Secretary Blinken Keynote Remarks at 52nd Annual Conference on Americas Luncheon

MR GLUSKI: Well, Mr. Secretary, this is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of introducing you at the Washington conference. But a year ago, we were all online, and most of us were still stuck at home, so I’m going to venture that this will be an even better experience for all of us.

In the year that you’ve – since you’ve last joined us, a lot has happened, to say the least. It seems almost like another era. But what hasn’t changed is your commitment to building bridges with our hemisphere, and I know that mandate comes straight from President Biden.

Perhaps even more significant for our region than what has gone before is what’s coming up next. Next month, you will join President Biden as he hosts the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. As this is the first time the U.S. is hosting the Summit of the Americas since 1994, it would already be consequential. But with the health and economic consequences of a pandemic, Russia’s brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine, and the growing threat to free and democratic societies from China and other authoritarian governments, there has never been a more important time for the United States to lead our hemisphere in reinforcing our shared principles of democracy, rule of law, and free and fair trade.

Beyond the opportunity to defend these core principles, the summit will also offer the opportunity to expand our partnership with leaders in the Americas, to take full advantage of the digital future, to protect the environment and address climate change, and to ensure growth that is equitable and sustainable.

We at the Council of the Americas have been steadfast partners of the State Department since our founding, almost 60 years ago. And we look forward to partnering with you and President Biden at this historic event.

Mr. Secretary, we all know that you have a great deal on your plate these days. We take your presence here today as a strong confirmation of the importance that you personally place on the U.S. partnership in the hemisphere. We look forward to hearing your vision for the U.S. relations with the Americas.

My fellow council members and guests, please join me in welcoming the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Andres, thank you so much for the introduction, for your good words today, and for your leadership every day on something that we both care about deeply. And to you, President Segal, Eric Farnsworth – an old colleague and friend – it’s wonderful to be here today with all of you. To the supporters of the council’s critically important work, thank you, thank you, thank you.

We have – everyone is quite literally a distinguished guest around these tables, so at the risk of causing offense to everyone else, I do want to just mention a couple of other people who I see here before me and want to acknowledge. First of all, our extraordinary ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, it’s great to be with you today. (Applause.) And to a friend of many years, who’s been a leader of this institution, who knows this room and these halls so well, John Negroponte. John. (Applause.) And I’m looking around to see – I think Bill Hagerty is here. Bill, are you here, in fact? He was here before, so I wanted to acknowledge him, and a great colleague in the Senate and a great leader in our own hemisphere as well as in the Asia Pacific as well.

It’s also wonderful to be here with each of you today because we’re getting back to something approximating normal, including using this room, which is my favorite room in the department, the Ben Franklin Room. And John spent many an hour here as well. And it’s very apt, in some ways, that we’re here in this room. Ben Franklin, of course, was our nation’s first diplomat. He charted the Gulf Stream. He pioneered electricity. He authored America’s very first treaty. He helped forge a new ethos of self-government. And he did virtually none of this sober. (Laughter.) So I’m not sure what the lesson to be drawn from that is, but there’s something there. I also suspect he couldn’t get confirmed for a job, but that’s another matter. (Laughter.)

I also am very pleased to see an old friend and colleague, the Secretary General Almagro. It’s wonderful to be with you. Congratulations on your very well-deserved leadership award. (Applause.) Thank you.

And then I want to extend a very special welcome to the ambassadors from the region who are here today. You’re at home here in the State Department. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

And indeed, it’s welcome to – wonderful to welcome this council back to the State Department for the annual conference, again something we’ve not been able to do for the last couple of years. But we are now back; you are now back. And I’m grateful for that.

So as Andres said, in a little over a month, the United States will host a Summit of the Americas for the first time since that inaugural summit in 1994. And I have to tell you, it’s a little bit of a personal bookend for me, because at the time of the Miami summit in 1994, I was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and got to work on the summit. Some of the things he said at the summit actually may have reflected some of the things I put into the speeches, and it’s a very strong and early memory of my time working for President Clinton.

My memory is – and we fact-checked this in the archives – the early drafts that we produced for President Clinton received a fairly healthy amount of editing from the president and others, but clearly to the benefit of the speeches and clearly to the benefit of the summit. But this is very much a homecoming, and I am so glad that we have the summit back in the United States.

