Call with Hispanic Diaspora Outlets in Honor of Hispanic Heritage Month

Special Briefing
Acting Assistant Secretary Mari Carmen Aponte
via Teleconference
November 1, 2016

Translated from Spanish. 

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: I want to talk with you about some regional priorities. This is a very important time for our hemisphere. We can, and we should, take advantage of the positive momentum of our communities in order to grow our economy, strengthen business and face global challenges together.

We have witnessed some events in this hemisphere that many of us didn’t believe were possible in our lifetimes, such as the start of diplomacy with Cuba. Our regional policy is established around a focus on mutual benefit in employment, business spirit, education, environment, energy, inclusive prosperity, science and innovation, human rights, as well as democratic values. It’s no longer about what we can achieve alone, it’s about - and this is important - what we can achieve together.

The United States is deeply committed to the western hemisphere, as shown through actions such as re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, supporting the peace process in Colombia, initiatives like our assistance package to Central America, increased business and investment numbers, numerous high-ranking trips and visits, and the most moving: the ties that bind us from town to town.

The United States has the best ongoing and long-lasting economic partnerships and friendships within this hemisphere; therefore, expanding economic opportunities is a priority.

In order to compete in today’s global economy, we must build the Americas as a shared and integral platform for global success. I must point out that we have more trade agreements in the western hemisphere than in any other region of the world. We will modernize and improve these regional trade relations if the Trans-pacific Partnership is approved. We are committed to participating in regional and bilateral dialogues in order to move forward on social and economic inclusion, in order to ensure that everyone in the region benefits from economic revenues. President Obama’s initiative, “100,000 Strong in the Americas”, which creates study abroad opportunities for all students, even those that have been historically marginalized, is an emblem of our regional focus on an inclusive agenda based on opportunities.

But that isn’t the only agenda. There is also the “Young Leaders of the Americas” initiative, known as YLAI, which seeks to increase opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs and innovative leaders from the civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean. We received the first group of 250 YLAI scholarship holders in the United States, an incredibly interesting group of business entrepreneurs and companies that want to make a difference in their communities. I welcome you to follow the program on the YLAI network, which is designed to get entrepreneurs involved from the entire region, in Washington to attend some of the events that are going to be held in the framework of the mid-November summit; but that won’t be the end of the program because there’s good news: this program will continue because scholarship holders from the United States will travel to participant countries next year.

As we seek to consolidate economic advances, corruption is a threat that we cannot underestimate. It has the potential to derail all of our progress and we have to work together to fight it. I know that isn’t an easy task. Personally, I have dedicated various years of my life to facing and eradicating corruption. The most important measure is that governments should be responsible and transparent in order to respond to citizen activism with frankness, a lot of respect and a high level of commitment. The international community can support these efforts; just look at the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, better known as the CCICIG. But, for long-lasting success, we need strong local institutions and a commitment from the society. If we commit to fighting corruption together, our economies can strengthen.

Lastly, improvements in citizen security are equally important to our efforts in the region. Unfortunately, in our hemisphere, there are too many people that still see criminality as their main concern. In order to address this, we need a global focus from all governments, collectively, in conjunction with civil society, and a joint approach that is experiencing the problem and wants to solve it every day.

Now I want to briefly summarize the United States regional participation in the hemisphere before answering some questions. Here, starting with North America, Mexico has proved itself to be a country that can grow when its companies are successfully integrated into the economy, not just regionally, but globally as well. And as shown by the official visit of Prime Minister Trudeau at the beginning on this year, the relationship between the United States and Canada continues to develop and is becoming increasingly close.

In Central America, we are working with our regional partners to implement the United States strategy on commitment to Central America, an effort that spans several years to promote an economically integrated and fully democratic Central America that provides economic opportunities to its people, that has more responsible, transparent and efficient public institutions, and that offers a safe environment for its citizens.

Energy security continues to be a priority, both in Central America and the Caribbean. The United States-Caribbean Energy Summit, led by Vice-president Biden this past May, emphasized the critical importance of reducing energy prices and increasing economic competitiveness. We still have a lot of work to do to move forward on this matter.

In Haiti, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, better known as USAID, the U.S. government provided close to 28 million dollars for aid efforts in Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas after hurricane Matthew. Haitian citizens will have the opportunity to finish their elections on November 20th and we are eager to get back to working in the country as a fully democratic government. The United States has been supporting democracy, democratic institutions and respect for human rights in Haiti for a long time.

