Interview With Andres Oppenheimer of CNN Espanol and The Miami Herald

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
December 9, 2013

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thanks – thank you very much for this interview.

SECRETARY KERRY: Delighted. Thanks for coming up.

QUESTION: Thank you. You made a big speech recently at the Organization of American States about Latin America, but there is a perception in Latin America that the U.S. doesn’t care about Latin America. And they cite, for instance, the fact that you’ve made 19 trips abroad and only two to Latin America, and you, for instance, haven’t visited Mexico, which is the most important country in – for the U.S. at least. What do you tell the critics when they make these points?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I tell them that they’re dead wrong, that one of the reasons why I’ve made 19 trips somewhere else and only two to Latin America is that we have a very strong relationship with Latin America, which is running, I think, very effectively. We’ve had major steps forward on the 100,000 Strong program with the President, and the Vice President went to Mexico. I had a crisis with respect to Iran and Syria and some other issues, so there’s more turmoil in these other parts of the world where we’ve got some immediate crises and we, frankly, have, I think, very positive relations.

We’ve advanced our trade agreements, our trade agreements with Chile, with Peru, with Colombia, with Panama. We have – I had a good visit when I went down to Brazil because we had some, obviously, some issues we wanted to work on – also Colombia. But I will be going to Mexico. We had to cancel the one trip because of an emergency. We plan to go. I regret not being able to have gotten there yet.

In fact, we have talked internally here in the State Department about a very hopeful approach to a stronger connection between Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America. And we think there’s a huge potential in the long run for a much stronger trade relationships out of exchanges, engagement that, frankly, makes us even more powerful economically than we are today.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, one of the things critics point out is that the U.S. has – is negotiating a trade agreement – Asian countries that --


QUESTION: -- the TPP and the Trans-Atlantic, but there’s no trans-American partnership. (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, actually the TPP – I mean, one of the reasons for the effort to kind of look outwards in our trade relationship, which is what the TPP is about, is because we have a trade relationship with 12 countries in Latin America. We’re very strongly connected. We have six different trade agreements that constitute those 12 countries and – including the Caribbean. I mean, we have major initiatives in the Caribbean, both in terms of law enforcement and counter-narcotics, but also in terms of trade and the economies.

So I think that – and we’re trying to make them stronger. I mean, I personally engage in one-on-one diplomacy with the foreign minister of Venezuela in an effort to try to see if we couldn’t open up that relationship and try to move it forward. Frankly, we’ve been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, that seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the, sort of, differences that we don’t think really exist. I mean, the United States has not been involved in one effort to deal negatively with the Maduro government. We’re open to dealing more. But it hasn’t been reciprocated.

So I would say to you that I think the reason that we’re looking outwards to the TPP is because we have a Canada trade agreement. We have a Mexico trade agreement. We’re now at the 20th anniversary of NAFTA. We have this 12-nation trade relationship we just ratified recently and I voted for the trade agreements when I was in the Senate with Colombia and Panama. So I believe we could look to a stronger set of initiatives between Canada, the United States, Mexico particularly, and the rest of Latin America. We could do more within the hemisphere.

But at the same time, for all of us, our future economy, economic growth and development is going to rely on moving both to Europe and to the Pacific with respect to the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership and also the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. And those are critical.

QUESTION: But do you foresee the day when there will be a wider, regional treaty with Latin America?

SECRETARY KERRY: I do. Absolutely. I think that would be very exciting. But again, we need to move some countries in Latin America along in order to try to really make that meaningful, because some of them don’t want it today. It’s not that we wouldn’t try to move in that direction, but we still need to try to improve relationships with Ecuador, with Bolivia, with Paraguay. We’d like to see more happen with respect to Venezuela, as I mentioned. And ultimately, if we can promote some reform and change in Cuba there too, there could be possibilities.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Venezuela. There were municipal elections in Venezuela over the weekend. You mentioned that there have been efforts by you and the Obama Administration to improve the relationship. Where does that stand, and in light of yesterday’s – of the recent elections in Venezuela, where is that going? Are you still hopeful, or are you reluctant, sort of?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m always hopeful. I’m an optimist. I’m in this job, and you have to be an optimist in this job. But I’m hopeful anyway. I’m hopeful because I don’t think the elections changed very much fundamentally.

