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Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Policy in Latin America

FPC Briefing
Arturo Valenzuela
Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
December 10, 2009

Date: 12/10/2009 Location: Washington D.C. Description: Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela briefed about U.S. Policy in Latin America at the Washington Foreign Press Center on December 10, 2009. © State Dept ImageNOTE: This briefing was conducted in Spanish. The transcript below is the English translation.

Spanish Version
Video (in Spanish)

3:00 p.m. EDT

Moderator: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center. And welcome to those of you watching this conference from New York and Latin America. Today we are going to talk about U.S.-Latin American relations with our Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Dr. Arturo Valenzuela. Mr. Assistant Secretary.

Valenzuela: Thank you very much. It is a great pleasure to be here with you this afternoon to talk about certain aspects of the United States’ relations with Latin America in particular, as well as the Caribbean and Canada, in other words, the entire Western Hemisphere. We decided to organize this conference because, despite the fact that I just became the Department of State’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, I only began three weeks ago, on November 5. I was supposed to start in July, but my confirmation was delayed, also delaying a very intense travel schedule we had made that was supposed to begin in July [and continue through] August, September, October, November, and December. And since I officially took office on November 5, I’ve already traveled to Canada and to Mexico. And I am planning a trip to the Southern Cone next week. The truth is, I would have preferred to visit all of the countries of the hemisphere before the end of the year, but that is not going to be possible. I’m going to have to schedule some meetings for later, in January, February.
What is the main purpose of my trip? The truth is that the main purpose of my trip is to pay a large number of courtesy visits. I’m in a new position, and I am going to have the opportunity to meet people whom I didn’t work with on other occasions when I was working in the U.S. Government during the Clinton Administration, but I also have many friends in many of the countries I am going to visit. It will be a great pleasure for me to be able to establish new working relationships.
This is a complex, important time in U.S.-Latin American relations. As we know, there is a new administration in Washington, which has been in place for some time now. One year. There are others who have not yet been confirmed, so President Obama’s team is still being put together. But it’s very important for us to keep moving forward, as we have with these new U.S.-Latin American relations which took root when President Obama attended, as you all know, the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Subsequently, the Secretary of State has made a number of subsequent trips, and Vice President Biden also traveled to the region. Since the beginning of the year, there has been significant contact by the highest officials of the U.S. Government: the President, the Secretary of State, the Vice President, and others. This is my first opportunity as Assistant Secretary of State to engage in such travel.
As I said, there are many issues. What we are doing is seeing how we can reset our relations with Western Hemisphere countries. We know there have been divergences. That there are different opinions in different areas on important issues. And this Administration’s focus, as President Obama has said, is that we’re interested in building relations based on mutual respect and dialogue, relations in which we can see how we will work together to move forward on the major issues that represent the challenge of our peoples in the Americas.
And there are many issues, the agenda is broad and, as the President, the Secretary has said many times, it includes many important issues such as the financial crisis, which, as you all know, is the worst global crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s. It’s been 80 to100 years since we’ve faced a crisis of such magnitude, which, fortunately, has not affected Latin American countries as severely as it could have. This is in part thanks to significant reforms, because Latin America had experienced significant growth in the previous period.
However, without a doubt, there are serious economic difficulties in many countries of the Americas, Central America, and South America, which are problematic and, obviously, if there is one issue that is most important, it is the global economic recovery, which helps all of us. That’s something we’re going to be able to discuss, to share.
At the same time, there are important issues such as social issues. Poverty. Social mobility, which is one of the things that Secretary Clinton has stressed in almost all of her speeches. We’re seeing how to work together with many countries on these agendas. This is a difficult time. It’s very important to make progress on this. Social agendas will be important because what we’re trying to do is not just eliminate poverty, but eliminate the causes of poverty.
The necessary reforms that will have to be implemented in different countries at the same time, like improve, for example, competitiveness [sic]. Fundamentally, one of the most significant problems that we all face is that, in a globalized world, we have to improve competitiveness. And that means a different strategy from the one that may have been used in the past.
We’re not just talking about international trade. At one time, it was said that international trade was the solution to everything. And it’s true, we have to continue eliminating tariffs and trade barriers so that we all can grow. But international trade is not the solution – it’s part of the solution, but it’s not the solution. Of course, we also need to improve competitiveness. And improving competitiveness means something very important: investing in [physical] infrastructure, on the one hand, and investing in human infrastructure, education [on the other hand]. We have to improve the quality of our peoples’ competitiveness. And we’re working on that.
Another important issue, of course, is energy. With a special emphasis on sustainable growth, but at the same time, environmental problems, which are pressing. As we’re seeing now, right before the Copenhagen summit.
Another issue that is also very important in almost all countries, is public insecurity. If there is one problem that concerns our peoples, it is public insecurity everywhere. More in some cities than in others, for example, but almost all of our cities are suffering from this. And behind this is the problem of international criminal organizations, drug trafficking, etc. These are issues that we must continue to address.
What I want to stress is that we believe that our relations must be relations in which we understand, for example, shared responsibility with regard to these issues. Just as the Secretary said when she traveled to Mexico, the problem of drug use and drug production is also related to the demand that also exists in the U.S. But another point of concern in our countries in the region with regard to drug trafficking in Latin America is that many Latin American countries have now become consumer countries.
Of course, this is something that we’re concerned about, and now we have to see how we will be able to move forward with much more effective, much more respectful cooperation on drug trafficking issues. Where the question of demand has to be given greater importance, where we can also share experiences, in the different countries, on the best mechanisms to move forward in this area. This is an issue that has to do not only with taking a hard line, but also with public health. And a change in mentalities and methods.
Finally, each country has specific agendas in terms of its bilateral relations. Fundamentally, I make these trips to share ideas, to see how we can work together on different issues. Of course, we are concerned about some of the institutional weaknesses in Latin America. Obviously, since my academic expertise is in the field of democracy and institutions, I am particularly interested not only in countries with a long democratic tradition, but also in countries that have a limited democratic background, and the question of how to improve institutions is a major challenge, even in this country. Certainly, we are seeing that in the United States, institutions also have shortcomings, and we have to look for ways to try to remedy them.
So, the agenda is quite broad, and as I’ve said, I’m making courtesy visits. I’m traveling in search of a common dialogue. And to see how we can move forward, continue to move forward on the issues that are shared throughout the Americas.
And with that, I am open to answering any questions. Let’s start up here. Yes.