Another moment that I feel honored to have witnesses during my lifetime is the start of diplomacy with Cuba. The President’s visit in March was a milestone in the long journey towards normalizing relations between our countries. Since re-establishing diplomatic relations, we have met with our Cuban government counterpart, some for the first time, and we have engaged in conversations on a wide range of legally and socially applicable cultural and economic issues. We have forged bilateral cooperation in areas that we believe will improve the lives of citizens in both countries. We are still convinced that changing from a policy of isolation to one of participation is working, and is the best course in order to support the aspirations of the Cuban people and develop a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Cuba.

A bit more to the south, Colombia is going through a particularly challenging and uncertain time following the October 2nd vote on the peace agreement. Colombia, however, can count on ongoing support from the United States while it continues its quest for peace and prosperity for all Colombians.

In Venezuela, we are concerned about the deterioration of socioeconomic conditions and the government’s failure to cope with the basic needs of the Venezuelan people. As we have said before, effective dialogue between Venezuelans from the entire political spectrum is a necessary step toward finding a solution to the economic and political problems facing the country, starting with respect for human rights, including freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, institutions and democratic processes.

In regard to the Southern Cone, we are working closely with Brazil on the success of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. We have also renewed our partnership and have many shared interests with Argentina, and we are committed to strengthening that partnership. In the entire region, the United States government is working with partner governments to provide specific support to those affected by the Zika virus. Our response focuses on 4 topics: 1) controlling the spread of the virus; 2) increasing awareness on how the virus is transmitted and how to prevent infection; helping detect and follow-up on disease transmission; and lastly, assisting those affected.

In closing, I would like to point out that I am personally and professionally dedicated to the advancement of Hispanics, up to the highest levels of the United States government; this has been my passion for the last 30 years. As Secretary Kerry said, our diversity is our strength. A more diverse and representative workforce in the state department strengthens the ability of the United States to promote our fundamental political objectives. Beyond promoting the cause for Hispanic employees in the state department, I am committed to increasing the Hispanic community’s participation in general, in U.S. foreign policy and development, especially in the western hemisphere. Today, government-to-government relations are just one part of diplomatic relations. In order to achieve our objectives in the hemisphere, we have to expand partnerships between the wide range of actors that take part in the future success of the region, including, and especially, the Hispanic community. The Hispano-American community exemplifies the United States values on providing services to communities, and inspires us to face global challenges and address social and economic inclusion problems. This community has a monumental impact on the countries of origin in a myriad of ways, often positioning the United States as a global partner; and on a personal note, I am also working on fostering and increasing its collaboration, through leading voices on promoting positive change in the country and abroad.

When national emergencies and humanitarian crises emerge in the region, it is often our community that is there first, that offers help first; volunteers, health-care, schools and much more. And Americans of Hispanic origin have been an engine for economic development, often taking the initiative on new business opportunities by investing in the region.

Secretary Kerry is equally committed to working with Diaspora’s communities in order to achieve our main objectives on regional policy. For this reason, the Office of Global Partnerships set up the International Diaspora Alliance in order to take advantage of Diaspora community global connections and promote sustainable development.

I’ll leave you with a call to action. The Hispanic Diaspora community is essential and incredibly important. You have family ties in the region and participate in the development of your countries.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your contribution and ask that you continue doing what you’re doing. If you invest, invest in your country of origin. Demand that growth be inclusive. If you can vote in your countries of origin, vote, but vote for a good government. Demand government responsibility in terms of efficiency, transparency and accountability. The professional lessons that you have learned in the United States can be applied in a regional context; find ways to share these practices. As a former ambassador in El Salvador, I can tell you from personal experience that participating in the Diaspora, particularly the investments and contributions that you make by paying taxes that support our program in the region, is fundamental in order to advance our agenda for a prosperous and safe future for the region.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that news on the Middle East, Russia and China are usually the headlines that we see when we open the newspaper every day. However, the relations that impact our lives every day through trade, through shared democratic values, through family ties, are right here, they are in the western hemisphere. There is no doubt that we are on the right track; it may not seem that way at times, but we are getting there. I am committed to working with our partners in the Americas in order to outline a common path toward what we all want, which is a better future.

Now I would like to open up to questions.

Acting Hub Spokesperson Katie Caro: Well, thank you very much, Sub-secretary Aponte. Now we are going to start the question and answer section of today’s call. For those of you that ask questions, please limit yourself to one question related to the topics from today’s informative session. As a reminder, to ask a question please press “star + 1” on the telephone in order to join the question queue. [In English:] Operator, can we start the question?

