Interview
Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Julissa Reynoso
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Washington, DC
June 27, 2011


DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS CHERYL BENTON: Well, we want to get started. Great. I think they’re coming in now. The next person I wanted to present to you is a great colleague of mine, Deputy Assistant Secretary Julissa Reynoso. Julissa is the deputy assistant secretary for Central America and the Caribbean in the Bureau of Western Hemispheres. And she is an attorney by trade, and prior to joining the U.S. State Department she practiced law focusing on international arbitration and antitrust law. Ms. Reynoso holds a B.A. in government from Harvard University, a master’s in philosophy from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and a J.D. – juris doctor – from Columbia University School of Law. Please join me in welcoming Julissa Reynoso to the podium. (Applause.)

Okay. Do you have her bio?

MS. REYNOSO: Yes.

MS. BENTON: You’re good?

MS. REYNOSO: Thank you, Cheryl. I – briefly, I’m going to be participating with my – the colleague I’m about to present on a Q&A on various issues, but I wanted to bring to the front here my colleague Maria Otero – or as I call it, Maria Otero – (laughter) – who’s the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. Maria oversees and coordinates U.S. foreign relations, a variety of global issues, including democracy, the environment, and combating trafficking in persons, among others. Maria was born in La Paz, Bolivia; she is currently the highest-ranking Hispanic official at the State Department and the first Latina under secretary in U.S. history.

So I would like to have Maria come up, and we welcome your questions. (Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Thank you, Julissa. Greatly appreciate it. Well, it’s very good to be here with all of you, and as you’ve heard, I’m the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. And right about when I was really figuring out what to do in my job, the Secretary held her Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, which is really a strategic plan for the Department of State, and my position is now transitioning so that I will become the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. And that is – that change is really a recognition of the importance of civilian security, not only in words or deeds, but also in organizing the way in which we do our own foreign policy work. So all of the pieces of the Department of State that work in the area of civilian security, writ large, will come together and will allow me to see if we can make even more of a difference in helping governments provide security for their citizens.

The central theme that I’d like to talk about today, I suppose, can be framed with the word “opportunity.” It’s how can we seize this moment and build a future that we in the United States and our neighbors and our partners in the Caribbean can achieve as we move forward? Just last week, Secretary Clinton and I traveled to Guatemala to show our commitment to working in the context of Central America in this area of civilian – citizen security. We understand the necessity that we have for a comprehensive, regional approach to the challenges that we are seeing in the region, so that we don’t just take violence and push it from one country to another, but we really move and think about the whole region together.

If you follow what’s been happening in Central America right now, as we did when we were working in Guatemala last week, you know exactly what I mean – the successful efforts on the part of Colombia, and now the increasingly effective efforts of Mexico in addressing criminal gangs and overcoming some of these problems have really squeezed drug traffickers so that they are now shifting to destabilizing and to destroying societies and creating their activity in Central American countries.

Now, when Secretary Clinton left Guatemala, she went directly to Jamaica last week, because this was an opportunity for her to reiterate her commitment to citizen security in the high-level Caribbean dialogue that she was engaged in – Caribbean-U.S. dialogue. She emphasized the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and she, at one point, announced that we will be having a 70 percent increase in the funding for Fiscal Year 2011 for this initiative. But the issue that she was raising was really the importance of looking at the Caribbean and thinking about how to really help this area of the world address the question of citizen security as well.

So part of what I’d like to talk about today is how it is that we can stop the cycle of civilian insecurity that we are seeing in so many parts that are dear to us. How can we move from just having ambitions or aspirations in this area to also determining a stronger rule of law and determining more stable communities as we move forward?

I would say that the negative trends that we’ve mentioned, in the kind of problems that we are seeing evolving in our region and those that are affecting civilian security don’t really exist in isolation in one place from another. We can’t really succeed in addressing citizen security over the long term unless we’re addressing the underlying causes that prevail when we see the social dislocation or the disaffection that then leads to violence that leads to drug abuse that leads to drugs, to gangs, to corruption. In fact, all of these things we see, there are many moving parts that we have as we try to address this issue. And we could call – some of those are antidotes that we try to bring to really overcome the – and move forward our strength against these challenges that we have.

Let me talk about three types of anecdote – antidotes that really constitute part of the policy that we have in the United States as we’re looking at the Caribbean. The first one I would call institutional reform. That is really investing in building – you would say, in the building blocks of the security sector in all countries that are going to help us secure the rule of law, that are going to help us protect human rights, that are going to be the ways in which we can carry out the laws that we have in place.

The second way that I would talk about is another kind of investment, which is investment in our youth and the youth of these countries – how it is that we can identify alternative opportunities, not only for work for young people, but also so that they really take on the role and the responsibility of taking their countries towards a better place.