Moderator: Rubén.

Question: Thank you. Rubén Barrera, Notimex. Thank you for facilitating this meeting, Mr. Assistant Secretary. I would like to ask you, we’re already at the end of one year of Mr. Obama’s presidency. Relations with Latin America don’t seem to be the best, at least if we take into account the (inaudible) that he made at the Barbados Summit. And the issues are obvious: Honduras, Brazil and its relations with Iran, the U.S. military presence in Colombia, just to name a few. It seems we’ve gone back to the old state of relations. Relations marked by a lack of trust on both sides. My question is, based on what we have seen in these past months, what are the areas in which you think relations can be strengthened over the next year? What are the areas you think are the biggest challenges, that are going to require the most work from the Obama Administration?

Valenzuela: Thank you very much for your question. Unfortunately, this has been the trend in U.S-Latin American relations for some time now. One of the problems is, how do you approach a question like that? About whether relations are better now than before? And of course, if we look at U.S.-Latin American relations during the Cold War period or right after World War II, things were much more complex. If we consider, for example, that only three Latin American countries have avoided military coups and longstanding authoritarian regimes with disappearances of people, massive human rights violations, civil wars in Central America… In that sense, everything is relative. At the end of the Cold War and starting in the 1980s, relations with the United States warmed. That wasn’t easy, either. Then there were seeds of change in U.S.-Latin American relations. In my opinion, that started during the Clinton Administration, and came from both the State Department and the White House. And there were also many problems. The goal was better treatment. Something was lost, I think, a certain consensus, during the previous Administration here in the United States, and during that period. For two reasons: first, a cooling between Latin America and the United States because of the United States’ approach to the world in general. And especially because of the fact that most (inaudible) in Latin America. The Latin American public also rejected, for example, the U.S. strategy in Iraq, an essentially unilateral approach in the world, and that kind of thing.
There was a cooling, and at the same time, there’s a second factor, that today fundamentally different (inaudible) are appearing among the different Latin American countries. What we’re seeing now with President Obama in office, is to try to have better dialogue, more fluid dialogue with the countries of the region. I understand that there are some very fundamental differences, but as Assistant Secretary it is my responsibility to participate in State Department meetings with my colleagues who represent different parts of the world, with the Secretary of State.
And I can assure you that the United States’ relations with Western Hemisphere counties, in comparison with the major difficulties, the enormous challenges the U.S. faces in other parts of the world, are relatively constructive and easy relations in this sense. In which, in general, it is possible to arrive at a consensus earlier than you would think.
So, when I say that, I am not trying to minimize the fact that there are significant divergences. But it also wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we’re facing a situation in which major differences exist among the countries of the Americas. On some issues, we’ll tend to agree more with certain countries than with others. But the objectives are the same. We are convinced of that, that we really share similar values, we share similar objectives. Fundamentally, we’re trying to achieve greater prosperity for our peoples, greater well-being for our peoples, and an ability to work together to resolve the problems we face in the region.

