LiveAtState: U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities

Michael A. Hammer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC
December 6, 2012

This transcript is also available in Spanish.

PETER VELASCO: Welcome to LiveAtState, the Department of State’s interactive internet and video format, and one of its platforms for dialogue with international media. Welcome also to the journalists who are gathering with us today from all over the world. My name is Peter Velasco and I am in the studio with Mr. Mike Hammer, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Today he will be answering your questions about the United States’ priorities regarding foreign policy. Welcome, Assistant Secretary. He would like to offer a few words to our participants.

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thanks, Peter, and again, it is a pleasure to be with you all this afternoon to talk about world issues. I recently had a great trip to Miami where I met with many members of the press who were interested in our foreign policy, and specifically they were very focused on Latin America, so I hope that we have a good discussion and that you see that President Obama´s administration is very interested in developing better relations with the countries in our hemisphere for the good of all our citizens. So, with that said, I hope we have a good session. We hope to have lots of questions and if all goes well, then, we will continue with this format, because I believe it gives us the opportunity to communicate quite broadly with audiences around the world. So, with that, Peter, we can begin.

PETER VELASCO: Very well. And we remind you to send us your questions in the part of your screen where it says "questions for the official." If you have any problems at any time during our discussion, send us an e-mail at We are going to try to answer all the questions that come in during these 30 minutes, in the 30 minutes that we have, and if you would like to receive the latest news about the U.S. Department of State, you can follow us on Twitter at @StateDept or @USAenEspanol. Let’s begin now with our first question, which comes from Adrian Bono. He asks, "Now that President Obama has been reelected, are there any plans on behalf of the Department of State or the administration to deepen bilateral relations with Latin America, especially with countries with which current relations are not optimal? Is it possible that President Obama will visit Argentina in the future?

MIKE HAMMER: Good, thank you very much, Adrian, for your question. I would say that President Obama’s administration, working with Secretary Clinton, has been very interested in and has been following closely the hemisphere’s issues, in Latin America. In fact, Secretary Clinton has traveled to the region 35 times, and has visited 18 countries. So, there will be a very broad agenda. The truth is that it’s really a continuation: an agenda that President Obama began when he attended the Summit of the Americas in April 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago. An agenda that is quite expansive, in which we are seeing how we can improve the economic situation for our peoples and promote better economic environments and promote prosperity. Secondly, we are obviously very concerned about issues pertaining to citizen security, so we have launched initiatives with both Central American countries and others in order to see how we can tackle these problems. There are initiatives and work that we are doing to address issues like climate change and the environment. We want to promote social inclusion. We will also bring to the table an initiative that was recently launched at the Summit of the Americas in Cartegena de las Indias, Colombia, in which we are looking at how to connect the Hemisphere’s energy. So, to summarize, we have many issues that we deal with daily here at the State Department, and one of the main focal points for both the State Department and the White House is how to promote better relations, how we can fight drug trafficking, how we can, really, advance the interests that we have in common, because it is extremely important that governments respond to their citizens. Additionally, as part of this work, we want to strengthen democratic institutions so that all of our citizens can enjoy a better future. Regarding a possible visit of President Obama to Argentina, as I well know, having worked at the White House, these are statements that I have to cede to the White House. So if there is any news, it will come from there. OK, thank you.

PETER VELASCO: We are going to continue with Adrian who has another question. He would like to know, "What is your opinion regarding the recent decision by the Argentine government to sue the United States at the WTO due to the obstacles to the sale of limes and meat to the country?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thank you, Adrian, for this additional question. As you may know, and as we have said, here in the United States we have some concerns regarding a few trade issues with Argentina, which we have discussed directly with the Argentine government as well as with the WTO. Regarding the cases that Argentina has presented, I would have to refer you to the Argentine government. Here, as the State Department, we do not comment on trade issues. We will have to pass this on to our colleagues in the USTR. So, with that, let’s move on to the next question.

PETER VELASCO: OK, now we have a question from Frank Lopez Ballesteros from Venezuela. He asks us if we have detected an increase in the Iranian presence in the region.

