Remarks at the Council of the Americas' 44th Conference on the Americas

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Loy Henderson Hall
Washington, DC
May 7, 2014

I’m very, very happy to be here with all of you, and I thank you for coming here for this meeting. Delighted to be introduced by John. My sister Peggy works up at the UN and she had a chance to work for John, who has served the President and Hillary Clinton and myself so well on the Foreign Affairs Policy Board, and it’s a pleasure for me to be able to welcome him back to the State Department. He’s one of our eminence grises who shares great experience, a road well-traveled, and a lot of good input to some of the very complicated challenges that we’re facing today. He’s also witnessed firsthand the remarkable transformation of the Western Hemisphere, and I think the truth is, we both know, it’s really just the precursor to things to come. And I think the size of the gathering here today, the quality of people assembled here, is testimony to that.

I want to thank Roberta Jacobson for her leadership. As our Assistant Secretary, she is constantly on the road and engaged actively in a lot of the transformations that are taking place here. I also want to thank Senator Tim Kaine, who’s hiding behind the house photographer here. (Laughter.) Tim, I had the pleasure of serving with also on the committee – the Foreign Relations Committee – and he’s just a superb senator and good friend and represents a state which is as forward leaning on trade and technology and the future as any state in the country – a state, I might add, that’s been growing and changing markedly over these last years. So I’m delighted that Tim is here, and you’re going to hear from him, and he does understand the stakes here.

I’m also proud that my governor, Governor Deval Patrick, is here. He’s also going to share some thoughts with you. Deval is in his last year of a two-term stewardship of the state, could have chosen to run again, but I think wants to return to the private sector for a period of time, despite a number of entreaties to do otherwise. And we are deeply appreciative. It was the first state to pass a sensible healthcare plan in the United States, and I just read yesterday that the life expectancy in Massachusetts has risen markedly, definitively, since that has been put in place. So quality of life is up, and businesses in our state are not complaining, but rather, think it’s been a very effective means of providing coverage and lowering costs.

So this is a great opportunity to share thoughts. I mean, this – yeah, I’m just back from Africa yesterday – midnight last night, or the night before last – and I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, South Sudan, Ethiopia. And I’ll tell you this is a world of extraordinary opportunity right now, but also of remarkable change. The transformations taking place are really hard to describe. It’s a very different world from the world I grew up in. I’m a Cold War child who learned how to duck under the desk and take cover for the event of a nuclear war, and some of you here may have shared that experience. Since then, we’ve seen the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the remarkable bursting out of an incredible number of pent-up demand in various places, not the least of which is manifested in this increased sectarianism, increased religious distortion, exploitation, which results in extremism, as well as ideological extremism.

And we see, with what is happening in Nigeria with Boko Haram, the extents to which this can disrupt the world. It’s a challenge to all of us. And what I saw in Africa convinced me, as I talked to leader after leader and asked them how they balance this tension of these challenges that they face – they all talked about poverty and the need to alleviate poverty, and that much of this challenge comes out of this poverty where young people are grabbed at an early stage, proffered a little bit of money. Their minds are bended, and then the money doesn’t matter anymore; they’ve got the minds, and they begin to direct them into these very extreme endeavors.

And for all of us, the truth is it’s not something far away. Every American needs to understand that this is related to security at home, related to the capacity for job growth in the future, related to stability that the absence of may demand, at some point in time, the deployment of some of their sons and daughters to some far-off place in the world. We are all connected today. And everybody increasingly in these countries is dealing with some kind of mobile device, and they’re all tuned in, 24/7, 365 – everybody is connected. And no politician in any part of the world can operate with complete impunity as a result of that.