[ATT Operator]: Thank you. Press “star + 1” to queue up for a question. The first question will come from [unintelligible] with [unintelligible]. Please go ahead.

[Maria Pena]: Ok. It’s Maria Pena, but it’s ok. First of all, thank you for doing this.

I don’t know if you want me to speak in Spanish or in English. I’m going to ask in English.

First of all, thanks for doing this call. I wanted to see if you had a specific statement to make on what the United States expects from the Presidential elections in Nicaragua next Sunday. In your overview I didn’t hear anything about what President Obama’s legacy in the region would be something that has to do with Puerto Rico. You know that the Puerto Rican Diaspora in the United States is very mindful of what is happening on the island and there has been a lot of criticism on how the United States, and Congress in particular, has not done enough to help Puerto Rico resolve its crisis. And well, I’ll listen for answers here, thank you very much.

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: Thank you very much for your question, Maria. I’ll start with Nicaragua; I’m going to try to answer your questions in the order you asked them, but help me if I forget one. Look, the elections in... the upcoming elections in Nicaragua are very problematic because the Nicaraguan government is disregarding the voices of the private sector, religious groups and civil society, who are asking that the elections be transparent, competitive and open. Unfortunately, the government has eliminated, or intimidated, the opposition, taking total control of the Assembly, the Supreme Court and the Electoral Council. So this is a deeply concerning issue. What’s encouraging, however, is that the OAS, even though it is not going to monitor the elections now in November, it will establish a dialogue with Nicaragua on its electoral processes. We would have loved it if the OAS, which has an extraordinary history of observing elections, had been able to do so, but it’s very important that this dialogue take place and we urge the Nicaraguan government to participate in these discussions in an open, constructive and inclusive way.

In regard to Obama’s legacy, I’m very proud of the series of activities and steps that have been taken in the region. Of course, opening up to Cuba is probably the most transcendental thing that has happened, as it changed the direction of 50-year-old U.S. policy, and even though we can understand that reasonable minds and reasonable people can differ on how they would have carried out the changes in Cuba; the President chose this policy based on conversations, dialogue and by establishing diplomatic relations such as... with Cuba, as the best option. Another legacy of President Obama’s administration has been the overwhelming support for the peace process in Colombia, which, even though it has now been faced with some challenges after the “no”-vote won on the plebiscite, we are… the United States is paying attention to conversations among opposition groups, government and civil society so that progress can be made and agreements can be reached, which will ultimately broaden this elusive quest for peace for the past 50 years. Assistance from our package from… to Central America, not just to Central America or the Northern Triangle in particular, is… moving forward; it’s an effort that is going to take a few years, but what’s important is that it will lead to changing the root causes of undocumented immigration to northern countries, Mexico, the United States. We believe that the only way to make these sustainable changes is by making these changes in the place of origin. The tone, the tone of relations in the hemisphere has changed a lot; it’s not about asking us what… what the countries in the hemisphere can do for the United States or what the United States can do for those countries, but rather it’s about what we can do together. And this is a very, very important change.

And lastly, I want to address the Puerto Rico issue, which, as you pointed out, has been a controversial topic, especially in regard to the Promesa legislation that came out of Congress. I think that in this area, very reasonable minds and people can differ in regard to improvements or what else Promesa could have done that would have helped Puerto Rico, and everyone has a point. What’s important is that we now have a starting point. It’s not the perfect solution. It’s not what many people would have wanted. But it is the beginning of a solution. And now there is a board that is going to work with the government and the Puerto Rican people, who so desperately need relief, who so desperately need sustainable economic development in order to reach their potential.

Thank you.

Sorry, I should’ve said that I… over.

ATT Operator: Are you ready for next question?

Overlapping voices: Yes, we’re ready. We’re ready.

ATT Operator: Thank you. Sergio Otalora with Diario Las Americas. Please, go ahead.

Sergio Otalora: Hi. How are you? Good afternoon.

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: Good afternoon.

