LiveAtState: U.S. Policy in the Western Hemisphere

Roberta S. Jacobson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Washington, DC
March 27, 2014

This transcript is also available in Spanish.

PETER VELASCO: Welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive program to engage with international media. I am pleased to welcome all of our guests from Latin America and to let you know that today our invited guest is Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta S. Jacobson. Today we will talk about the foreign policy of the United States in Latin America, including a summary of her recent trip to the region.

But first let me explain our procedure a little bit. Participants who follow us online can submit questions at the bottom of the window titled “Questions for the official”. We greatly appreciate your questions and will try to answer as many questions as possible in the time we have. If at any time during the talk you have problems sending your questions, please send us an email at If you wish to continue this dialogue with us after this program, you can follow us on Twitter at @StateDept and @USAenEspanol.

It is my great pleasure to introduce you to the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson. Madame Assistant Secretary, thank you for being with us today.

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Thank you for having me. I am very pleased to be here with you in my first LiveAtState. I have had the opportunity to travel extensively in the region; in particular I was recently in Brazil, Paraguay and Chile for the inauguration of President Bachelet. Sadly I do not have enough time to talk with you all during this time ; but if I may, I just want to highlight some issues that are really priorities for us in the Western Hemisphere region. In November, Secretary Kerry gave a speech at the Organization of American States that was very important in amplifying our issues, he emphasized three central themes: work together to promote democracy, security and peace in the Americas; advance prosperity in the hemisphere, including, and this is very important, the education of our young people who will drive the economies of the future and maintain the growth that we have seen; and focus on the way we work together to harness new sources of energy and combat climate change. Those are really the core of our priorities and our policies; but more than anything, the agenda is based on creating opportunities for people of all levels, and not only for political leaders with whom we always talk. And such cooperation is twofold: there are shared responsibilities and mutual benefits.

I want to especially highlight an initiative: in 2011, President Obama launched the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, to call attention to the importance of education for regional prosperity, and seeks to create new agreements between universities and scholarships with the goal of doubling student mobility in both directions by 2020. This is a very big challenge for us but also very valuable for all of us. Just last week, I was in Belo Horizonte, in PUC Minas, one of the largest universities in the world, opening an office of Education USA to provide information to the students at the university on the possibilities of studying in the United States. With these greater opportunities for student exchanges, we encourage business linkages, strengthen bilateral relations, and prepare young people for the global workforce of the twenty-first century. Also, another area that is very important for all of us is the energy area; the global energy map of the future is changing, and more and more focused on the Western Hemisphere, and that means we have an opportunity to be self-sufficient in energy in the region, but also that we can make real progress on energy and energy exploitation in the region with responsibility towards the environment that we already really have. This is only an introduction to our policy and I'm really excited to hear your questions. Thank you very much.

PETER VELASCO: Very well, let’s start with the first question that is on the region, a question of regional policy. Manuel Juan Somoza of La Habana in Mexico asks, “Does the U.S. place some importance to the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, and the community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC, and are there systemic communication channels between Washington and these institutions?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Very good question. These new organizations are very important in the region. Ifwe are talking about UNASUR, CELAC or other institutions that have had more time, such as SICA in Central America or CARICOM in the Caribbean, these are institutions that can really help with regional integration, and may have an important role; but we must also not forget that there is also a universal institution in the region, which has very deep roots; and that is the OAS. I do not believe, nor as a policy do we believe that there should be a competition between the new organizations that truly respond to a new situation and with organizations in the region that have a long history. We must work together in all these areas with the values we have in common, and with those values that have proven to be very good in the documents of the Organization of American States. So even though we have no formal communications or formal channel with UNASUR or with CELAC, we do have observer status in SICA, CARICOM, in others, now in the Pacific Alliance. I think this opens the door for better communication on those issues and perhaps at some point we will have communication with UNASUR and CELAC, but now we have communications with many and most of the members.