As with so many who took part in that first summit in ’94, Miami left a lasting impression on me – capturing the enthusiasm of the moment, the promise of the democratic aspirations of the region that we share, promise that we still very much see. And today what I’d like to do is just to set out a little bit how the Biden administration will use the forthcoming Summit of the Americas to continue building on that promise.

Now, it’s no secret to anyone in this room that the summit comes at a challenging time for the region. COVID-19 has taken the lives of 2.7 million men, women, and children in our hemisphere. That accounts for more than 40 percent of global reported deaths. It’s the highest per capita loss of any region in the world. The pandemic has also inflicted massive economic harm throughout the region – job losses, declining income, rising poverty. And it has had massive social implications: we have seen fewer kids in school, more youth out of work, and a ravaging of the public health sector.

Now, with the Russian Government’s brutal war of aggression on Ukraine, many of these preexisting problems, these preexisting conditions, have been made worse, raising the price of essential commodities throughout the Americas, from fertilizer to wheat to petroleum, cutting off key export markets for many industries in the Americas, and forcing households across the region to make very wrenching choices as the cost of living skyrockets. So all of this is very much felt and is very much present.

These are just some of the short-term headwinds that we have to deal with. They come atop longstanding challenges. We know in many parts of the hemisphere that we share there remains a lack of economic opportunity and inequity. An accelerating climate crisis, widespread violence and insecurity, endemic corruption, declining trust in government – all problems that are leading people across the Americas to leave home in search of places where they have a better shot of providing for their loved ones, even if the journey comes with the most profound risks.

One of my colleagues at one of the meetings we were having some months ago talked about this phenomenon, the extraordinary migration that we’re dealing with not only in our own hemisphere but around the world. And she talked about the need to try to establish what she called a right to remain. And creating for the conditions for that right to remain are something that I think all of us need to be thinking about and working on together.

Now, in the face of what are incredibly serious challenges, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that for the vast majority of countries in our hemisphere, there is still a strong agreement on the best way to address these challenges, and that’s through democracy. That’s not because democracy has a perfect track record, of course. It doesn’t. It’s because citizens across the region still believe that they should be the ones to chart the path of their nations.

Yet, as every government participating in the summit knows, we can’t take the democratic character of this region for granted. It’s not inevitable. It depends fundamentally on people’s continued belief that they can improve the system from within – as we say here in the United States, that we can work together to form a more perfect union. And to keep that faith, we have to show people that democracies can do better, that they can deliver what people want and what people need.

I think that requires learning from our experience in the nearly three decades since that first Summit of the Americas in 1994. So what I’d like to do quickly is to just share a few thoughts about some of the important lessons that might inform our actions going into next month’s summit, lessons that we might take from the experience of the last few decades.

First, we should avoid falling into blocks of left and right, liberal and conservative, and instead focus on what actually brings us together as democracies. That means recognizing our shared interest in strengthening the pillars of our fellow free and open societies like the rule of law, like respect for human rights, like free and fair elections, a vibrant, independent press, which is front and center in my mind today. This is actually World Press Freedom Day, which we started out by going over to the Foreign Press Center and talking to reporters from around the world, many of whom are quite literally putting their lives in danger to try to bring the facts, to try to bring information, to try and bring the truth to people around the world.

This approach that’s resisting labels of left and right, liberal and conservative, but instead is focusing on the common fundamental principles that bring us together, that’s the approach that we’ve been taking, including at the recent Summit for Democracy that President Biden convened late last year. Twenty-six countries from the Americas took part in the summit. That accounts for more than a quarter of all the participants in the Summit for Democracy. Every one of those countries showed up with concrete commitments to make their democracies stronger – Trinidad and Tobago to increase transparency in public spending, Costa Rica pledging to expand an effective community-based violence prevention program. The list goes on. But in each of these ways, we’re making an effort to demonstrate that democracies can effectively produce more and better results for people across a wide spectrum of activities.

