Remarks at "Foro de Rectores de Las Americas"

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Panama City, Panama
April 9, 2015

Thank you so much. Thank you. Muchas gracias and buenos tardes. I’m very honored to be here. University rectors and the Ministry of Education representatives and students, distinguished guests: It’s really a pleasure for me to be here at this historic Summit, and I deeply appreciate the chance to share a few thoughts with you here this afternoon.

Let me begin by thanking Education Minister Marcela Paredes not just for her generous introduction, which I could have listened to all night – (laughter) – but for her remarkable commitment to educational opportunities throughout the hemisphere. She is a great leader and a great spokesperson for what we’ve come here to talk about today.

And I met Minister Paredes when I came here – it was my first meeting with her during President Varela’s inauguration. And I brought with me at that time as a guest the now former governor of Massachusetts – he was then the governor – Deval Patrick, and he’s a huge education passionate advocate. And I want you to know that when the two of them got together and started talking about what they were able to do to promote education, it took over the whole meeting; it was finished.

Minister Varela summed up the challenge that we face when she said that we must “reflect on our starting points on where we stand, on where we want to go, and how to better invest our resources in order to adapt them to the needs of children’s education.”

Now, I think everyone in this room shares that conviction. In a world that is changing faster and becoming more interconnected than ever before, education more so than ever before, is the ladder of opportunity for people all across the planet. And that is why the expansion of educational opportunity has, from the beginning, been a central focus of the Summit of the Americas. It is why President Obama launched 100,000 Strong in the Americas to increase the number of young people from the region who are studying in the United States and the number of students from the United States attending universities in the region. It is why, here in Panama, President Varela began the Panama Bilingue program, which sends more than a thousand school teachers each year to universities in the United States and the United Kingdom for professional training. And I hope we will all say thank you to Eneida Lopez and Marta Lewis de Cardoze of the Galindo Foundation for their leadership of Panama Bilingue. We are grateful for what they do. (Applause.)

In 1994, when President Clinton invited 33 democratically elected leaders to Miami for the first Summit of the Americas, those leaders had a shared understanding of the mission. Together, they pledged to open new markets, create free trade zones, strengthen democratic institutions, respect human rights, and invest in the building blocks of social progress – including health care and education at all levels. President Clinton said simply: “If we’re successful, the summit will lead to more jobs, opportunity and prosperity for our children and for generations to come.”

Today, as we gather in Panama City for the Seventh Summit, we find ourselves encouraged by the progress that has been made. We also find ourselves determined to close the gaps that still exist, and more aware than ever that we will go forward together or we’ll fall back together.

Now, the progress has not always been steady. It hasn’t always been fast. But progress has been hard won. I think about the first trip that I made to Central America as a United States Senator. This was almost 30 years ago now, a time when much of the hemisphere seemed to wind up in the headlines for only for the wrong reasons – for wars, military governments, narcotics cartels – you name it. Few people back then were certain of a brighter future. Fewer probably thought we could turn the tide.

Well, today, the tide has turned and it has been turning for some time, thanks to the efforts of everybody in the region itself.

In country after country, the people of the Americas have strengthened their democracies and taken steps to ensure the fundamental freedoms of their citizens. And in many places, democracy has brought not only freedom from fear, but freedom from want. In the last decade, the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean grew at a rate of 4 percent a year. Incomes are rising. The middle class is growing. And the gap, the gap between the rich and poor – though still far too wide – is narrowing faster than in any other region.

We’ve also learned an important lesson since 1994 – and that is the extent to which progress depends not only on what governments do on their own, but on how willing they are to listen, to experiment, and to act in partnership with the private sector, civil society, educators, leaders from the scientific community. In our era, in this day and age, each day we wake up to a new world. We have to move forward constantly just to keep pace. And our democracies, frankly – ours too in the United States – need to be more agile; they need to be more responsive to citizens’ demands for greater opportunity and for greater accountability. And to get ahead, it is imperative that we set ambitious goals. We have to pursue them relentlessly. We have to hold people in public office like myself accountable. And we have to mean -- sometimes we have to actually upset some people and take a few risks. None of us should be willing to settle for the status quo. It’s unacceptable.

And that is why this first-ever Rectors’ Forum at the Summit of the Americas is so important. And the question we have to ask ourselves is: How do we together best work to create jobs, to create opportunity, to build prosperity for our children and for generations to come?

Well, let me offer an answer to the questions I just asked. There’s really a three-word answer to that question: Education, innovation, conservation.

