Remarks at the 45th Annual Washington Conference of the Council of the Americas
Secretary of State
I want to thank Roberta. I think all of you will agree that she’s done an extraordinary job. And I want to thank the council, actually, for hosting us. It’s a privilege for me to be able to join you at an extraordinary moment of both promise and challenge in the Americas. Roberta has been our point person on a lot of this. I think you’ll all agree that she has led our engagement in the hemisphere with enormous skill, speaking out forcefully on democracy, on freedom of expression, human rights. She is constantly working to deepen our regional partnerships on everything from trade and investment to energy security to climate change. And she is at the very center of our evolving relationship with Cuba. So Roberta, thank you for your tremendous work. (Applause.) And don’t rest on your laurels. We’ve got a lot of work to do. (Laughter.)
This morning, I’m not going to mince words. This is an audience of experts. And I look around, I see a lot of people I know and recognize. As Roberta mentioned to you a moment ago, we’ve just returned from the seventh Summit of the Americas, but in some ways the first. It’s the first that’s attended by the representatives from every country in the hemisphere; a summit with greater participation by civil society, and a robust private sector dialogue that many of you contributed to. So that’s different, and it’s a reflection of the transformation taking place. It is, in fact, a transformative moment for the Americas, and we are determined to deliver on the strategic and historic opportunities that together we can create.
The policy of the United States is clear. As President Obama said in Panama, and I quote him, “When I came to my first Summit of the Americas six years ago, I promised to begin a new chapter of engagement in this region. I believed that our nations had to break free from the old arguments, the old grievances that had too often trapped us in the past, that we had a shared responsibility to look to the future and to think and act in fresh ways. I pledged to build a new era of cooperation between our countries, as equal partners, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
I think there can be no doubt – I, John Kerry, think that there can be no doubt that, under President Obama’s leadership, the United States is meeting that commitment – and not solely because of our new policy towards Cuba.
Earlier this year, the Administration asked Congress to approve a $1 billion program to support our neighbors in Central America and to address the region’s interlocking security, governance, and economic challenges. In recent years, the lack of opportunity has fueled unacceptable levels of violence and crime. An estimated 6 million young Central Americans will enter the work force just in the next decade. If opportunity isn’t there, folks, I think every single one of you knows that we will reap the consequences.
The message about these consequences and about these possibilities was at the heart of what President Obama said in Panama and it is reflected in the attitudes of people from every part of our hemisphere today. Although there remain a few who seem frozen in the amber of past arguments, discredited economic theories, and obsolete chauvinism, the vast majority of people from this hemisphere care much less about what was than about what is and what can be in the future.
This new generation of Americans is more connected, more socially aware, more ambitious, more demanding than any prior generation, and they ought to be. In touch with the world, they have very high expectations for their governments and for their own lives. They insist on a say not only in who governs, but by what means and for what purposes and for whose benefit? They’re impatient with impediments to social and economic mobility. They perceive a need for change and fully intend to help bring about the transformation that is needed throughout the hemisphere.
These attitudes are also a challenge, but they’re more than that. They are a symptom of how far the region has come in recent decades. Many of the grandparents and the parents of the new generation grew up under military dictatorships, often in countries where the divide between the rich and the poor was absolute, and half the population – women and girls – was marginalized. Many grew up amid wars – both cold and hot – wars that tore nations apart and fueled lingering grievances and impeded unity and bred suspicion.
But in the past 20 years, my friends, since that first Summit of the Americas, an enormous amount of healing and transformation has taken place. Democratic institutions have taken root. Prosperity has grown. Latin America today is home to a large and growing middle class. Governments in the region have embarked on innovative programs to reduce inequality and to spur sustained growth. Women don’t just participate in government; increasingly, they head governments. The Latin America and Caribbean of today is far different than it was a quarter of a century ago.
But the question on everyone’s mind is: How will the region look a quarter of a century from now? Now, lacking a crystal ball, I don’t have a conclusive answer to that. But I’ll tell you, I can say with confidence that the prospects for the region will improve dramatically to the extent that countries within the hemisphere are able to work with, rather than against, each other.
So what we need is for a common agenda for the shared progress, a blueprint for the next steps that will help to ensure the democratic and economic promise in the region is actually fulfilled. That is why the United States is engaged throughout the Americas on priorities that our partner governments and its citizens themselves have identified as important. These priorities fall into three broad categories. They include the building blocks of shared prosperity – education, innovation, trade, investment. They include energy and environmental security. And they include reconciliation and strengthening democratic and inter-American institutions across the board.
So start with the building blocks of prosperity. The opening clause of the Inter-American Democratic Charter reads: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” And it continues: “Democracy is essential for the social, political, and economic development of the peoples of the Americas.”
So in fact, the Americas were ahead of the curve in defining democracy as a right and in linking that right explicitly to the development of nations. Now we ought to be proud of that, all of us. This is a region that has successfully and peacefully moved from authoritarian to democratic governments, from closed to open economies, from isolation to integration. And the challenge now is to complete that set of transitions, to sustain what we achieve, and make our democratic institutions resilient against threats. To succeed, we must do more to empower the people of our hemisphere with education, technology, open governance, and innovation. And that is exactly what we’re trying to do.