PETER VELASCO: Following the theme of regional issues, Luis Prats of El País in Uruguay asks, “If the United States is concerned about the growing presence of China in trade and infrastructure agreements in Latin America.”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well ... the influence and presence of China in the region, we cannot deny that it has been a very important and positive thing in the region. We can see that the economic growth in recent years in many countries, especially in South America, is really based, for the most part, on China’s need for many products that are produced in this region. The only thing that is very important is that all of us, whether companies or governments of China or South America or North America or Europe, play by the same rules and that there is transparency in these exchanges and trade between countries, and that the people, the people can see what the benefits are, what are the terms of trade. If we are playing with international rules, and if the agreements between countries or companies comply with work standards, of labor or environment that are the laws of the country, then there is no problem with the presence; and it would really be a positive thing for the region.

PETER VELASCO: Alex Flores Bonilla of El Heraldo, Honduras asks, “How do you respond to the request of the Honduran President to the United States that you be more committed to cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking in Honduras?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: This is a question that we really received in a very positive way. As President Obama has said several times, we understand very well that we have a responsibility in the fight against transnational organized crime, drug trafficking and others; we have a responsibility and we must increase our cooperation. But if we’re talking about shared responsibility, that means that we all have responsibilities, and I think the president of Honduras, President Hernández, is taking responsibility to improve the situation in Honduras and we ourselves want to do everything possible on our side to fulfill our responsibility and in some way increase our support, our assistance in combating this scourge. Because it is very difficult for countries, especially the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, to fight with the resources that they have.

PETER VELASCO: Next on this topic, Geovanni Contreras of Prensa Libre, Guatemala asks, “Hello, Madame Jacobson, what is being discussed in terms of stronger alternatives to fight, to change the drug policy in the hemisphere? Thank you.”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, that's a good question at this particular time, because I think, and we can all see, that there is a fierce debate in many countries in the region, including in the United States. We have a debate about what are the most effective measures to combat the problem, if we are to change anything. We have two states in the U.S. that have legalized marijuana; this is not the federal position, of the federal government; but it truly reflects a debate that is strong and robust in the region, and it should be. This it is not a situation where we can just sit still when criminals, transnational criminal groups are constantly changing their methods and who want to move drugs or other contraband. So it’s very important for us to have this debate and consider all the transparency we can provide, consider whether there are other ways to combat it. President Obama said this at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, almost two years ago, and we are also very open to having a discussion about what would be the best ways to improve the situation.

PETER VELASCO: And now a little on Venezuela. Gioconda Reynolds of Voice of America asks, “The U.S. has expressed its support for international mediation to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela; who would be the person or organization that can be changed into a specific urgency for the U.S.?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: A very good and very timely question. Because now we see a situation in Venezuela where we have very polarized sides; and in that situation it is very difficult to sit down in a dialogue, to have an frank conversation without the emotions of, perhaps, the battle, the struggle in which many are already involved in Venezuela. We have seen in the past few days, just recently, a mission by UNASUR, of countries in South America. I do not know what the recommendations, the results of this mission will be; we all hope that maybe this is the opportunity for both sides, if we can say all the actors in Venezuela, to have a role, a role in a dialogue to address the challenges of Venezuela at this time. It is very important that the rules of democracy will be implemented in a way that all Venezuelans of any point of view will have their voice, the right to express or oppose a position, contrary to a position of any government agency in a peaceful but free manner, and that the institutions of Venezuela are open, fair and transparent to all Venezuelans. Now, the discussion is for solely for the Venezuelans decide, but at this time now we need to support it, it needs assistance from an outsider. We do not know who this person is exactly, if it is a person or group of persons or an institution, but certainly the Venezuelan crisis now needs someone, a group that can move the dialogue forward, because so far we have seen that discussions are taking place in the streets and not at the table, with tranquility, peace and without the violence that we have seen; it is a tragedy for all Venezuelans.