MIKE HAMMER: Well, the issue of Iranian relations with Latin American countries is a matter that we follow closely, due to the fact that Iran has a history of supporting terrorism and also because, as we have seen, the international community is very concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and the fact that they have not demonstrated that it is for peaceful reasons. So, the world is concerned and has levied the greatest sanctions yet against Iran because it fears that they are continuing with a nuclear program to develop nuclear bombs. So, in that regard, we are following their activities in Latin America very closely. We see it as an effort by people like Ahmadinejad to make friends, because they are very isolated, and when there is a concern, obviously, we will speak to these governments about it. But we hope that the region’s countries will respect the sanctions that have been placed on Iran and that they will give Iran a clear message: that both supporting terrorism and developing nuclear weapons are unacceptable behaviors. So, this is something we would like, both as the United States and with our allies within the format that we call the P5 + 1, which are the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, and by collaborating with the European community to see how we can resolve this issue diplomatically, as Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of great concern. Thank you.

PETER VELASCO: And the next question comes to us from Pedro Schwarze, from the newspaper La Tercera. He asks, "How much have Cuba’s and the United States’ positions approached one another in recent months? Is an understanding with Raul Castro near?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, first, thank you, Pedro, for your question. I have to reiterate that this week we are very focused on and continue to be concerned by the situation regarding our citizen Alan Gross, who continues to be imprisoned. He has been imprisoned in Havana for three years, and we continue to ask for his immediate release. He is suffering. He has lost a great deal of weight. He is not well, and his 90-year-old mother is not well either, so the Cuban government should finally free him, even if only for humanitarian reasons. Regarding U.S.-Cuban relations, this administration’s focus is on helping and motivating the Cuban people so that they may have better opportunities to develop a democracy in their country. We want to help the people. We are not interested in helping the Castro brothers’ government. We want to see reform. I believe that everyone wants to see human rights respected, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, economic freedoms. And unfortunately, in five decades we have not seen that. So we hope that changes in Cuba will allow for better relations with the United States and with the rest of the world.

PETER VELASCO: OK, changing the subject now to Colombia, Diego Urdaneta from AFP asks, "The Colombian guerrillas, the FARC, insist that the leader Simon Trinidad, who is a prisoner in the United States, be pardoned by the Obama government and that he participate in the peace negotiations. Is the United States government willing to find a way for Simon Trinidad to participate in the peace negotiations?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thank you for this question, Diego. I believe that we have already addressed this issue, but as you may know, Simon Trinidad committed crimes and he will remain in jail. We, the United States, are not a part of Colombia’s peace process, although we support President Santos’ efforts because we believe that it is extremely important that the Colombian people can finally live in peace and security. And the objective of these negotiations is that the FARC finally abandon terrorism, abandon their links with the drug trade, and that is why we will of course continue to support President Santos and the Colombian government in their efforts to finally negotiate a peace that will allow the Colombian people to enjoy their great democracy.

PETER VELASCO: OK, now Lucia from Channel 15 in Nicaragua asks, "Is it possible that there will be more support for Nicaragua’s navy for patrolling and security now that it is in charge of more maritime area?"

MIKE HAMMER: Well, this… Regarding the subject of the recent case in the Hague at the International Court of Justice against Nicaragua, between Nicaragua and Colombia, well we, as the United States, we want the situation to be peacefully resolved and both of the countries, Nicaragua and Colombia, to deal with the matter. We, the United States, will obviously look at the Court’s decision regarding the matter to ensure that our maritime rights continue. But really this is a bilateral issue between Nicaragua and Colombia.