So this is the world we live in. I might add, in this new era of new partnerships, we think that the partnership means you’ve got to share resources and assets, like in football or soccer. So we’re here to humbly request the services of Lionel Messi for the month of June. We think that would work just fine for our interests. (Laughter.) I had a chance to see the World Cup right here in the other auditorium over there. Vice President Biden and I held an event to celebrate the coming of the World Cup. And we had the actual World Cup there. And I relished it because in all honesty, I wasn’t sure that I would see it here again very soon. (Laughter.) We’re in the tier of death. I don’t know if you know that. We’re poised to take on some of the toughest teams. But I have confidence in our team. They’re coming on strong and we have high hopes.

The bottom line is this: When you travel the world, as I get to as Secretary of State representing our great nation and all of the opportunities that all of you represent in our businesses, I really get to see both the challenge and the opportunity. And the opportunity is staggering, absolutely extraordinary. There are so many schools that need to be built, so many roads that need to be built, so much transportation infrastructure that needs to be built, so many people in the world still living on less than $2 a day or less than a dollar a day in many places – all of whom are thirsting to be part of that growing middle class that you see in countless numbers of countries.

So if you’re in business, as you all are, you’re staring at untold opportunity. And I’ll speak in a moment about some of that. You see regions of the world, obviously, that are in crisis and full of promise at the same time, all of them struggling to break out of an old cycle of this violence and poverty, despair, and corruption. Everywhere I go, when I meet with the foreign ministers or prime ministers or presidents, leaders of these countries, in some case monarchs still, you will find those leaders are struggling to open doors and make tough decisions. And I share with them the stories of what we are doing in this hemisphere. It’s a great example. I tell them the story of the American journey, and I can say America North and South. We are proof positive, really the real evidence, if you will, of what can await a lot of countries in the world if they finally make tough decisions and make the right decisions.

And I share this for one simple reason: It’s true. I came to the senate in 1985. John referred to that a moment ago in his introduction, how we were there together working together during a very difficult time. I know he remembers it very, very well. It was a period when the region only seemed to land in the headlines for the wrong reasons – violence, upheaval, repression, whether it was Guatemala or Nicaragua or El Salvador or Colombia. I remember when we were struggling over the Plan Colombia. We were dealing with the questions of narcotics and corruption. It was a very difficult era – a government literally under siege. I think thirteen supreme court justices were assassinated in one moment, and presidential candidates were assassinated. There was a question as to the viability of the system. But today, this story of this hemisphere is exhibit A that incredible progress is possible when there’s the right kind of leadership.

Today it’s crystal clear that if we work together and play our cards right, the Western Hemisphere can become literally the most stable and prosperous region in the world. That’s the possibility that we think we’re looking at.

Just think about it. Over the last decade, the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean grew at a rate of 4 percent a year, and this growth has lifted the lives of citizens. In the past decade alone, as trade between the United States and the Americas nearly tripled, more than 73 million people in Latin America were lifted out of the poverty that I referred to a few minutes ago. Seventy-three million people – you could take all the people in New York, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, and Bogota, and you still wouldn’t be halfway to that number of people who have been lifted out of poverty.

It’s a great story. It didn’t happen by accident. It happened by integrating markets, by incentivizing innovation, by creating new opportunities for citizens of all backgrounds. In short, it happened because leaders and institutions were willing to make the tough decisions to break away from the past, to try to make peace where there were insurgencies, and to open up new markets with trade agreements. They were prepared to commit to the future.

But even as we celebrate the growth that has spread through our hemisphere, it doesn’t mean we can sort of sit back and say, “Okay, job done, take a break.” It means that we have to develop a strategy to invest in the lasting, shared prosperity needed to lift up our section of the world for decades to come, and I believe that’s possible. That’s our goal. I believe there are four areas in particular where we will get the most return on our investments, and none of them, I think, will surprise you.

First and foremost is education. I’m preaching to the choir, I know, but we’ve got to make sure, still, despite your acceptance of this, it doesn’t automatically translate into the kind of political process necessary to guarantee we’re doing what we need to do. And the numbers of young people coming online in countries is staggering and way ahead of the numbers of desks and chairs and teachers and buildings for them to get that education. The fact is that the people in our hemisphere, young Americanos, are global learners, and we have to make sure that they can be those global learners so that they can thrive in the economies that we are developing.