And third – the third area we talk about is the importance that we have of recommitting ourselves to the human rights of all people, and this would include all those groups that are traditionally marginalized, groups that are abused. These include women, they include ethnic minorities, and they include LGBT communities, among others. Now, on the first point, on institutional reform, we really do need to continue investing in these institutions and in creating institutional frameworks that are going to be able to provide accountability for criminals and are going to be able to be a resource for victims. Unless we have this structure in place – it’s the basic structure that we need – our pursuit for societies that are going to be governed justly and that are going to be able to use the rule of law in order to move societies forward is really like building a skeleton without a backbone. This is an absolutely essential piece that we need.

And investing in this area can take several forms. One can make more equipment – basic equipment available. One can provide more infrastructure. One could also provide extensive training, extensive development of curriculum in order to be able to train those that are supposed to enforce the law. In the Caribbean, the Department of State and other U.S. agencies are working through CARICOM, member states and with the Dominican Republic in order to be able to work with regional security organizations to strengthen national and regional capacity to address the problems that we face.

The security programs include logistical support to control the maritime borders, to capacity building for law enforcement, to sharing data within the region so that we have some of the same information available, to making the police more professional in their own activity, to providing border security, and to engaging in some justice sector reforms that are important.

We’ve also worked hard in the Caribbean region to fight the scourge of human trafficking. In fact, just an hour ago, in this same building, in the 8th floor, Secretary Clinton released the 11th Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which is put forth by the Department of State, assessing how it is that every country in the world, including the United States, is directing itself to the issue of trafficking in persons. We were delighted at that meeting to be able to honor what we call trafficking in persons heroes – individuals who have really made a difference in their lives – and we had eight of those present that are being honored this year. And we were very happy to honor Sheila Roseau from the Government of Antigua and Barbuda as a hero and recognizing the innovative leadership that she’s giving in this area, and the perseverance that she has shown in establishing a victim-centered approach to combating human trafficking, thereby being able to protect the victims and be able to address their needs.

There are many challenges that exist in the Caribbean, as they do in other regions of the world, but we really are seeing some Caribbean countries making really impressive advances and progress in identifying the victims and helping to protect them and to move – remove them from forced prostitution or from forced labor. And we are also seeing the importance of not only providing protection to the victims of trafficking or helping prevent it through the legislations that we have, but also being able to bring the perpetrators, the criminals to justice and making them accountable for what they’re doing and convicting them for their crime and putting them in jail. This is one of the very important areas that we believe we can work in to help support increased citizen security.

The second area that I would say is so important – and it’s an effort that we’re working on with our civil society and other areas – is the area of working primarily with youth in the Caribbean. The issue of women in the Caribbean is also another one that is really very important, and this is something that we’re going to have to address more and more if we’re looking for effective solutions to develop and build up societies. Young people in the region play many roles, and today part of our responsibility is to make sure that they are getting opportunities so that they don’t have to join gangs or engage in violence or leave their countries, but instead become human rights leaders or become, really, the ones that will provide leadership for the next generation.


We know that, too often, the options the young people have of professional growth, of developing skills are very limited, and that is really one of the things that leads them into a life of shadows or a life that sets them aside from society or makes them become one of the aggressors in society. We owe them a better choice and that is part of the work that we should be doing. Nowhere have I seen this, the work that can be done with youth, as forcefully as in a small town in Progreso, Honduras.

I lived in Honduras for three years, and many years later a young man and a friend with their Honduran friends decided that one of the ways to empower those youth that could join the gangs was really through education. It was that simple. Now, total disclaimer is that the young man is my son, Justin, who decided to move to Honduras and to do this work. And they started a nonprofit called Organization for Youth Empowerment, which offers scholarships to at-risk youth in high school, offers them the opportunity to go to college, and works with them in this area.

But more than that, what I learned from this experience – and this was supposed to be an experience in which mother was supposed to teach son, but it actually got turned around on me – I learned that the Organization for Youth Empowerment really saw youth as the social change agents in their community and presented them with the opportunity to begin taking the lead from the very beginning and to begin mounting the programs for other youth in their country and doing, really, the community service that they could do to begin to understand these problems more fully and to see themselves as the solution. These young men, now, and young women, are no longer saying the only alternatives for us are to leave our country and go north or to join the gangs or to engage in criminal activity. They are now seeing themselves as individuals that want to stay in their country and that they want to change their societies.

This is just one example, the one that I’m familiar with that I’m sharing with you, but part of our challenge is how it is that we can look at successful programs to engage youth and we can scale them up so that we’re reaching large enough numbers to be able to make this not only cost-effective but something that actually has an impact. We need to go a step further, because as we’re working with citizen security in our countries, those minorities that are most vulnerable and that face the most difficulties are ones that we should work with. And among these are women, they are persons with disabilities, they’re ethnic minorities, and they’re the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

Let me begin with women. Even though they bear the brunt of society’s political and economic challenges, women across the Americas continue to drive the democratic change, continue to be involved in social inequality. We think of women as victims, we think of women as the ones that are actually suffering because they are discriminated against and because they don’t have the opportunities, but more than that women are really the ones that are also the leaders in their societies. I have met women leaders from the Dominican Republic who are fighting human trafficking, which I’ve just talked about. In Cuba, the Damas de Blanco are recently honored by the Department of State for the work that they’re doing in fighting for the fundamental rights of human rights. We see women across the region, across the Caribbean, across Central America, all of Latin America, as playing enormously important roles as leaders. But despite that fact, they are still marginalized. Legislation tends to be outdated, tends to not be applied, and we see that if we are able to establish more stable and more adequate rules of law, if we have judicial systems that are more equitable, the role of women will improve as we move this forward.

