverance in establishing a victim-centered approach to combating human trafficking. While many challenges remain, some Caribbean countries have made impressive progress in identifying and helping more victims of forced prostitution and forced labor over the past year. We must focus additional resources on identifying victims, increasing victim protection, and holding perpetrators accountable through increased convictions and prison sentences.

The second major focus of our efforts is on civil society, women, and youth of the Caribbean. I say that not just because of my own personal belief in their power, but because including them in the solutions is the strategic and effective way to build up all societies.

The young people of our countries play many roles, and our efforts today can make the difference in whether they join those who perpetrate gang violence or become the human rights leaders of the next generation. Too often their options for young people's personal and professional growth are limited, leading them to a life in the shadows of society. We owe them a better choice.

Nowhere have I seen the power of youth as forcefully as in the small town of El Progreso, Honduras. There, a young man [full disclaimer, he is my son] and a friend recognized that the way to empower youth was through education. They started a non-profit organization, Organization for Youth Empowerment, OYE, which offers scholarships to at-risk youth to finish high school and attend college.

OYE sees youth as the social change agents in their community and presents them with opportunities to develop leadership skills and social awareness. Of course, OYE is just one example of many youth empowerment initiatives. Scaling up programs such as this one is cost-effective and works.

But we must go a step farther -- we must elevate our commitment to support marginalized and disenfranchised groups, including women, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

Let me start with women.

Despite bearing the brunt of society’s political and economic challenges, women across the Americas continue to drive democratic change and social equality. I have met with women leaders in the Dominican Republic who are fighting the scourge of human trafficking. And in Cuba, the Damas de Blanco were recently honored by the Department for their work fighting for fundamental freedoms and human rights.

Yet, despite these heroic examples, women remain marginalized by outdated legislation and ineffective law enforcement. As countries seek to establish more stable rule of law and equitable judicial systems, the role of women will be paramount to their success.

In nations across the hemisphere, men and women may be subjected to horrific violence, persecution, and threats simply because of who they are or whom they love. Such hatred poisons so-called “free” societies. The United States has responded by condemning such actions, and I have personally addressed this issue at the highest levels across the globe.

We see a particularly acute problem in the Caribbean, with negative societal and government-endorsed attitudes toward people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

This is particularly difficult in small island nations, where the communities are small --  and the discrimination and violence is compounded because of the close knit socially conservative environment. Same-sex sexual activity remains criminalized with a life sentence in some countries and up to 25 years in prison in other countries in the Caribbean.

We have made strides in recent months, with the United Nations Human Rights Council passing the first UN resolution calling for the full protection of the human rights of lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual people. It is based on the simple idea that all individuals deserve universal rights. I ask everyone here to join our efforts to promote and protect the human rights of LGBT people, and make this issue a priority as you engage with your networks in the Caribbean.

Similarly, the erosion of freedom of expression undermines the democratic institutions we have fought to build and preserve for generations. Without this freedom, opposition is silent and democracy becomes a vehicle for derision rather than for peaceful and stable governance.

To achieve citizen security, we must stand up -- time and again -- for media freedom and freedom of expression. In many nations, including Haiti, we have collaborated to support healthy, free media through training journalists in human rights, unbiased reporting, and the importance of media freedom.

As President Obama emphasized earlier this year in Santiago, Chile, we must confront the challenge of citizen security together, and from every direction. As we invest in the judicial systems that form the backbone of every society, so too must we invest in a future that honors all members of society and empowers the youth of our region. The violence and insecurity we face today should not cripple our hope for a better future. With that, I thank you for all that you do, and for inviting me to be here with you today.

Thank you very much.