Moderator: Sonia.

Question: Thank you very much, Dr. Valenzuela. Sonia Schott, Globovisión, Venezuela. I’m going to try to be a bit more specific than my colleague’s previous question. (Laughter.) I am going to ask you about Venezuela. Now, I would like to know, since you have mentioned that you are new to the State Department, what is the state of relations between the United States and Venezuela, and also the recent tensions with Colombia? I would like to know what would have to happen or what might happen for you to announce a trip to Venezuela in the near future. Thank you.

Valenzuela: Thank you very much for that question. With regard to the travel schedule, it’s not very clear what it will look like in the future. What we do have scheduled right now, if I can share that with you, I was originally planning to visit the Caribbean in June. The truth is that I should be thinking about traveling [there] now because, weather-wise, it would be nicer. And of course, we face challenges in Central America and in the Andean zone. Look, your question is a very good one. There has been a cooling between the United States and Venezuela. We’re concerned about some information that’s still coming out of Venezuela, and of course concerned about the tension between the two countries because of Colombia and Venezuela. A potential border conflict is not desirable for either country. I don’t think it’s only the United States, I think that the other countries in the region are concerned about the permanent tension between the two countries along the border. The fact that trade between these two countries has dropped so significantly hurts, I believe, both nations. So in that sense, we’re advocating for the time when more constructive relations can be established between the two countries.
In that sense, to answer your question more directly, we hope to have positive dialogue with Venezuela moving forward. But also honest dialogue, in which we can be sure that they understand what our concerns are, and at the same time also listen to the ideas that they have.

Moderator: Julio

Question: (Inaudible.) I would like to ask you two questions: first, if you could give a feedout [sic] of the meeting (inaudible) and second, about the events in Honduras between last night and early this morning. If you think that this could further exacerbate the situation and, especially, if it could further strain the talks you were having with certain countries that had demonstrated some ability to facilitate the situation. And it seems that the situation has become even more complicated since last night’s events.

Valenzuela: Thank you very much for that question. Indeed, I accompanied Secretary Clinton yesterday to her meeting with the Foreign Minister of El Salvador. It was a very productive meeting. As you know, El Salvador recently suffered a physical disaster with a quite severe hurricane that caused a great deal of damage. The United States is cooperating with other countries in the region to help El Salvador with this.
But we also had a conversation about that issue – what impressed me about the meeting is that it went quite long. The Secretary was very interested in the conversation with her Salvadoran counterpart on a variety of issues. Issues related to the direct relations between the United States and El Salvador. Issues that have to do with the situation of Salvadorans in the United States. There are some 240,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. And especially with the floods and everything else, there is concern in El Salvador about the situation of these people, that they might have to go back.
So you see, there are a lot of important issues on the table. And as you just mentioned, one of the issues that was discussed was Honduras. Where of course all of the Central American presidents have been trying to find an appropriate solution to what was a coup d'état in Honduras. A coup d'état that was condemned by the OAS, by the international community. Because the president resulting from a coup, no matter how acceptable he may be at this time in the Americas… In this sense, we are trying to find a solution to the situation in Honduras and a possible solution for the Honduran people, and such a solution can be found through elections, which have been held and which were scheduled beforehand. And that is very important to stress. Had the election been a farce… only a de facto government… [if it had been just] a way out or to absolve the coup d'état, we would be in a very different situation from one in which an election had been scheduled long before. And that election, planned well before, gave the people of Honduras a sovereign solution.
That being said, our position has always been that an election, while it can be a step in the democratic process in Honduras, is only that, a necessary but insufficient step. So, what would be sufficient? Sufficient would be an agreement between the parties to be established within the framework of what was negotiated in the San José Accord. An agreement to establish a national unity government, to bring a series of issues before a truth commission. And also a solution to the situation with President Zelaya at the Brazilian embassy in Honduras.
In my opinion, what the Central American presidents did was very positive. And in that sense [Secretary Clinton] spoke with the Foreign Minister about the efforts of President Funes, President Colom, President Arias, and President Martinelli. As you know, President Arias and President Martinelli met with Mr. Lobo two days ago. And President Leonel Fernández has also been looking for a solution.
Now as you know, what appeared in the news yesterday was an effort by Mexico to allow President Zelaya to leave Honduras. This effort was not successful. What we’re seeing, and on this I want to stress something very important, when I say ‘we’re seeing,’ I mean all of the countries in the region. I don’t want to talk about the important role of one country or another. We’re seeing how we can work together to find a solution. And that solution is for the problem in Honduras, and I’m speaking a lot about this because of the importance of this issue in the media. The solution will really be a solution by the Central American countries. So in this sense we applaud the efforts of the presidents, President Arias, President Funes, President Colom, President Martinelli, President Fernández, and the other presidents from the region who have been helping with this process. This chapter has not yet been closed. What we need, what we will also ask for, when cooperating with the countries, is to make a final effort. A collective effort among the countries of the region, especially Central America, to reach a solution that will make it possible to recognize the election. But that it be recognized only under the conditions that truly enable national reconciliation to allow for the necessary reforms, etc. So that there is no precedent for a coup d'état.