And that is exactly the thinking behind President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas, an effort to increase student exchanges throughout our hemisphere in both directions. And we’re very successfully moving to grow to those numbers. All you have to do is ask a young woman from Paraguay by the name of Cecilia Martinez Gomez. She was a terrific student in high school, and when she was finished, she decided that she wanted to come to the United States for college and study English. The only problem was every program that she came across was far too expensive for her to be able to consider it. Through the connections that we have built with 100,000 Strong, Cecilia was able to participate in a program at Wichita State University in Kansas where she then eventually earned her bachelor’s degree. A couple of years later, she went on to get a master’s degree in public administration. And now she’s thriving and giving back.

So education’s only the first step, and I think everybody here understands that. Then you have to answer the question: So what comes next? You come out of school. Can you find a job? Is your economy growing? Will you have the skills necessary to be able to do what you want to do? And what happens to all these young people after graduation? And that’s why trade and economic integration are the next areas that we need to put our effort into and our investment.

Now, already, the United States has free trade agreements with 12 countries in the hemisphere. That is more than any other region in the world. And under the President’s leadership, we have also helped expand the hemisphere’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Chile and Peru, and beyond, and also to include Canada and Mexico. A number of nations in our hemisphere are already particularly important Pacific Rim players, and many of those without a Pacific coast are actually taking steps to now strengthen their ties with Asia as a result. So we’re looking to our partners in the Americas as a natural complement to our strategy in the 21st century Pacific. And you all saw the success of the President’s trip in moving Prime Minister Abe to a point of acceptance of and advancing the TPP, and also advancing it in Philippines and South Asia.

We’ve also redoubled our commitment to NAFTA, which actually turned 20 this year. I remember that debate, a very tough, very bitter debate which lingered in our politics for some period of time. But it remains the greatest single step toward shared prosperity in this hemisphere. And in recent years, we’ve seen greater collaboration between the United States, Canada, and Mexico than ever before in our history, growing all the time. I will be in Mexico in a few weeks to continue that dialogue, and the President was there just a few weeks ago. Tim Kaine, I think, is going to talk to you a little bit about the critical relationship we share with Mexico. But today, I’m pleased to be able to share with you this – my plan to be there in Mexico City later in the month, because Mexico has become a very valued partner on so many issues, especially on the economic challenges both within North America and beyond. So I’m very much looking forward to my visit.

But for all the success and growth that we’ve seen, I don’t think there’s anybody sitting here who doesn’t think we can do more. Of course we can, and we have to do more. And if we do, then the Western Hemisphere – think about this – the Western Hemisphere can wind up being literally the leader of the global market for decades to come. And I say that with some sense of assurance when I look at some of the developmental issues, challenges of infrastructure, challenges of politics, challenges of capital flow and other – market access, other kinds of things that exist in other parts of the world. But if we get the TPP and the TTIP, both of which equal 40 percent of the market each, globally, you are talking about changing trade relationships and business capacity all across the planet.

Real economic integration will require us to do two things: reduce the cost of doing business across borders by opening up trade throughout Central and South America, and increase access to international markets for big business and small business alike. As we’ve seen here in the United States, this will require some more creative thinking. Over the past decade, U.S. small businesses have generated the majority of net growth in new jobs, but still less than 1 percent of America’s 30 million small companies export their goods and services out of the country.

That’s one of the reasons why President Obama has launched the Small Business Network of the Americas. The Network connects more than 1,000 small businesses – small business development centers in the United States with thousands of centers in Latin America in order to help build the kind of relationships that make exporting more easy and effective at the same time, and accessible to people.

Now, that’s just one of many programs that we have in place to make it easier for entrepreneurs in the hemisphere to access markets, to access capital, training, and leadership opportunities. We’re also very proud of the Pathways to Prosperity Innovation Challenge and the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas initiative, better known as WE Americas.