Second, there was tremendous enthusiasm in 1994 for the ability of open markets and free trade to create broad-based opportunity and improve conditions of workers across the hemisphere. And this past decade has seen remarkable growth across the region, millions more people lifted out of poverty and into the possibility of being part of the global middle class. But I suspect everyone in this room knows very well that growth also brought some downsides, notably immense inequality, including right here in the United States. Instead, a lot of the disillusionment citizens in the Americas feel with democracy is a result of this gap between what democracies promised and what they’ve delivered, notably in the concrete standard of living that people have been experiencing. The gap, as President Clinton framed it in 1994, between deechos and hechos, words and deeds. And this is a gap we always, always have to mind if we want to make sure that we have sustained support for what we’re doing.

The answer, of course, is not to give up on free markets and trade, but to set the terms of trade and investment in ways that benefit all citizens, not just those on the very top: eliminating the barriers that keep small business from joining the formal economy; combating the corruption that robs the resources and energy of innovators and communities alike; broadening access to emerging technologies that are increasingly crucial to actually doing business – something that we’ll drive at at the upcoming summit with the first-ever regional agenda for digital transformation.

In my judgment, we also have to do more to reinforce social safety nets, because even the most effective economic policies are not going to benefit all communities at the same time. We have to be there for those who are left behind.

Delivering growth with equity also demands tapping into one of the most powerful engines for opportunity in the Americas: the private sector. And I would start by saying the U.S. private sector. The United States is already the top trading partner for more than two-thirds of the hemisphere’s countries. In 2019, U.S. foreign direct investment in the Americas totaled $1.3 trillion dollars. U.S. trade with countries in the region totals $1.5 trillion every year – more, by far, than any other country in the world.

And it’s not just the volume that’s so significant. It’s how the United States invests that matters: openly, transparently, with respect for labor and human rights; in a way that’s sustainable for the environment and without piling debt upon countries that they can’t afford to get out from under.

At the same time, our diplomats are working to raise the standards of investment in countries around the hemisphere – so that this approach becomes the rule, not the exception.

Consider the Call to Action for an investment in Central America that Vice President Harris launched in December, and that’s already raised more than $1.2 billion in commitments from the U.S. private sector.

As part of this call, Parkdale Mills, one of the world’s major providers of cotton consumer products, committed $150 million to building a new facility in Honduras. This investment is going to help shift production of a million pounds of yarn per week from Asia to the Americas, increasing regional supply, increasing resilience of supply, while also supporting approximately a thousand new, good-paying jobs between Honduras and the United States. And that’s just one example of what is possible.

We also have to close another gap in our economic development approach – and that “we” when I say “we have to close that gap,” that includes the United States and leading multilateral institutions active in the region. That is, we have to do more to meet the region’s and reach the region’s middle-income economies.

There is something of another kind of middle-income trap that I know many of our closest neighbors experience: countries that are not quite developed enough to qualify for membership in groups like the G20 or the OECD, and yet too developed to qualify for aid from institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Even modest increases in public investment in these countries will go a long way toward stimulating more private investment in their economies. And we’re looking at other ways to deal with this trap. This is something that I’ve heard again and again from colleagues throughout the hemisphere. And countries that have been on the front line of being ravaged by COVID or climate – we need to find more effective ways to make sure that they have the resources necessary to deal with these challenges.

The same is true, I’d say, for the investments that we make within countries, so that we can support growth not only from the bottom up, but also from the middle out. That means doing more to stimulate investment in the region’s working class – the entrepreneurs, women- and minority-led small enterprises, and others who are ready to grow their businesses but lack the capital or access to the formal economy to do so. This has been a major focus of the U.S. Development Finance Corporation. It’s invested more than $10 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean, including a hundred million to help women-owned small businesses in Mexico weather the pandemic.

Third, we need to build greater regional resilience to make our hemisphere less vulnerable to global disruptions in the supplies that we need most and that, for many of us, we have taken for granted over many years, and now we suddenly realize the fragility in the system that we built. This is one of the most hard-earned lessons of the pandemic. It’s also a hard-earned lesson of Putin’s war on Ukraine. Building this kind of resilience demands pooling our individual strengths to make our democracies stronger as a whole.

Now, I think we’ve made a start on that – from the supply chain working group that the United States has created with Mexico, which includes a special focus on semiconductors and information communications technology; to the work of the newly formed Alliance for Development in Democracy formed by Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, the United States – to strengthen supply chains in the areas of health, food security, and technology.