Now make no mistake: These three words articulate not separate, but rather interlocking challenges. Without learning, our citizens will lack the knowledge and the skills that they have to have to compete in the 21st century in this new, fast-moving information age, information management economy. And without innovation, many of those who graduate from top universities will still be unable to find good jobs. And without clean energy, our economies will be held hostage to costly, unpredictable, nonrenewable resources of power, and that will lead to uneven growth and ultimately, I promise you, it will threaten the very future of all of us. What this means is that we have to tackle these three challenges simultaneously, and believe me, that’s what we intend to do.

Start with education.

We all know that education is a lifelong process. But it has to begin in the earliest days. It has to begin correctly – the earliest days. The brain of a child grows mostly in the first three years, certainly the first three to seven to eight years are the most important in terms of ability to learn for a lifetime. In the United States, we have seen a big push in recent years in order to try to move towards expanding access to kindergarten, so that children start learning as soon as they are able to. Globally, one of the Millennium Development Goals has been to ensure that every child – girls and boys – are able to attend primary school. Enormous progress has been made in that direction, and in our hemisphere, primary school attendance is now very near universal. That’s the good news.

Other areas are more troublesome, and this is true in my country as well as many of yours.

For example, we have to be sure that between the time that our children enter school each morning and the time that they leave in the afternoon, they actually learn something. Sitting in a classroom and getting an education are not the same things. There is no shortcut to investing in good teachers, providing quality professional development, and compensating people fairly for the work that they do.

We also have to find better ways to incorporate new curriculum methods and technology into the learning process; just giving a child a tablet or a laptop is not enough. You have to instill the desire in that child to want to learn more, to think critically, and the belief that success in school will actually translate into success in life. And if and only if we are able to do those things will we reduce the alarming number of students who enter the system but then they drop out before graduating from college, from secondary school or – in too many cases – even the seventh or eighth grade.

Another major task that we face in education today is to strengthen the connection between report cards that we give to kids and the paychecks that they’re able to earn afterwards. As this remarkable gathering reflects, there are fine colleges and universities in every part of our hemisphere, from the University of Sao Paulo to the Monterrey Institute of Technology to the Catholic University of Chile. But there is a troubling gap between the skills that schools teach and the expertise that the job market demands. Many of the region’s young people graduate with degrees that leave them ill-suited for available positions. And this gap is as frustrating to our students as it is to potential employers – and we’re working to bridge it and we all need to work to bridge it together.

Given the number of young people in the region, this basically ought to be a fixable problem. In the United States, we have developed a very strong community college system, and it is empowered by direct involvement in the curriculum design and hands-on career counseling from the private sector. And that’s how we try to bridge the gap, by getting the private sector involved in the curriculum. And that’s why President Obama has proposed to Congress the enactment of legislation that would guarantee access to community college for every student who applies for it, regardless of their ability to pay. It’s why, in Jamaica earlier today, President Obama announced $68 million in new funding for programs that will expand education, training, and employment programs for youth throughout Central America and the Caribbean.

And I am especially pleased that we are joined this evening by the Secretary of State of Puerto Rico. The Secretary is here with a number of Puerto Rican rectors whose universities are ready to welcome Latin American and Caribbean students to an American educational experience on the Isla del Encanto.

So we’re approaching this issue with the urgency that it deserves. At the 2009 Summit of the Americas, the United States launched our Scholarships for Economic Growth program, which provided $50 million for 1,300 students from Latin America and the Caribbean to be able to get vocational training in the United States. President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas builds on that effort, and the results speak for themselves: Already, more than 72,000 students are coming to the United States each year from Latin America and the Caribbean. And nearly 47,000 U.S. students benefit from studying abroad in the region. Students like Natascha Moscoa from Costa Rica and Day Moore from Connecticut, who started a joint venture to empower women entrepreneurs. Students like Luis Santiago from the Dominican Republic, who studied in Chicago and then returned home to promote innovation and expand information in his community.

Their success reflects a very important truth. Students who are able to spend a portion of their time learning in other countries have a significant advantage: They return home equipped with greater confidence, new skills, the ability to speak a foreign language and they work the ability to also work in a foreign culture. And guess what – they come back with friends and contacts that will last a lifetime. I cannot tell you how many foreign ministers I have met in the course of serving as Secretary of State who say to me: I so enjoyed my time learning at Columbia or California or wherever it was, and vice versa; I meet people who tell me how much they learned when they went to study in another country. It makes all the difference in the world.

That’s why the United States isn’t just continuing the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative. Guess what – we’re doubling down on that initiative. We’ve already raised millions of dollars from the private sector for the Innovation Fund, which awards grants to universities to promote study abroad and programs between the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. We’ve awarded 47 grants to more than 100 higher education institutions across the region in order to expand their capacity to send and to host exchange students. We believe in this program. And today, I am pleased to congratulate the most recent Innovation Fund grant winners in the United States, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, and Paraguay. These university partnerships will create new exchange programs for students that can have a transformative impact, which is exactly why they are such a high priority for me as Secretary of State.