So far, WE Americas has benefited some 20,000 women. An example: an entrepreneur, Vanessa Mazorra, who comes from El Salvador, and she owns a clothing and accessories company. Not so long ago, she produced about 500 pieces a month. But thanks to WE Americas support from the State Department and USAID, she has been able to significantly expand her operations and begin exporting internationally, including to the United States. Today, she produces nearly 3,000 pieces a month and growing. And last year, the Salvadoran Corporation of Exporters named her the Small and Medium Enterprise Exporter of the year. That’s what can happen. And it’s a program that we are excited about and will grow and want to work with you to try to get out there and get other people to understand exists.

Day after day, we are seeing how relatively small investments – these are not big deals, complicated – but relatively small investments can have enormous business benefits. And this spreads way beyond just the individual – spreads into the community, and ultimately even an entire country as you begin to attack that fundamental issue of creating a middle class and lifting people out of poverty.

Continued economic growth will also require us to invest in the third area I want to discuss today very quickly: energy security. You all saw the report, I hope, today – the front page of The Washington Post and New York Times – are very clear about a very important report released by the Administration yesterday with respect to climate change. I, again, see this all over the world, and I think you probably do too, the consequences. Yet you will still read within the article the doubts some Americans still have about this being a frontline issue. But today it is clear that the world’s new energy map – and this is a huge transformational moment in this regard – the world’s new energy map is no longer centered on the Middle East but on the Western Hemisphere. The region will account for two-thirds of the growth in the world’s oil supply over the next two decades. But oil and gas are only part of the big picture. And we also know that while many of the hemisphere’s largest countries are increasingly global energy producers, many of the hemisphere’s smallest countries are bearing the brunt of the burden when it comes to high-energy prices and the disastrous impacts of climate change, as the scientific report from the White House yesterday just confirms.

Unfortunately, these impacts are only going to get worse. And without serious reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, we are looking at some very expensive choices for people. So this hemisphere needs to commit and needs to lead the world in terms of moving rapidly to energy resources that are used more responsibly and more sustainably. And there are leaders here among you who are doing exactly that. For example, last year Mexico passed comprehensive climate change legislation that included ambitious greenhouse gas targets. I can’t emphasize enough: If you really want to address the problem of climate change, you enhance energy security and you reduce energy costs. And we know exactly what we have to do. The solution to climate change is energy policy. And we have to do a better job, all of us, in investing in new clean energy technologies and connecting energy markets from Chile to Canada.

And here in the United States, this is an extraordinary opportunity. We don’t even have a grid. We have an east coast grid, a west coast grid, a Texas grid, and a little line that goes from Chicago out towards the Dakotas. That’s it. Huge centerpiece opening in the belly of America. You can’t sell energy from those wind farms of Minnesota or Iowa to somewhere in the South. You can’t sell solar thermal energy from the South to the North where they need it. It’s ridiculous. It’s almost insulting for a great country like ours with our capital and our capacity not to have yet developed a modern, smart energy grid for this nation.

So we believe in this future of energy policy for this hemisphere, of linking Canada, U.S., Mexico, to all the way down through Latin America. And that’s exactly the idea behind a program that we have created called Connecting the Americas 2022. This initiative is about encouraging private sector investment in renewable energy and ultimately providing cheaper, cleaner, more reliable power for citizens all across the region. And already we are seeing encouraging progress. The final 25 miles of SIEPAC power transmission, the line in Costa Rica, ought to be completed later this year. And once that happens, all six Central American countries will be linked into one power grid for the first time in history. Think what could happen if we could all be linked ultimately.

Finally – and by the way, this is the biggest market in the world. The market that made America wealthy in the 1990s, where every single quintile of American income earner saw their income go up, was a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users. The market I just described for energy is a $6 trillion market today, 4-5 billion users, and going up to 9 billion users over the course of the next 20, 30, 40 years. It’s the biggest market in the history of human kind, and we need to be on the frontline of tapping into it and leading the world to it. And by the way, what I saw in Africa was this extraordinary demand for energy. It’s a huge restraint on growth, and one of the key components of what they need to do. So this is global, and if we don’t do it in the right way – read today’s newspapers – it’s going to be disastrous.