Fourth, even as we stay focused on strengthening democracies from within, we need a shared approach to autocracies in the region. And this includes continuing to support the individuals and groups in closed countries who are fighting so bravely to advance human rights and democracy, as we’ve done for decades. We have a responsibility also to speak up and speak out collectively when we see governments weakening democracy at home, clamping down on the free press, threatening political opponents, undermining the independence of the courts. This is another one of democracies’ inherent strengths: we believe in holding one another to account. And that includes the United States. And I can tell you that there is always more force and power in this and effect in this when we’re actually able to do it collectively. And this points to, among other things, the vital role that the OAS plays and continues to play.

It also means taking the argument to closed countries, and to citizens across the hemisphere, about which system is actually better in delivering for its people. In Cuba, Venezuela, more recently Nicaragua, repressive governments offer a false choice between respecting people’s rights and improving their welfare. But the decades since that first Summit of the Americas have demonstrated that non-democratic governments in the Americas have delivered neither – and instead produced rising corruption and declining standards of living. The debate about which system does better by the people it’s supposed to serve is one that we should welcome. We can at once be humble about where democracy has fallen short, and confident about its stronger track record than autocracy.

Finally, we have to remember that there’s not a single challenge that we face in the Americas that our democracies are better off facing alone individually. That was true in 1994. It’s true today, maybe even more true today. The way forward on virtually every challenge that’s affecting the lives of citizens in all of our countries is through closer collaboration, closer coordination, coming together, working together – especially when it comes to the most intractable problems, like the migration challenge, the root cause drivers of which, as we’ve seen, simply can’t be addressed by short-term fixes, and where the incentives often favor passing onto others the problems that we’re all better off tackling together as a region.

That’s why we’ve joined Colombia and Panama in convening a pair of ministerial meetings to foster a more candid, concrete discussion about how we can work together to support communities that are hosting large populations of migrants; creating legal, humane pathways to migration; improving border security; combating transnational criminal organizations that prey on migrants; and addressing, as we were talking about earlier, the root causes that are leaving so many people to leave their homes. As a result of this effort, I am confident that we will get to a regional declaration on migration and protection at the upcoming summit – something that can benefit all of our countries, and especially benefit people across the region.

Together is the only way forward on addressing the accelerating climate crisis, which communities across the hemisphere are feeling more and more acutely. We see the region coming together on this, too. More countries in the Americas signed onto the Global Methane Pledge than any other region in the world – 24 and counting. That commits them and each of us to cut global methane emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. If – if – the world’s major methane producers join us in meeting this pledge, this would be the equivalent of taking every plane out of the skies and every ship off the seas in terms of the emissions they produce, a dramatic step forward in trying to meet the test of dealing with climate change.

Together is the way forward on health security, too. We’ve seen how weaknesses in any one country in preventing, detecting, responding to outbreaks can put people in every country at risk. That’s why we have donated more than 67 million doses of safe, effective vaccines to countries across the Americas – free of charge, no political strings attached. And it’s why the budget that we put forward to Congress just last week aims to double down on our investments in public health and pandemic preparedness in our hemisphere, while also seeking significant funding to continue leading the global response to COVID-19.

Perhaps most important, together means enlisting partners beyond our governments. And it’s here that I’d like to conclude.

Of all the forces driving democratic progress in the Americas since 1994, none – in my judgment – has been more critical than the region’s vibrant, diverse, and growing civil society. Whether those are journalists shining a light on corruption, human rights defenders documenting gross abuses, indigenous rights organizations giving voice to underserved communities – the work of these citizens has given people hope that we can still improve democracy from within, that the gap between deechos and hechos can still be closed.

That’s why the United States has planned the most inclusive Summit of the Americas in history, ensuring that civil society groups, leaders from the private sector will not just be included in the meetings in Los Angeles; they’ll be able to engage directly with the governments.

I’m confident that if we embrace this and other lessons learned since the first Summit of the Americas – focusing on what unites us as democracies rather than what divides us; ensuring not only growth, but greater equity; deepening regional resiliency in the face of shared challenges; and standing together in addressing autocracy and democratic backsliding alike – we will not only strengthen our individual democracies; we will do better at what is our number-one responsibility, and that is delivering on the fundamental needs and the fundamental hopes of all the peoples in this hemisphere that we share.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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