PETER VELASCO: And Ramón Sahmkow of Agence France Press, “Also has a question on Venezuela: President Maduro nominated an ambassador to the United States, after Secretary Kerry spoke of possible sanctions against Venezuela and received a harsh response from Jaua, his Venezuelan counterpart: Is Washington considering appointing an ambassador to Caracas?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, Secretary Kerry has said from the beginning of his term that he really wants ambassadors to return to the capitals, Caracas and Washington. We have ambassadors and have relationships with many countries with whom we have relationships that are not totally peaceful; we have discrepancies; we have challenges, but that does not mean it is not possible to talk. The problem is that although we want to move that way, we have seen that the United States and the leaders of the United States have been the subject of many insults, allegations or conspiracy theories, etc., that are absolutely false to the point that three diplomats were just expelled in Venezuela and during last year we have seen eight of our diplomats in Venezuela expelled. It is very difficult to build productive and positive relationships where we have that kind of attention, to have a debate in public; we want to reestablish a relationship with Venezuela that is respectful and where we can talk in a much more civil way. But first, at this time, the discussion and debate should be in Caracas, in Venezuela, among Venezuelans. We want to have a better relationship with Caracas; but we can launch new measures in such a way that there will be dialogue in Venezuela, deep dialogue, real, open to all parties at the table and they are building a more peaceful situation, greater democracy in Venezuela. So, we can continue this discussion, but it is very difficult right now, and a bilateral relationship is not the issue in Venezuela; the situation within Venezuela is the main issue now.

PETER VELASCO: Another question, also on Venezuela from Gisella Lopez Lenci of El Comercio of Lima, “What do you think of what happened at the OAS where the Venezuelan deputy Maria Corina Machado was not given the floor?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, that was unfortunate. We are very concerned with Maria Corina Machado’s situation and many others in the opposition; there are some that are still detained, some without charges, others without the ability to defend themselves. We have heard a lot about the possibility of abuse inside the detention centers. Maria Corina Machado is a member of the National Assembly; she has every right to speak freely on the situation in Venezuela. Many of the members of the OAS have said that we need more information on the situation in Venezuela; that was a way to bring OAS members information from the perspective of one very important participant, so we are very concerned about the situation of deputy Machado and hope that this will not be the route to resolve discrepancies, problems in Venezuela. Problems must be resolved by discussion, with more space for everyone to express themselves, not less.

PETER VELASCO: Maximiliano Montenegro of Diario Popular in Argentina asks, “What are the immediate objectives and strategies of the Department of State on strengthening the fight against trafficking for sexual exploitation and labor, both in Latin America as well as specifically in Argentina?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, this topic is very important. It is an area where we have worked hard in recent years, including in the United States, because we really have a problem here too and that’s a problem, as we have said, in the drug trafficking situation in the region that is transnational, not really respecting the laws of any country. So if we do not work together in a cooperative manner, also transnationally, we will never defeat this problem. We are trying to support and strengthen institutions in many countries to combat this problem, by assistance to victims of trafficking, by perhaps strengthening a country’s laws or implementing these laws and ensuring that prosecutors have all the necessary resources to proceed in a lawful manner against people who are controlling the narcotrafficking. I think it really is a problem that has the strength of us all the time; it is important that the victims do not feel that they have no voice; we can actually publish their stories, so people cannot say that cannot happen here, because sometimes it is very difficult to discuss the subject. There is shame, and people do not want to talk, but it is very important to how we can open the doors in that terrible situation. We also need to strengthen the protection of women and children in this area and that’s a problem we’re fighting every day here in the United States and we really have to form many more ties between our prosecutors, our institutions and NGOs who are brave in fighting the problem, how we can also strengthen them in order to serve our community.