PETER VELASCO: Now Jorge Valero from La Razón asks, "The United States has prioritized the Pacific in its foreign policy, and Europe is looking towards this region as an ocean of opportunities to escape the crisis. In January, Vice President Tajani will travel to Chile and Peru on a mission for growth, and the free trade agreement between Europe, Colombia and Peru will also come into force in January. Also, the expansion of the Panama Canal has almost been completed. If the United States hopes that this rivalry with Europe… No, he’s asking if we, the United States, are expecting that this rivalry with Europe will continue in the region and if it will force the United States to make a new strategy?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thanks for this question from La Razón. In fact, we here in the United States are very focused on how we can promote free trade with countries in the hemisphere. Finally we have had great success with the passage of free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, and I believe that in terms of your question, you know that the administration is working on the transpacific agreement that it wants to pass, and in which Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Canada are participating, which can then join with other countries in Asia in a very efficient way to promote even freer trade. In terms of those exchanges and the trade that exists between Europe and Latin America, well, that is something positive. We as the United States are quite ready and prepared to compete in the hemisphere with any company from any other country, as long as the rules of the game are the same for everyone. We have great confidence in the ability of our companies to compete, so what we want to see are policies in the countries of the hemisphere that allow investment, that allow the type of trade that we all see to be the motor that drives our economies. So, it’s something that the Obama administration will be very focused on . It already was during the first term, and now in the second we will continue to emphasize it, because we see it as a way to bring more economic prosperity to all of our citizens. So it is something that I believe you will see even more of in President Obama’s second term.

PETER VELASCO: And we remind you that you can get the latest news about the United States Department of State by following us on Twitter at @StateDept or @USAenEspaol. The next question comes to us from Spain. Eva from El País asks, "What value does the Department of State give the initiative of the new Catalonian government who wants to hold a referendum on independence for this autonomous community in Spain. In fact, more than 39,000 petitions have been posted to the website We The People, asking the White House to support the initiative."

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thank you for sending us a question all the way from Spain. As you may know, here on behalf of the United States, the State Department does not have a comment regarding this topic, which is an internal matter for Spain. I would like to return for a moment to the last question from Jorge Valero, because I should have mentioned that in terms of trade, the United States had an increase of 20% last year. So we see a lot of great opportunity, and actually around 42% of our exports go to Latin America. That’s three times more than what we export to China. So we should have a lot of confidence that this administration is going to maintain its efforts to increase free trade, because we see that there are huge markets, great opportunities out there for U.S. companies as well as for Latin American companies to invest in the United States.

PETER VELASCO: OK, now another question. This one also deals with Colombia. It comes from Edwin Giraldo, from FM Radio Colombia. He says, "President Santos criticized the U.S. government today. He said that it was illogical that while some states legalize marijuana, the United States government is pushing for head-on confrontation with the drug trade. He added that it was inadmissible that while peasant farmers in Colombia who cultivate drugs have to respond to criminal charges, in Colorado Americans can smoke marijuana. What is your position on these statements?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thank you for this question from Colombia. It is an issue that was even discussed at the Summit of the Americas there in Cartagena. I believe that the United States’ policy is quite clear. We have said that our policy toward the illegality of drugs will not change. The important thing here is that, well, as the United States, first of all we realize that we have a certain responsibility regarding demand, and we are working very hard and with a lot of resources to try to diminish demand in the United States. Regarding the rest of the region, well, clearly we want to cooperate to see how we can face the very serious issue of the drug trade. Many different ideas can be presented, and we are willing to discuss them. But our position remains that drugs are illegal, so what we need to do is find a way to fight this matter on a deeper level, through international cooperation, because the measures that we are taking as countries, or rather, when we work together we will achieve the best possible results. We have had very good relations with Colombia in terms of the war on drugs and the support that the United States has given Colombia since President Clinton launched Plan Colombia, which was supported throughout the Bush administration and has continued in the Obama administration. So it is an issue that we will continue to deal with, we will keep talking, but we have to realize that even though these laws have been passed in a couple of states, here in Colorado and in Washington, this does not affect our national policy, and we are going to continue vehemently fighting the drug trade and illegal drugs.