Now, all of this leads to the second big challenge that I want to just say a word about today – and that concerns the jobs of the future. Nothing will be meaningful, no expectations will be met, without jobs – good jobs that genuinely open the doors of opportunity and improve the quality of life. What are these jobs? Where are they going to come from? How are they going to be developed? Who is going to benefit from them the most?

I’m willing to bet that at the heart of any story that you have heard about someone lifting themselves out of poverty, there’s a new job, a new opportunity to make a better living that came to them. Well, in Latin America and in the Caribbean, as in the United States and Canada, more than half of the new jobs are created by small and medium-size businesses. So if our goal is to reduce poverty, expand the middle class, help families create a better life for their children, the answer’s pretty simple – we need to innovate. And that means doing more to help small businesses create jobs and tap into global markets.

Now, you think I’m making this up, that this is not a reality? Believe me, we are – I’m able to say this to you because we’re doing it.

America is fortunate – the United States is fortunate to possess one of the world’s most extensive small business support networks. I saw this firsthand when I served as Chairman of the Small Business Committee in the United States Senate. The Small Business Administration, led by my colleague Maria Contreras-Sweet, provides training and counseling services to a million small businesses every year at more than 1,000 small business development centers that we have created across our country. And I’m proud that the agency has become a model for the region.

Just run the list: Brazil’s SEBRAE centers support more than a million small businesses across Brazil. Mexico has created a new National Entrepreneurship Institute, which is working to integrate hundreds of incubators and small business development centers. In Chile, President Bachelet has undertaken a new initiative to create 50 small business development centers. And El Salvador has shown great leadership in Central America by dedicating scarce resources to support 12 centers.

So we really have a great foundation to build on. But the fact is, you can never do too much to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. You just can’t. And that is exactly why President Obama launched the Small Business Network of the Americas to connect thousands of centers across the hemisphere and help entrepreneurs get the training and the counseling and the support that they need in order to enter new markets. One of the things that I learned when I was chairman of the committee was a lot of people have no idea how actually easy it is to access a global marketplace. And with a little bit of help, a mom or a pop enterprise of two or three people can become 12, and 15, and 20, and grow into a larger business. Many of these connection points that I’m talking about are located on university campuses. And I encourage all of you to speak to your counterparts in El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Chile, and the United States, and other countries that are embracing this kind of concept and that are getting the benefits of it as a result.

Now, without doubt, I’m sure you’ll all agree, one of the smartest investments that we can make is on the promise of women and girls. In too many parts of the world still, there’s a discrimination and they’re left behind. No country – no country can make it in today’s world leaving half of its population on the bench. No economy can thrive when women are not given a seat at the table. And that’s why President Obama launched the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas Initiative: To give women and girls the training and the tools that they need to become the next presidents, CEOs, and entrepreneurs in their communities. And one thing that we know for certain: Empowering women is an investment that is guaranteed to show enormous returns, not just in terms of the balance sheet but in terms of the social structure, and often in terms of peace and stability.

So education and innovation are critical. But we also need to think ahead and realize that the strongest economies will be built on the power sources of the future, not the past. Many of the clean energy technologies that will help ignite whole new industries are far cheaper, more readily available, and better performing than they were just 10 years ago – and we can use them, we must use them, to curb climate change even as we know they have all the benefits on the upside of creating new jobs. The solution to climate change, my friends, which is real and coming at us fast, is energy policy – good energy policy makes good climate solutions. It’s that simple.

Just imagine the possibilities. We were blessed in America to see more growth in the 1990s than at any recent time in American history – in recent history, since the 1920s, the great age of wealth creation when there was no income tax, and the early part of the Industrial Revolution. But the market of the 1990s, which saw every single income level in America go up, was a 1 trillion dollar market, with 1 billion users. The global energy market we are looking at today is a 6 trillion dollar market already with 4 to 5 billion users, and it’s going to go up to 9 billion users as the population of the planet grows in the next 30, 40 years. Think of that: 9 billion users in the next decades. By 2040, investment in the power sector is expected to reach nearly $20 trillion. That is an enormous amount of investment. And we want to see clean, accessible energy be the biggest slice of that pie.

So how do realize the full potential of this opportunity?

To begin, we need leaders with the political courage to set us on the right path. And I am proud to serve with a President who has accepted that challenge. Today, thanks to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the United States is well on its way to meeting our international commitments to cut greenhouse gases emissions by 2020. And that’s because we’re going straight to the largest sources of pollution. We’re targeting emissions from cars, trucks, utilities, which account for about 60 percent of greenhouse gases that we release. And we’re also tackling more modest opportunities so that we cover every sector of the economy and every variety of greenhouse gas.