PETER VELASCO: And another question on Argentina, from Juan Grana of InfoBae, “This week you had a meeting with the Argentine deputy Sergio Massa; he is the only presidential candidate in Argentina whom you have agreed to meet so far; why was this decided? Is there a plan to meet with other Argentinian presidential candidates?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, we here at the State Department have met with many politicians from many countries, we have met with congressmen, mayors, governors, from many countries when they travel to the United States. It was in this manner that I had a meeting with Sergio Massa; and to better understand with any perspective, with any official policy in a country, to better understand the situation in his country and his perspective on the relationship, if he eventually is a presidential candidate. I can say that in any election in the region, we have a policy to have meetings with all the candidates, because we do not believe and do not want to influence the outcome of any election, so we will treat everyone equally. But at this time he is not a candidate and we had a meeting like I have every day with officials from other countries.

PETER VELASCO: The next question is from Luis Prats of El País in Uruguay, he asks, “Why is Uruguay among the countries that the U.S. has asked to receive Guantánamo detainees?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Very good question. As you may know, from the first day of his first term, President Obama has said he wants to close the institution, the prison at Guantanamo; it was a very firm policy of the government, but also very difficult. So we’ve had conversations with many countries, many organizations around the world asking for their help to get to the point, which I think many of us share, of the hope of closing Guantanamo. So we’ve had conversations with many countries; we have seen that many other countries in the world have already received prisoners, detainees from Guantánamo, and that if we want to get to the point of closing the institution, we will need the help of other countries to implement it, and was in that sense that we had discussions with countries in Latin America including Uruguay. So it’s a very consistent policy in the United States to conclude the process in the most appropriate way for each person who was imprisoned in Guantánamo, so we can close this chapter in our history.

PETER VELASCO: Ariel Alberto Jara Acosta of TV Aire Coronel Oviedo in Paraguay, asks, “During your recent visit to Paraguay, were you able to talk to representatives of civil society, what is your perception of it, and have you seen a consolidation of democratic institutions?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, really fascinating, I cannot say anything else because it was my first visit to Paraguay in 25 years, much has changed in these years, and I am lucky when I travel, to visit with representatives of civil society in each country, so I have an opportunity to have, to exchange ideas, to really learn from their perspectives and I feel really honored to have the opportunity. It was a truly impressive discussion because the participants had diverse opinions on the situation in Paraguay and the bilateral relationship, some sharing one perspective, others having another; but what impressed me so much was the very strong groups, groups that are working hard with the people of Paraguay to strengthen democracy, from the perspective of the environment, from the perspective of the legal and judicial system. Humberto Ruben of Radio Ñanduti, I studied about that radio station many years ago during the Stroessner period, had many problems, a lot of repression during that time, so it was really interesting to listen to the challenges and problems of Paraguay, but also the successes and achievements. I left with the impression that the situation is improving in Paraguay, democracy is strengthening and institutions are growing stronger, but there is still much to be done, and we need to continue working with our partners in Paraguay and strengthening institutions and especially again, one of the things that was shared by everyone at the table, was agreement on the importance of education, education for young people who may never have thought of the opportunity to continue after primary or after secondary school. So that was really positive for me, not a challenge, but an area where we can really do more and cooperate more, and it would be very important for Paraguayan youth.

PETER VELASCO: The next question is from Chile, Carolina asks, “Unlike what has occurred in Ukraine, where the Obama administration has been heavily involved in the crisis, in the case of Venezuela it has not gone beyond the strong statements made by Vice President Biden; is the administration willing to consider sanctions as suggested by the Senate?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, first I would say that the situation in Ukraine and the situation in Venezuela are different, as there are always distinctions and differences between countries. Of course it is true that we have made our statements and expressions of concern about the situation in Venezuela, but also, as he mentioned before during a speech in Congress recently, Secretary Kerry has said that we are not taking any possibility off the table in the future, that does not include military action, I want to underscore this, but we are not taking away the possibility of sanctions in the future. As I said recently in Brazil, we strongly believe it would be better if we and other countries do not impose sanctions against Venezuela; no country wants to implement sanctions, but we cannot say that we will not implement them, because there may come a time when sanctions, in some way or another, might be a very important tool; and, if there is no movement, if there is no possibility of dialogue, or if there is no democratic space for the opposition, of course we would have to think about it. We are thinking about it; so we cannot rule out any peaceful means to influence the situation in Venezuela; but we also believe it is very important to work with our allies in the region on how to implement any sanction or action because it is much more effective if we do these things together.