PETER VELASCO: OK, we have another question from Frank Lopez Ballesteros: "How does the United States envision its relations with South America during President Obama’s second term, taking into account the anti-American front that remains present in the region, with ALBA at the head?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK. Good. Thank you for this question. The United States sees that we have very good relations with the people of Latin America, and the majority of those countries are working together with us to see how we can improve the situation of our citizens. We are not too concerned with ideologies. What we want to see are results. And we have many initiatives to advance our common interests in order to confront the problems that we see. So, in general, this isn’t a popularity contest, even though we of course see that in the majority of these countries a deep friendship exists between their people and the people of the United States. So we would like to launch initiatives such as the educational initiative "100,000 Strong," in which we want 100,000 Latin American students to come and study here in the United States, while at the same time we hope to send 100,000 American students to study in Latin American universities and colleges, because we want these people-to-people bonds, which we believe are important, in order to support education, because that’s how we will ultimately better understand one another. In terms of the countries that perhaps prefer not to have good relations with the United States, well, it’s a shame. It’s really their loss, because I think that at the end of the day we could be working on issues that concern our citizens. We will continue to offer this type of relation with any country that would like to work with us, even if we have some differences and even if we are concerned about matters of democracy or human rights or others. But we are always willing to enter into a dialogue to see how we can confront the problems that concern our citizens.

PETER VELASCO: OK, once again with Frank Ballesteros who asks if Washington plans to designate an embassy in Washington as a means to improve relations between our two countries.

MIKE HAMMER: Good, thank you, Frank. As you may know, we do actually have an embassy there in Caracas, and we hope to exchange ambassadors, as we believe that having an ambassador in a country provides an opportunity for closer dialogue and for working more deeply on certain issues. Unfortunately, for the moment Caracas is not interested in exchanging ambassadors, so there is no news on the matter. What’s important is that we hope to find ties through which we can work together, if Caracas is willing, of course.

PETER VELASCO: And now let’s return to Spain. Eva asks, "After President Obama’s reelection, will anything change in the bilateral relations between the United States and Spain?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thank you, Eva. Since I was in the White House the first two years of President Obama’s administration and now I am in the Department of State, I can assure you that the United States is very interested in continuing close relations with Spain and in working on important concerns shared by both countries. Of course we would like to see Spain overcome its economic problems. President Obama has had the opportunity to speak with Prime Minister Rajoy. So we will follow the events in Spain very closely. We want to give our support and find ways that we can work together, and truly, we do this in many arenas. So I believe that on behalf of the United States, here at the State Department, we have every intention of continuing to strengthen the good historic relations that we have had for many, many years.

PETER VELASCO: Now Adela asks, "What expectations does your country have regarding the expansion of the Panama Canal and the effects that this route could have on international trade?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thank you, Adela. I had the good fortune of visiting Panama City last summer and saw with my own eyes how the expansion is going. It’s extremely impressive, and I believe that this is a great opportunity to increase, obviously, the volume of trade in Panama, but also that it will open up opportunities for more global trade. So there’s great anticipation. This is going to be a very important development, and in fact, when I was in Miami the last few days, government officials who are working on these issues commented to me about the efforts that they are making to increase the capacity of the Port of Miami. So there are important connections and links regarding this issue, and a lot of anticipation that this will increase the level of trade, which could even create more jobs, which is clearly a concern for our governments. It is important to do whatever is necessary to strengthen our economies, and the expansion of the Panama Canal is obviously something that we hope will bring really great results.

PETER VELASCO: OK, going back to the issue of legalizing marijuana, Daniel Pacheco of Caracol in Colombia asks, "Since the United States does not support legalization as a solution to the drug trade, what is it going to do about such legalization in Washington and Colorado?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK. Well, this is an issue that’s being handled through the Department of Justice. They are analyzing the laws that have passed in Washington and Colorado, so I really can’t comment more on this except to refer you to the Department of Justice. But I would like to remind you that the United States’ national policy has not changed.

