Special Briefing
Arturo Valenzuela
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
July 23, 2010


MR. TONER: Thank you. Thank you for joining us. Today we’ve got Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, who is here to give us a preview of his trip to the Bahamas, to Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago July 25th through 30th. And there he’s going to meet with senior officials to discuss issues of mutual interest, including the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and economic opportunity and competitiveness, energy, environment, as well as health initiatives.

Just a reminder of the ground rules. This briefing is on-the-record and it will be conducted in English. And I’ll turn to the briefing over to Assistant Secretary Valenzuela to make a few opening remarks. Just a reminder – and he’ll open up to questions – and just a reminder if you could just give your name and media affiliation before you ask your question, that’d be great.

Assistant Secretary Valenzuela, the mike is yours.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Okay, thanks very much. Appreciate this and thanks for participating in this call. I will be traveling this Sunday to the Caribbean and the stops are first the Bahamas and then I’ll be going from there to Jamaica and from there to Trinidad and Tobago. And the purpose of this trip is really to follow up on the Secretary’s trip to the Caribbean, which she did right after attending the OAS General Assembly meeting in Peru, where she traveled from Lima to Quito and then from there to Bogotá and then to Barbados.

And in Barbados, she met with the senior leadership, prime ministers and foreign ministers, of the CARICOM nations. And it was a very productive meeting for her. She was extremely pleased with the degree of interaction with our counterparts in the Caribbean, and we have a very broad agenda that we want to continue to discuss which includes elements of the four pillars of U.S. policy towards the Americas generally; that is, a focus on how can we encourage economic prosperity while addressing issues of social inclusion, questions of citizen security and the problems that we’re facing with the threats and challenges from drug trafficking organizations and narcotrafficking, issues also – the third basket would be climate change and alternative energy, and then finally, of course, how do we strengthen the capacity and institutions of governance to be able to address all the things that our citizens expect of government.

And so it’s in this vein that I am going. I have meetings with high-ranking officials in each one of the countries. Also there will be some opportunity for me to speak at university settings and to be with people from the press and other things like that. So I’m very much looking forward to this trip and looking forward to continuing the work that the Secretary really takes so seriously. She really does have a strong commitment to working with the Caribbean. This is something that she told me when she first asked me to take on this position at the State Department. She said, “Arturo, if we select you for this position, we really want to pay a lot of attention to the Caribbean.” And so this is a personal commitment on the part of the Secretary that reflects the President’s commitment as well.

So I’ll stop with that and then open it up to questions.

MR. TONER: Great. Thank you so much. We can open it up to your questions now.

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Arshad Mohammed. You may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. Forgive me for going off topic, but I wanted to ask you about the recent spate of tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, and particularly the Venezuelan decision to cut off relations. Can you give us your take on that and whether there’s anything that the United States can do to try to help smooth relations there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, look, thanks for your question and I’ll forgive you for being off topic. But look, I’m not going to speculate on the reasons that the Government of Venezuela may have broken diplomatic relations with Colombia. This is an issue that, of course, arises out of the evidence that the Colombians say – or that, according to them, alleges Venezuelan – presence in Venezuela of the FARC. And our position on this is that we think that these allegations really need to be taken very seriously. And at the same time, we encourage both countries to enter into a dialogue to see how they can actually address this kind of issue.

Colombia has also asked the OAS to establish an international verification committee to visit and examine these so-called camps, and that’s something that we’re looking at to see whether, in fact, that’s going to take place. But our view is that these are two countries in the inter-American system; we’ve made a lot of progress over the last few years in achieving a degree of peace and understanding among countries, and we look for a constructive dialogue to be able to address this issue. The allegations are serious allegations, as I say, again, and they really need to be taken into consideration very seriously as well.

QUESTION: And may I ask you to comment specifically on the Venezuelan army’s warning today to Colombia that it’s ready to repel any attacks? Do you have any specific comment on that and on whether you see the rhetorical tensions possibly escalating into something worse?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, let me just say, to repeat essentially what I said earlier, and that is that I don’t think that it’s in anybody’s interest at this particular point to escalate the rhetoric. We call along with other countries for constructive dialogue, cooperation, mutual respect between the two countries. And I think this is something that all countries in the hemisphere share and we want to encourage the kind of lowering, I think, of the decibels on this issue.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Sure, you’re welcome.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Charlie Devereux. You may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yeah. Hi there. I’m calling from Bloomberg News and I also have a question about the Colombia-Venezuela spat. I was wondering whether you think that these allegations – there was bad timing with these allegations and that it plays into President Chavez’s hands given the problems he faces at home currently?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Okay. Yeah, I’m not going to speculate about the timing of either the allegations or the response. I think what we want to do is to ensure that this doesn’t escalate in any way. I think rhetorically and again, just to repeat what I said earlier, we urge a constructive dialogue between both countries, but at the same time, mindful of the fact that the allegations are very serious allegations.

QUESTION: Can I also – is the U.S. involved in the intelligence – was it involved in the intelligence gathering that Colombia put together?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, we don’t talk about intelligence, so I’d prefer not to address that.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: There are no further questions at this time.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: All right. Well, thank you very much for your participation on this and do pay some attention to the Caribbean.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Thanks a lot. Take care. Bye bye.

MR. TONER: Thanks, everybody. Bye.

OPERATOR: That concludes today’s conference. You may disconnect at this time. Thank you.