PETER VELASCO: Another multi-regional question, “The new Chilean government has been far less enthusiastic about the Transpacific Partnership, the TPP, than the previous government; its president has said she intends to review the terms of the negotiations, even stop them, among the subjects of concern to countries like Chile are the issues of intellectual property and agriculture; is the United States concerned about the possibility of a review which may further delay this treaty?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, the first thing I can say is that we want to finish as quickly as possible the negotiations on the TPP because we believe that this agreement may really be something very important, very positive, very beneficial for all countries within the agreement; we’re talking about eleven very important countries; we are also talking about linking Latin America and Asia, countries in North America, and we are also talking about linking these countries with the Pacific. So for us it is very important to continue negotiating on the most difficult issues and things that were mentioned, such as intellectual property, on agriculture, that are clearly the most difficult issues in any free trade agreement in the world; but that does not mean we should not push to finish this negotiation. We have heard that the new president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, has her perspective on the TPP, she wants to review the agreement and the current situation when she entered government; and that’s natural, but we have no fear that it may delay the negotiations; we believe the moment is already underway and I think that the United States believes that the benefits of the agreement are as big and obvious to much of the population that we can achieve that dream and increase the connections between all the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific and Asia; and that will really give our people a better prosperity for all countries, and negotiation means that all of us really have something to offer and also receive a lot; so we’re really still optimistic.

PETER VELASCO: The last question is from María José Pérez Barros, who asks, “Does the U.S. have plans to deepen relations with the Latin American region, what would that be and what are the priorities of the United States in Latin America?”

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Well, I think this region, Latin America and the Western Hemisphere, can be viewed as a priority for the United States, although many people talk about the perspectives of the Pacific, and Asia. Now we have crises, unfortunately, in Ukraine, Syria, in other places, but we can still see that there is an interest, a strong understanding of U.S. interests in the region, which really has not changed and has not decreased. The president has visited Mexico five times more than other countries; the Vice President was in Chile recently for the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet and has traveled constantly to the region; Secretary Kerry was in the General Assembly of the OAS last year and then in South America. But the visits of these senior officials are not the only measure of the importance; we have seen not only the flow of officials, but also of employers, teachers or of families and students. We have ties, we have connections that are deep and which are growing every year, because that region is fundamental to us for our economic recovery, for our strength, not only economically but also culturally and socially. We are a country that is more and more connected with this region, and we share common values. We always hope to improve our democracies, that is a constant task for all of us; so I would say that, although perhaps there is not a big new program, like the Alliance for Progress, we can say that with the TPP, the debate here in the United States on immigration, which is a very important thing in the United States and strongly significant for Latin America, although sometimes not considered as foreign policy. But cultural and education exchanges, and the growth of innovative entrepreneurs, start-ups, and in all parts of the region, we have a strong interest. And we will continue this and it is my job to direct officials’ attention toward the region, but I can say that it is not very difficult, as there is strong interest in the region and we will continue to play a positive and pragmatic role, to create societies of equal and respectful partnership, in which we all have shared responsibilities; that’s really the basis of our policy in the region.

PETER VELASCO: Thank you very much. That is all the time we have today. Thank you so much for your questions, and thank you to Assistant Secretary Roberta S. Jacobson for being with us today, for participating today. We will send a link to the audio and video of our talk today to the participants who have registered, so if you have not yet registered, you must register for this link; and again, if you would like to continue the dialogue with us after this program, you can follow us on Twitter at the accounts @StateDept and @USAenEspanol; we hope to talk with you again in the future and wish you a good day.