PETER VELASCO: And a question from Voice of America: "What priority in terms of U.S. foreign policy are the relations with the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua? I also would like to know if you have any new news about the case of the United State citizen Jacob Ostreicher, prisoner in Bolivia?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK, thank you to our friends at Voice of America for their question. We at the Department of State are working daily to see what links we can have with some of the countries that you mentioned. What I would like to emphasize is that both sides must be willing. Each country is different. I don’t want to put them all together, so this would be a bit of a long conversation if we took each country on its own. But the position of the Obama administration has been to find opportunities to cooperate. We have done so more with some countries than with others. Of course we would like to overcome these ideological concerns and to show the United States’ good intentions to have better relations and to promote issues that are important to our country and our citizens, which are economic issues, issues about how we can work together to fight climate change, issues about terrorism… So, there are many issues that we could be working together on, and I believe that during the second term of President Obama’s administration we will follow the same course, with countries that want to work with us. We are ready to be partners, like we are with Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and the great majority of Latin American countries. There will be others with whom, well, we simply aren’t cooperating as much, no?

PETER VELASCO: Now Edwin Giraldo from La FM asks, "Colombia is very close to the final vote in Congress on a project to reform the scope of military jurisdiction. There are still concerns that this initiative could convert itself into an instrument of impunity. As you are following the project, do you have any concerns or are you at ease with how the project has advanced up until now?"

MIKE HAMMER: Well, I am not going to comment specifically about this project except to say that, in general, obviously President Obama’s administration and here in the State Department we follow very closely any issues that could affect human rights. The issue of impunity is extremely important and we are working to motivate countries in the region to deal with these issues, because that’s what their citizens want. So, in fact, if another country asks the United States for our cooperation, we are more than willing to look at how human rights can be advanced, how laws can be promoted that deal with this issue, not just impunity, but many other issues of concern: freedom of the press, corruption… So we will continue to maintain our policy to support, in general, the efforts of the OAS, the Inter-American Court, the institutions that we have seen can truly strengthen democracy in the hemisphere’s countries. That’s what the citizens ask for, and obviously any government should respond to the demands of its citizens.

PETER VELASCO: Now Pedro asks, "Is Washington concerned about the trial that Chile and Peru are facing in The Hague about maritime borders?"

MIKE HAMMER: OK. Regarding the case between Chile and Peru that is in The Hague, well, we simply hope to see it resolved in a peaceful fashion, and we really don’t have any additional comments.

PETER VELASCO: And Jorge Valero from La Razon asks, "Digital diplomacy has become a priority for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Interested parties, especially civil society, can increasingly circumvent their governments through the Internet and social networks. And we have seen how some digital crises, such as the viral propagation of a YouTube video, can have serious consequences in the real world. Does the Department of State have, or intend to create, a digital crisis management center?"

MIKE HAMMER: Good, I’m pleased with this question because we here at the State Department, just like what we are doing right now, would like to use digital platforms to communicate with the world. Here in our Bureau of Public Affairs and press affairs we communicate as much as possible by using these platforms, using the Internet and using a platform like LiveAtState for these press conferences. The issue that you bring up is important, and, in fact, within our group here at the Department of State we have experts from the public affairs world that handle crises. So it is something that we follow very closely, knowing that any YouTube video or Tweet could cause uncertainty or concern. So we follow it very, very closely. We realize that it is something that accelerates reactions around the world and that any new information or video may cause worry or responses. We emphasize that while we support freedom of the press, freedom of the Internet, and freedom of expression, there is no justification anywhere in the world for responding violently to a video that may be seen as offensive. So we do follow this very closely, and I would say that it’s not so much a question of whether we have a digital group to handle crises, but rather that we have a group that handles crises as they arise, because we believe that as a government it is our responsibility to inform our citizens, inform the world about our policies, and we want to do that in a rapid and effective fashion. So we are very focused on the digital realm, which we will continue to use alongside traditional media, because our function is to inform and to do our best to always communicate the truth and ensure that our policies are well understood.

PETER VELASCO: And that was the last question, because that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you for your questions and thank you very much to Mr. Mike Hammer for being here with us in the studio. A link to our chat will be available shortly after the conclusion of the program. If you would like to receive the latest news, let me remind you that you can follow us on Twitter at @StateDept and also at @USAenEspanol. We hope to be able to converse with you again in the future, and we hope you have a great day. Thank you very much.