At the 2009 Summit of the Americas, the United States launched our Scholarships for Education and Economic Development program, which provided $50 million for 1,300 students from Latin American and Caribbean area to get vocational training in the United States.
President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative builds on that effort. And frankly, 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 beyond our borders but within the region. Since President Obama first announced the 100,000 Strong Initiative in 2011, the student exchange figures are up 13 percent for U.S. students to the region and 12 percent for students from the region to the United States. Students like Natascha Moscoa from Costa Rica and Day Moore from Connecticut started a joint venture to empower women entrepreneurs. Students like Luis Santiago from the Dominican Republic studied in Chicago and then returned home to promote innovation in his home community. Their experience is precisely why the United States is not just continuing the 100,000 Strong Initiative in the Americas; we’re expanding it. We’ve already raised millions of dollars from the private sector for the Innovation Fund, which awards grants to universities to promote study abroad programs between the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere.
And some of the companies represented in this room have been early adopters and supported this particular effort. Why? Because you, those companies, are seeing how these partnerships create new exchange programs for students that could have a transformative impact and build the workforce that you, those companies, need in the 21st century. It works that way. It’s a pretty simple proposition. But sometimes, the simple takes a while to adopt, notwithstanding the extraordinary effects it can have.
We’re also laying the foundation for creating the jobs of the future. In Latin America and the Caribbean, as in the United States and Canada, more than half of new jobs are created by small and medium-sized businesses. So if our goal is to reduce poverty, which it is; to further expand the middle class, which it is; to help families build a better life for their children; which it is; to offer the alternatives to crime and violence, narcotics, and so forth; the answer is pretty simple. We need to not only educate; we need to innovate. And that means doing more to help small businesses promote jobs and tap into the global economy.
I used to be chairman of the Small Business Committee in the United States Senate, and I learned to my amazement how much there is that one can do to help a small businessman or woman actually access a global market even though they may be working out of their back door or back room or their garage, if they’re lucky to have one. There are all kinds of ways to grow. The fact is we can never do too much to promote innovation. And that’s why President Obama launched the Small Business Network of the Americas to connect thousands of centers across the hemisphere and to help entrepreneurs be able to get the training, the counseling, and the support that they need to enter these new markets.
And certainly, one of the smartest investments that we can make is in the promise and the potential of women and girls. I see this all over the world. Afghanistan is a stunning example of a transformation of recent time. No country can get ahead if it leaves half its people behind. No team can win a game with half the team on the bench. It doesn’t work. No economy can thrive when women are not given a seat at the table. And it’s clear from all the evidence that every time women are – and girls – given the opportunity to be able to participate and take part, it changes and transforms, it stabilizes; it opens up the possibilities of democracy, and often, peace. That’s why President Obama launched the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas initiative to give women and girls the training and tools that they need to become the next president, CEOs, and entrepreneurs in their communities.
And that brings me to the issue of trade and investment. In the past two decades, NAFTA has helped to make North America one of the most competitive regions in the world. I was in the Senate then. I remember that debate. I voted for NAFTA. It was a very difficult political issue, and trade remains a difficult political issue. But I am convinced it made a difference for the positive. Our free trade agreements with 12 countries, from Canada to Chile, have expanded economic opportunity for millions there and here. Pacific Alliance countries are pursuing the vision of a more fully integrated and open Latin America. We’re working now with four other countries in this hemisphere on a high-standard Trans-Pacific Partnership. And I am very happy to see trade promotion authority beginning its journey through Congress in preparation for that agreement. TPP will build prosperity throughout the region, and it will do so based on shared principles. This is not just a technical trade agreement. It’s a strategic opportunity to be able to raise standards, to be able to put our values into a trade agreement itself, and we need to seize it.
Another path to shared progress can be found through joint action on clean energy and climate change. Now while many of the hemisphere’s largest countries are global energy producers, many of the smaller ones are bearing the biggest burden when it comes to extreme weather events, like hurricanes, tropical storms. Nobody in the scientific community debates that the intensity and frequency has risen. Nobody in the scientific community really debates seriously the proposition that human beings are contributing to these negative effects. And if you look at the economic costs, it is far, far more expensive to pay for the dislocation, the disruption, for the crises that are coming at us as a consequence of climate change, than it is to adjust your energy policies now in order to avoid it.
Now some might shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, the world’s an unfair place, there’s nothing to be done about it, doesn’t matter,” but let me just tell you something: that is not true. We know exactly what we have to do to deal with this problem. The solution to climate change is staring us in the face. It’s energy policy. And if you make the right choices in energy policy, you will not only avoid the worst consequences. Guess what? You actually wind up having an enormous, positive impact on the economy. This is the biggest marketplace in the history of human beings that is waiting to be tapped.
The market that generated enormous wealth for the United States of America in the 1990s that saw every single quintile of our income earners see their income go up was a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users. The energy market we’re looking at today waiting to tap into to resolve climate change is a $6 trillion market with 4-5 billion users today, and it’s going to go up to 9 billion users over the course of the next 20, 30, 40 years. Just think about that – the biggest market in all of human history. And all of the technologies are staring us in the face.