We’re also investing in cleaner alternatives. Since President Obama took office, the United States has upped its wind energy production by three times. We’ve increased our solar energy generation more than ten times. We’ve also become smarter about the way we use energy in our homes and in our businesses. And all of these are big steps.

But I can’t emphasize this fact enough: No single country – not China, not the United States, not India – no single country can solve this problem or foot this bill alone. Climate change is not an abstract future concern. Its effects are already on us right now. I think we had something like $110 billion of costs last year to make up for the fires and the floods and the extraordinary storms and all of the damage that was done by increased tides and so forth.

Here in Panama, extreme weather events are creating cycles of flood and drought and they’re threatening the water supplies that enable the Panama Canal to operate effectively and supply electricity. Just a few years ago, due to a record storm, the canal had to close for only the third time in its 100-year history, disrupting one of the world’s most important economic lifelines. In Peru, where I attended the climate change conference in December, tropical glaciers and fisheries are under threat. We’ve seen sea level rise contribute to the erosion of Puerto Rico’s coastline around Rincon. And coral reefs are at risk from warming waters and ocean acidification. The number of major hurricanes in the Atlantic basin has increased and then it increased some more, and that hurts tourism. Some of your nations, especially those in this region and in the Caribbean, climate change may well be the single gravest danger to security and prosperity. So when I say we need a global solution, I mean it. Anything less won’t work.

But still in our hemisphere, there are several steps that we can take without waiting for the rest of the world. You don’t have to wait for the rest of the world, and we can’t afford to wait for the rest of the world.

Governments can follow the United States and Mexico and commit to strong post-2020 plans that mitigate the impacts of climate, and that will increase the chances that we can have a successful outcome at the Paris negotiations that will take place this December. All the countries of the world will be coming together in Paris to try to deal with climate change, and we all need to live up to our responsibility to set the targets now so this can be successful.

Second, we can encourage governments, businesses, and consumers to rely less on costly fossil fuels. That means investing more in mass transit, in renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, sustainable hydro. It’s why, in Jamaica earlier today, President Obama launched a new Clean Energy Finance Facility for Central America and the Caribbean and a task force to do everything that we can do in order to promote clean energy development and energy security.

Third, we can push for the world’s highest standards in the environmental chapters of the trade agreements that some of us are pursuing, and that includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, which will build prosperity throughout our hemisphere, and it will do so based on shared principles and shared values. It’s not just a technical trade agreement. It’s a strategic opportunity for all of us, and we need to seize it.

Finally, we can bring the private and public sectors together with our leading academic institutions – with all of you – to make the most of the innovative clean energy technology that entrepreneurs are developing today, including technology that increases the efficiency of appliances, vehicles, and machines.

So there we have it, ladies and gentlemen: Education, innovation, conservation. Three words. One big challenge. And I have absolute confidence in our ability to succeed. But it is going to take all of us, working together, getting rid of the ideology, getting rid of the politics, looking at each other and talking common sense and coming together to make our shared vision a reality for this hemisphere. And in the doing of it, there are millions of jobs to be created. Life will be better. Health will be better. The environment will be better. The economy will be better. And security will be better.

More than a century ago, one of my predecessors visited Panama at a time of great challenge and opportunity in the region. On his tour through the entire region, he spoke at a meeting of the American Republics in Rio de Janeiro. And he said simply this, I quote: “Not in a single conference, nor by a single effort, can very much be done. You labor more for the future than for the present; but if the right impulse be given, if the right tendency be established, the work you do here will go on among all the millions of people in the American continents long after your final adjournment, long after your lives, with incalculable benefit to all of our beloved countries.” That’s the challenge.

The seventh Summit of the Americas may be just a single conference, but it reflects an energy and a determination and a set of hopes and aspirations that connects the present to the future in a way that could not be more uplifting or real. Because when we join together to expand the boundaries of education, to unleash the spirit of innovation that is so widely present in our young, and to harness clean and renewable sources of power – when we change what tomorrow will look like for hundreds of millions of people from the Chilean foothills to the furthest reaches of Alaska’s North Slopes – when we do that, we’re meeting our obligations as citizens, not just of our countries but of the world.

Obviously, we are looking at a time of great challenge, with particular parts of the world witnessing upheaval and violence. Governance is more demanding as it deals with greater cultural, religious, ideological complexity in a world of instant communications. But the same thing that brings us the complexity actually brings us greater opportunity, and we have, all of us, learned lessons from the past.

So here at the dawn of the 21st century, here at the seventh Summit of the Americas, I hope we will overcome the stereotypes and not fall victim to the cynicism, but rather make the most of this extraordinary period of innovation, entrepreneurial activity, and individual opportunity. And I have great faith in the Americas’ ability to lead the world in doing that. Thank you all very, very much.