QUESTION: Were they free and fair?

SECRETARY KERRY: The evidence is that they were – there are some questions of irregularities. I know that some of those have been asserted, but I think fundamentally, they were – they met standards, but they didn’t produce the kind of change that I think a number of people thought they might. Our hope is that the government will stop using our relationship as an excuse for not doing other things internally, and really opening up more to the people. We are concerned about the decree powers that have been exercised. We believe those decree powers present a question of potential abuse and reduction of rights of citizens to be able to have their voices heard. There’s increased negative attention on the media there, pressure, other kinds of things.

So we have concerns. But again, I repeat, I reached out personally when we were in Bogota. We had a meeting with the foreign minister. It was supposed to be a ten-minute meeting; we met for about 45 minutes, and I tried as hard as I can to articulate the potential of a new opening of a relationship with the United States. As I said earlier, it’s been hard to see the uptake on that. We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, recently Brazil, Germany, and other countries, citing the NSA surveillance reports, said they wanted to redo – control the internet, to put it simply. And Brazil is setting up its own – or is saying it wants to set up its own internet system. What do you think of that?

SECRETARY KERRY: We think it has very real risks in terms of the integrity of the system itself. Now, I know I say that and people say, “What do you mean? Because the NSA,” et cetera. But no, management of the internet has been safeguarded by the United States as a completely free architecture, as a completely open architecture without any interference whatsoever on the ability of people to have access to store their material and to do the things people like to do on the internet. And we have some of the strongest privacy laws in the world in our country, and they are enforced. So we have opt-in, opt-out. I used to be chairman of the committee within the Senate that dealt with a lot of this, so I’m very familiar with the strength of our standards in our country and the value of that open architecture.

If people begin to break it down and control it locally in ways that some countries might want to, you could wind up with the kinds of problems that we have in Asia and certain parts of, oh, China and other countries. I mean, there are places where people --

QUESTION: You’re talking about censorship.

SECRETARY KERRY: Of censorship, the lack of access, lack of breadth of availability of sites, of flow of information – all kinds of problems. And I think the world needs to look very carefully and cautiously at what they have today and what has been protected by our approach versus what they might have if this were to be disaggregated and broken down into local control.

Now, that said, the NSA problems are real. And President Obama learned about them, I learned about them – they’re not something that we ordered to take place, but they’re there, they existed. The President has ordered a full review, top-to-bottom, of everything that has been going on. He wants to know fully, exactly what the approaches have been, and the President, I think, shortly will speak to the nation, if not the world, to clarify what the United States role will be going forward and what protections we will put in place. I can guarantee you neither the President nor I believe that some of this gathering of information that has taken place in very particular instances and against particular high-level personnel is appropriate, and I think the President will speak to that very clearly in the days ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, have you talked with your counterpart in Brazil? Have you told them how the U.S. feels and what events need to happen?

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I met with the president, and we talked together. She obviously has very deep concerns about it. We respect those; we understand them, and we are addressing those in a dialogue with them in a very bilateral way, but we will also be revealing the results of the President’s review, which I think will be very constructive.

QUESTION: And you said: “shortly.” Are we talking about weeks, months?

SECRETARY KERRY: I can’t give you the exact timeframe. I know the President wants to do it as soon as possible.

QUESTION: Secretary, Cuba. Contractor Alan Gross has been in jail for I don’t know how many years. And do you see the back-door negotiations coming up to any results? I mean --

SECRETARY KERRY: I truly hope so. I have personally been involved in them. My Under Secretary of Political Affairs here in the Department has been involved in them. The White House has been involved. We have all – we have senators who have been involved individually. We’ve been sharing information and sharing different ideas about how to do this. I personally engaged in this a number of years ago, even before becoming Secretary of State. I was involved in trying to see if we could move that forward.