So just as climate change presents the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean with a common threat, the need to develop secure and sustainable energy sources is a shared opportunity, and it is an opportunity to make the right choices – the right choices about conservation, about wind and solar power, about hydro, about fuel and utility standards, about efficiency, about building codes, about transportation choices, about setting ambitious targets to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Now make no mistake: The jobs of the future will be tied to the energy sources of the future. And so investing in energy and innovation and sustainability is among the smartest investments that any businessperson or government can make today, and that’s why we are supporting efforts such as the Connecting the Americas 2022 regional electricity market from Mexico to Colombia. It’s why in January the United States hosted the Caribbean Energy Summit and committed to a plan of action to promote clean energy for all. And just this month in Jamaica, President Obama launched a number of initiatives to support the development of alternative power sources in the Caribbean and in Central America.
Creating strong and equitable economies, my friends, is essential to the future of our hemisphere, and it is a vital part of the common agenda that we seek. That job will be easier if we are able to remove some of the obstacles to political cooperation that have been holding us back.
I’ve had the opportunity now to visit Colombia twice since becoming Secretary. This is a country on the move. It has come an enormous distance in the past couple of decades, and the Colombian people are obviously eager to put past conflicts and divisions behind them. I can remember in the Senate when we debated Plan Colombia and people had no idea what the outcome – they hoped what the outcome would be. And look at what the outcome is – thanks to the people of Colombia more than anything else, who made the decision they wanted their future back. That’s why President Santos has played a – placed a high priority on negotiating a peaceful end to his government’s longstanding civil conflict with the guerrilla group known as FARC.
And the United States is fully supportive of this effort. The President has appointed Bernie Aronson – many of you know him – as our current special envoy to help monitor the talks. And we’ve seen in recent days this effort to establish a lasting peace is obviously not easy; none are. But the government and FARC have been fighting for longer than most Colombians have been alive. And we know that if the parties can reach an agreement, if they can finally bring peace to a country that has seen over five decades of internal conflict, it will unleash enormous potential for the Colombian people. Here in the United States, we will do all that we can to help Colombia achieve that peace.
Meanwhile, we have an opportunity of our own. In December, President Obama made the courageous decision to update our Cuba policy, which was doing far more to isolate the United States from our friends in the hemisphere than it was to isolate Havana. In Panama, the President and I met for hours with our Cuban counterparts, the first such formal meetings since the 1950s. And we’re committed to moving forward on the path to normalized relations. This new course is based not on a leap of faith, but on a conviction that the best way to promote U.S. interests and values while also helping to bring greater freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people is exactly what we are doing.
The same principle applies to Venezuela. In Panama, President Obama spoke briefly with President Maduro, and a week earlier, State Department Counselor Tom Shannon was in Caracas at the invitation of the government. It is no secret that relations between our two countries have been severely strained in recent years. But I began my tenure as Secretary with a long conversation with the then-foreign minister of Venezuela in an effort to promote a more productive relationship, and the United States remains open to further addressing our differences and attempting to find areas of common ground.
I am confident that the Administration’s commitment to a new kind of relationship with Latin America will contribute significantly to our common agenda for the hemisphere, which includes the strengthening of democracy and the respect for human rights. Already, we are seeing the benefits of our partnership on these issues. At the UN Human Rights Council last fall, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay joined the United States in sponsoring a resolution in support of LGBT rights. Our landmark Open Government Partnership, which the United States launched with Brazil five years ago, is now chaired by Mexico. And over the past three years, we have worked with partners, including Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, and Jamaica, to help strengthen the independent bodies of the Inter-American Human Rights System. Many of the globe’s leading voices for human rights and the rule of law, obviously, share Spanish as their native tongue.
Why does this matter? Well, it matters because countries are far more likely to advance economically and socially when citizens have faith in their governments and are able to rely on them for justice and equal treatment under the law. It matters because young people who have opportunities at home will stay and contribute to their societies instead of leaving in search of better luck elsewhere. It matters because freedom of thought and expression are the keys to innovation, which is how whole new industries begin. It matters because, in that most curious of ways, people who are given the liberty to be different are also the ones most likely to unite and band together in the face of shared threats.
No one has ever argued that the people of the Americas are all the same. We’re not. Differing history, language, culture, race, creed, and in a hundred other ways, but we are all neighbors. We all believe in freedom. We all hope for opportunity. And as we stand here today, the vast majority of us are focused on the future that we can build together.
In 2006, when Ricardo Lagos was preparing to step down as the president of Chile, rejecting calls to run again, this is what he said: “In democracy, every four years we are all equal, we are all worth the same, and with a pencil and paper, we sketch the country that we want.” There are few ideas more powerful, my friends, more infused with universal aspiration, than democracy. But democracy has never been inevitable; it’s never happened without great effort; and democracy is, in many ways, never complete. It is and always will be a work in progress that has to be renewed and revitalized by each generation. To build and defend democracy is our shared mission. And now, more than ever before in my lifetime, the people of the Americas are truly united in that cause.
Thank you very much for letting me share some thoughts. (Applause.)