Moderator: Silvia.

Question: Thank you. Argentina is one of the countries in your tour. I would like to ask if you could please comment on the state of bilateral relations with Argentina. And in particular, the agenda that you plan to develop there. We’ve heard some rumors, we want to know, at what level will you hold these courtesy visits? The information coming from Buenos Aires is that there won’t be any meetings with the President, the Chief of Cabinet, the Foreign Minister. So we want to know, have they or have they not asked you for this type of meeting? How is this being handled?

Valenzuela: Look, that can differ from country to country. It depends on the situation. And honestly, it’s more up to the host country to determine how to schedule the meetings with an official from another country. In some countries, I am going to meet with the president, in other countries I’ll meet with the foreign minister, and in others with government officials. What I’m seeing in this tour, the important thing, and that’s why I want to go back to my initial comment, is that as a courtesy visit I’m not just looking to speak with the authorities. Of course I am going to do that. But I also want to meet with other sectors of society. With other political leaders, with civil society, and also other individuals. What we want to do in this sense is to communicate the fact that we want to meet with the relevant sectors in these societies. And what’s on the agenda? The agenda covers bilateral, joint issues that we might have. And it’s not limited to regional issues. When the United States has a conversation with its counterparts, or any country with its counterparts, you talk about bilateral issues, you talk about regional and international issues.
In the case of Argentina, one of the things I would like to talk about with my Argentine counterparts is Iran. This is of great concern to the United States, and we’re pleased with the position taken by the Government of Argentina with regard to Iran, the vote in the third [session] of the Human Rights Commission [sic], and also its vote in the International Atomic Energy Association. These were votes that I think sent a signal about how Argentina sees the importance and potential danger of what Iran is doing and its potential nuclear capacity in the future. There are things that we’re going to share, shared agenda issues, global issues, regional and bilateral issues.
So, I am very happy to have the opportunity to have real in-depth conversations about these issues in all of the capitals that I am going to visit.

Moderator: Let’s go to New York for the next question.

Question: Cristina Brasil, Globo CBN News Radio. I would like to know what was discussed at the meeting in Brazil, and also, going back to Honduras, the (inaudible) are frustrated with the situation in Honduras. He [she?] also said that the United States was too lenient with the government in Honduras, which had carried out a coup. I would like you to comment on this matter, and the issues that you are going to discuss with Brazil.

Valenzuela: Thank you very much for your question. I’ll repeat a little of what I’ve already answered. During my visit to Brazil, I also want to make the courtesy visit. I also want to meet all of the people that I am going to be dealing with. But what we are going to do is touch on the three levels of the elements I’ve just explained. Global issues that concern us in our relations with Brazil, that have to do with international issues, and in fact we’ve been working now with Brazil to create a more strategic dialogue. We are going to talk about important bilateral issues. We also have a very intense agenda dealing with many issues such as joint efforts on biological energy. We’ll also discuss regional issues such as Honduras. (Incomprehensible.)
It is important to stress the efforts of so many countries to arrive at a solution. This is not just the United States’ issue, but a regional issue, a Central American issue. It’s a question that is up to all of us, as members of the OAS. In this sense, we welcome all of your positive and constructive efforts that might lead to a solution to the situation in Honduras. I am quite hopeful, in light of the interest and participation of the Central American presidents, that there will be a solution to this. This is an issue, the complexity of the situation in Honduras, is an issue that requires a lot of direct negotiation and work with various elements, not just inside Honduras, but also outside. This is best achieved through intense work, efforts to find [a solution], negotiations. We cannot accept the idea that a coup d'état is inevitable in Latin America. (Incomprehensible) looking for a realistic solution. In this sense, we are quite satisfied with the efforts being made at this time. This is not the time for declarations, we need to do find solutions.