It’s been disappointing that we can’t, but I believe if and when we are able to advance it, it will be through personal and private diplomacy. Nobody’s going to bludgeon this into what we need, and so we need to continue to stay focused.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary --

SECRETARY KERRY: And every day he’s been there is too long. We want him to be released, and we think it’s a matter of humanitarian decency that he be released, but we will continue to work on this. And we’re very hopeful that the Government of Cuba will see that this really works against Cuba’s interests, not for it, and I hope they will see the humanitarian interest in letting him be rejoined with his family.

QUESTION: Going back to your point about the 100,000 Strong Initiative and what the U.S. is doing, two questions: One, you mentioned that you’d like to see a Latin American initiative of some sorts, a regional trade agreement, but are you contemplating it?

And number two, on the 100,000 Strong Educational Initiative, looking at the figures that recently came out from the Open Doors Report, it looks like you’re not on target, on schedule. It looks like it’s going a little bit slow. Or am I wrong?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, that’s fair. That’s fair. It’s not where we want it to be. It is – we’re at about 60,000 students who are coming into the United States, and we’re at about 40,000 students who are going to visit. We want to do better. We have to double that to meet the President’s goal. But we’re working at it. As you know, it is not a grant or a loan program. It’s a cooperative effort with the private sector and with outreach, with facilitation. We’re trying to facilitate more students to be able to come in both directions. I think we’re making progress. We’d like to do better.

QUESTION: On the regional initiative, is it something you’re contemplating, or is it just a hope?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, it’s something I actually have asked some folks here to explore, and I’ve had conversations with a couple of people outside of here who were very knowledgeable about hemispheric relationships and been involved as ambassadors, as trade representatives and so forth. And they’re very encouraging about it, so we’re going to try to do our due diligence on this, and I’m really hopeful. I mean, I am hopeful, but I’m also more than hopeful. I would like to see us try to get something in place.

QUESTION: Last question, Mr. Secretary --

SECRETARY KERRY: I mean, we need a 21st century – I was a kid who came into politics and public life inspired by President Kennedy. And one of the things that most inspired me was the Alliance for Progress. I have great memories of it. It was definitional at the time. Now, we’ve made huge development leaps since then, and we have these 12 countries engaged in the trade relationships. So we don’t need the same kind of developmental effort – although development is important – but we really need to think about how do we maximize this extraordinary market that we have and relationship right here in our own hemisphere?

And I think between Canada, the United States, and Mexico as the major block of it, reaching out to the rest of Central America, the Caribbean, the – Latin America, we ought to be able to forge an even stronger set of partnerships. That’s what I was talking about at the OAS. That’s the vision. That’s why something like the Monroe Doctrine is so antiquated and why we need a definition for this new moment. And we will push forward with it.

And I’ve been here, what, seven months, eight months now – I guess eight months. I got another three years. We’re not finished unless I screw up. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, one last question. Nelson Mandela is in the front pages today. Is there any lesson from Mandela for Latin America? And number two --


QUESTION: -- on Mandela, the fact that he was so close to Fidel Castro, does that somewhat diminish his legacy or his --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, not in the least. This was a man who was global. He had a universal aspect to him. I think the greatest thing about Nelson Mandela was the complete and total absence of hate and focus on the future rather than the past. This is a man who could come out of prison after 27 years and hug his jailer and become very close to him as a friend. I think that is a lesson.

If you look at a place like Colombia where President Santos is trying so hard to negotiate with FARC, I mean, both – everybody should look beyond this struggle that’s been going on for so long and find the common future. That would have been Nelson Mandela’s message to them, would be the message even to Fidel Castro. He’d say, “Let your people be free. Let your people do what we did in South Africa where we defined a nation and gave everybody the opportunity to have a part of that future.”

So I don’t think, even though he – I don’t think he would have been any less focused on freedom, on rights, on human rights for everybody, than he was for the people that he fought to liberate in South Africa. And I think the lesson is focus on the future; don’t be trapped in these old ways of thinking. And I hope that that lesson will be one that leaders throughout the region will think about as we think of the possibilities and the opportunities.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.


QUESTION: Really appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you. Good to see you.