Sergio Otalora: Yes. Good afternoon. Right now Obama’s government is just months away from finishing; we are here in a meeting where we are addressing some policies and explaining other U.S. government policies for the region. But given that this government is about to leave, what perspectives do you have in regard to the three... three key countries that you mentioned? One is Cuba, you already spoke about them, but I would like to know the following, specifically in regard to Cuba, Colombia, and Venezuela: in regard to Cuba, if you believe that the United States policy for the island is irreversible or if there is any risk…I’m talking about risk in the sense of, from the perspective of the government obviously, the risk that what has been accomplished up to now will be reversed; first with the Cuba issue. Second, in regard to Colombia, what perspectives do you have on financing or the possibility of financing development processes within a peace process? And in regard to Venezuela, what is going to happen with the dialogue in Venezuela, what perspectives do you have in regard to this… to that possibility? Which seems further and further away.

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: Good. Those are probably three key points in the region. The policy in relation to Cuba if the policy is irreversible; what the government and the Obama administration have tried to do is make the policy solid the policy of... with regard to Cuba. We have made exchanges, we have had meetings, recently we had one on human rights that would have been unthinkable... six months ago, but it was held. Naturally, it’s at these meetings that we realize how different the perspectives are, in terms of how we see things. However, it’s important to maintain these dialogues, it’s important to have these dialogues, because changes are built slowly, positively, by speaking about them and exchanging opinions, exchanging impressions, answering questions and being open. In terms of the Cuban policy, the next administration, no matter which one, will of course have to take some decisions on what they want to do, but what the Obama administration wanted to do was to establish the policy in a way that made it solid and firm…and so that it would be part of the fabric, not the fabric, the cloth; I’m thinking in English, sorry. “Diplomatic fiber” is the word I was thinking, within the diplomatic structure of the United States. In regard to development processes in Colombia, yes, the United states has plans to participate in economic development processes, especially in rural areas, in areas where, until now, it hasn’t been possible to work consistently because these areas were dangerous and were areas where the guerrilla was active and were… and there are still some issues there because there are still mines. That’s why Secretary Kerry, during the opening of the United Nations, had a meeting with other countries in order to raise money to clean those rural areas of mines and be able to move forward with economic development and yes, USAID is going to be active in training, not just agricultural, but training for people that need skills, but skills they can use, whether inside… in the agricultural areas wherever they are, or in the rural areas wherever they are, and in the cities. The question is being able to support the Colombian people to help them do what they want to do.

Lastly, in Venezuela: the dialogue topic is an issue that…it’s a complicated issue and we have happily welcomed the Vatican’s participation in these conversations, since both parties, both the government and the opposition, had requested help in order to move forward with these conversations. Since Sunday, we have seen some progress. This progress is slow, but we, the United States, support it and one of our most important and highest ranking diplomats, Thomas Shannon, is in Venezuela right now in order to provide support and give a message of support and relevance to these conversations.

ATT Operator: [unintelligible], the next question.  [unintelligible] to queue up the question. Once again, star 1, please.

Acting Hub Director Katie Caro:  Do you have anyone else in the queue?

ATT Operator: We do not.

Acting Hub Director Katie Caro: Another question.

ATT Operator:  [unintelligible] just came in.

Acting Hub Director Katie Caro: Okay, this will be the last question, thank you.

ATT Operator: It’s from Luis Muñoz, [unintelligible], go ahead.

Luis Munoz: My question, Mrs. Aponte, is on human rights. Could you elaborate a bit more on this situation? Because arrests of Ladies in White, dissidents and independent journalists have continued to be reported. How do you see this situation? And are there conversations on this?

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: This is in Cuba, right? You are…

Luis Munoz: No, I’m in…

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: You’re talking about human rights in Cuba.

Luis Munoz:  In Cuba.

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: And the Ladies in White, that’s why…

Luis Munoz: Ah, right, right, right.  Sorry.

Acting Assistant Secretary Aponte: I wanted to clarify. Look, the human rights issue is a process in Cuba. For the… from the perspective of the... of the Cuban government, the government does contemplate and respect and work with human rights. We don’t necessarily totally agree and they don’t agree with us either, because they understand that the United States has racial problems, has these types of police brutality problems, which are very important problems in the realm of human rights, and they are! But we are totally committed to addressing and trying to solve those problems. And in Venezuela, sorry, in Cuba, we are also committed to supporting the aspirations of all Cubans, whether they agree with the government or not. We understand that achieving human rights in Cuba is a process that is going to take time, but that doesn’t mean that we give up. And when we go to Cuba, we establish a dialogue with the government, but also with the opposition as well, because the United States speaks with a range of citizens from all countries where we have missions and in which we operate, because we believe it’s important to provide this support. Over.

ATT Operator: And ladies and gentleman, that does conclude your conference today. Thank you for your participation and for using the AT&T Executive Teleconference Services. [unintelligible]