So if we want to bring about the prosperous, stable future that we dream of, the fourth area that all governments in the Americas must invest in is good governance. If we manage revenue effectively and transparently and maintain a sufficient tax base, then our nations can invest in the services and infrastructure needed to support social mobility and competitive economies. But I got to tell you: Corruption and fragile institutions drive down investor confidence and deny citizens economic opportunities, exacerbating crime and insecurity, chasing away capital, and leaving doubts about the possibilities. And they produce an environment, as a result, where innovation and economic growth simply can’t thrive.

That’s one of the many reasons why the United States is deeply concerned by the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, for instance. We believe the future of Venezuela is for the people of Venezuela to decide. And the people in the streets have legitimate grievances that deserve to be addressed. And the serious and worsening economic and social challenges in Venezuela can only be resolved with the input of those people. So we support the UNASUR-sponsored dialogue in the hope that it will allow Venezuelans to come together and take on the challenges that they face. But make no mistake: We will never stop defending the basic human rights that are essential to any functioning democracy, including the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

Now for these same reasons, of course, we remain concerned about the Cuban people. None of us want to see the Cuban people continue to be left behind as the rest of the hemisphere advances. Since 2009, President Obama’s Cuba policy has been geared towards loosening the dependence of Cubans on the state and strengthening independent civil society. There’s an important overlap between U.S. policy and the emerging micro-entrepreneurial sector in Cuba.

President Obama’s goal has always been to empower Cubans to freely determine their own futures. And the most effective tool we have to promote this goal is helping to build deeper connections between the Cuban and American peoples. The hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who now send remittances and who travel each year under the President’s policies, they are critical to ensuring that the Cuban people have more of the opportunities that they deserve.

Now I know the Council of Americas has proposed steps that could be taken to further support Cuban entrepreneurs, and we want to thank you for those recommendations, and we very much appreciate those suggestions as we continue to evaluate the policies that we have in place today, and I can promise you we will do so.

We are immensely proud of this hemisphere’s positive trajectory, and we look forward to helping it move forward in the days ahead, including next month when our Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom leads the U.S. delegation to the OAS General Assembly in Paraguay. But it’s clear to all of you, I think, for our trajectory to continue in the direction we want it to, for these investments in education and the other investments that I’ve described – in trade and economic integration, in energy security and in good governance – for all of these to bring home the unity and the integration and the future that we want, we all are going to have to stay together, we’re going to have to continue to engage; we’re going to have to continue to push leaders, in some cases, to lead to the full potential. And in the end, I’m convinced this hemisphere has the ability to define a hemispheric future that is very different from anything that we lived in the 20th century.

The 21st century can be a time of new definition of possibilities for people. And as you see the incredible input of people who have come to America as immigrants from throughout this hemisphere, who love the fact that that they are today American, but always will remember where they came from and take pride in their language and their culture and make America richer because of it – that’s the definition that we get to make. We are – the beauty of America is we’re not defined by ethnicity and we’re not defined by – or we shouldn’t be. Maybe in some places people still fall into bad habits. But basically that’s not what defines America. America is defined as an idea. An idea. Read the Declaration of Independence. Look at the Constitution. That defines the idea. And more and more people are excited by and buying into that idea. And I’m convinced that if we focus on the things I laid out today, we’re going to give that idea definition that will have resonance all across this planet.

The one thing I have said since the day I was nominated for this job is economic policy is foreign policy, and foreign policy is economic policy. And we see that more today in this globalized world than at any other time. So all of you are instruments of our ability to market our values and protect our interests at the same time. And I thank you for being part of the Council and your willingness to do that. Thank you. (Applause.)