Question: Thank you very much. Lina Correa, Voice of America. I would like to ask you about Cuba. In the early days of the Obama Administration, there was a lot of noise and great expectations because there was a lot of protest. I want to ask you if these protests have continued but not as publicly, or if they have not continued. And exactly what fact or concrete actions has President Barack Obama (inaudible) to lift the embargo?

Valenzuela: As the President stated, the Secretary of State and how we have been working, what President Obama’s administration did in the first few months was to begin to repeal certain measures implemented by the previous administration related to the ban on travel to Cuba, especially for the Cuban-American community. We continue to have a very clear policy geared to establishing better conduits for direct relations between U.S. citizens and Cuba. [We’re trying to] loosen things a little in that sense. Those are the first measures that have been taken. At the same time, there have been direct conversations with the Government of Cuba on the interests of both countries. In that sense, we are advancing with a series of talks on these issues. Immigration, for example. And what we are looking at for the future is how to continue to make progress on these issues. But we’re going slowly. We are not trying to make any sudden change at this time. We are moving forward gradually, partly because we are trying to assess the situation, and that is very important.
There’s been a change in administration here, and there has also been a change, to a certain degree, in the authorities there. And right now we’re assessing the situation.
Well, thank you very much. Unfortunately, I have to go.

Moderator: One more question.

Valenzuela: Okay, one more.

Question: Vanessa de la Torre, Caracol News, Colombia. I would like to know your reaction to what President Chavez has called the Continental Bolivarian Party [sic]. And to the fact that Alfonso Cano, who belongs to a group classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, has been appointed to the party leadership. What is your reaction?

Valenzuela: That is such a specific question that I do not have a reaction to the question at this time.

Question: (Inaudible) Secretary Clinton and you just mentioned a policy of greater shared responsibility. There is increasing sentiment that the United States must first put an end to the growing demand for drugs in the U.S. in order to defeat the cartels. How possible is it that this Administration will do a complete one-eighty (incomprehensible) on drugs, with a greater emphasis on prevention and treatment programs here? How likely is it that the House will approve the creation of a Commission to revise U.S. drug policy? And finally, how do you see the growing violence in Mexico, and why has the United States delayed aid for so long under the Merida Initiative, which is also affecting Central American countries?

Valenzuela: That was four or five questions. (Laughter.) The previous one was too specific, and this one is too broad.
Let me focus on the last part of your question. It’s not true that the assistance has been delayed. What happened is that there was a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) that said that a lot of money had not been spent, and that report was issued a long time ago, based on what had been invoiced in connection with several elements of the joint assistance program with Mexico. But the fact that they hadn’t been billed directly, that they hadn’t been paid for, does not mean that the programs had not been implemented. It was simply a question of when it was going to be invoiced. For example, in the case of a US$68 million expense, I think it was something like that, for some helicopters. The invoices have not yet been submitted. But the helicopters are being delivered now, in December. They’re on the way. So that’s how you have to look at the entire aid package for Mexico. And the vast majority of these expenses are already underway. They have not been invoiced, but they're underway. Contracting is complete, many of the elements have been delivered, materials, that sort of thing.
Now, regarding the second part of your question it is very important to stress the idea that the assistance under the Merida [Initiative] is not really aid, it is a shared responsibility in terms of how the program is being carried out in the framework of cooperation between the two countries. And Mexico is making a much larger investment that the United States. In that sense, it’s real cooperation.
This issue concerns not only measures of force, not at all, and that is what President Obama’s Administration has been adjusting. It has to do with police issues, institutional issues, that sort of thing. I just returned from Mexico so I’m quite familiar with everything that is going on. The other important thing is that this is not a federal issue in Mexico, but a state and local issue. How to improve police law enforcement capacities not just at the federal level, but at the local level. And finally, the last part of your question. Without a doubt, there needs to be a joint strategy and the United States needs a very strong strategy to continue to address demand. The truth is that in the United States, these efforts are paid for at the state level and at the local level. It’s not a prison strategy, (inaudible). Programs to convince people that this is not the right path. And as we nuance and change the strategy on this difficult question of drug trafficking, we’re going to look not only at shared responsibility, but also how we can share experiences related to all of the elements. Production, transit, and at the same time, the problem of demand and consumption.
Thank you very much.

Question: (Inaudible.)

Moderator: You'll have another chance tomorrow at the State Department.