In nations, I think across the hemisphere, men and women may be subjected to horrible violence, to persecutions, and to threats simply because of who they love. These are usually crimes of hate, and they’re really very poisonous and they happen in all of our societies. We in this Administration, starting with President Obama and very loudly with Secretary Clinton and ourselves, are personally addressing this issue at the highest levels of the attacks that LGBT communities suffer in their own societies. We see this as an acute problem, and we see it as acute in the Caribbean because there are many negative societal and even, in some cases, government-endorsed attitudes towards people because of their sexual orientation and their gender identity. And I speak particularly of the Caribbean, but certainly in many parts of the world we see that this is one of the things that occurs.

And it is particularly difficult in small island nations because communities are smaller, and the discrimination and the violence can be compounded because there’s close-knit, usually socially conservative environments. Same-sex sexual activity remains criminalized with a life of – and a sentence, in some of the countries in the Caribbean, of up to 25 years in prison, and in some other countries even more. So we’ve made great strides in this area and we are working very well to try to address it, but we are also seeing that it still needs a great deal of work. Some of you might know that the United Nations Human Rights Council passed the very first resolution calling for the full protection of the human rights of LGBT populations. This is just based on the simple idea that every human being deserves to have their universal rights respected. So I would ask all of you to think about this issue and to look at how it is that we can join our efforts to protect the human rights of LGBT people and to make this be a priority in the Caribbean as we move this forward.

At the same time, we can also look at some of the erosion in freedom of expression that undermines democratic institutions that we’ve thought to build and to preserve and to improve through generations. This question of the freedom of expression, of freedom of media, this effort to be able to speak – this is an enormously important piece of democracy and it’s a vehicle that we need to be able to use in order to be able to have stable and peaceful governance. So this question of citizen security is very complex and has a great number of pieces to it, some of which I have mentioned and emphasized today. But it requires that we stand up again and again for media freedom, for freedom of expression, and for the freedom of every individual. In many nations, including Haiti, we’re collaborating to do some important work in this area of providing freedom to the media, to also be able to express providing freedom to journalists to be able to address whatever issues they want to report on, and being able to make sure that that is one of the components of the freedoms that we are talking about.

As President Obama emphasized earlier this year in Santiago, Chile, we have to confront the issue of citizen security together and we have to come at it from every direction. As we invest in the judicial system, which as I said, is the backbone of every society, we also need to invest to make sure that we are honoring all members of a society to be able to address these issues, that we are empowering those that are going to lead societies to the future. So the violence and insecurity that we are facing today really should not cripple us or paralyze us. There is much that we can do, and much that we can do if we join forces. So I ask you with that to continue working in many of these issues and to consider the United States an absolute partner in moving this forward and in sharing in the responsibility of addressing it.

So with that, let me just thank you for inviting me today and for being able to share some of these ideas with you. Thank you. (Applause.)

I think we have the opportunity for some questions, which Julissa will help me with, because she is really the one that works with – please, go ahead.

MS. BENTON: No, no. You’re fine.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: All right.

MS. BENTON: Stay right there.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Yes, please.

QUESTION: I have a question about the issue of trafficking in the Caribbean. For maybe countries in Asia, many of the trafficked persons come from the Philippines, or in the Middle East they are from Ukraine. In the Caribbean specifically, are people being trafficked into the Caribbean, or is it a domestic situation? And who are the primary traffickers? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: In the Caribbean, there’s – it can be a destination and it can be a source as well. So some – there are people from the Caribbean that are trafficked out of that – of their countries into other countries. And of course, this is partly for sexual trafficking, but it’s also for forced labor. One of the big problems that we have is really domestic servitude, where people are really enslaved in the way in which they work. So in the case – and I’m generalizing, but it varies country to country, but certainly both things happen in them.

QUESTION: In connection with the specifics, Guyana has a major concern in terms of citizen security. And apart from the work that you’re doing with women and youth to mitigate some of those problems, what specific structures would you say State can put in place to assist with the urgency of the matter in Guyana as it is right now?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Do you want to address that, Julissa?

MS. REYNOSO: Sure. So we initiated the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative last year. As part of the initiative, we’ve created a mechanism in the Caribbean that would – that essentially engages all the governments at the technical level and at the political level to deal with the different issues that have emerged throughout the Caribbean. So we’re – in the context of that, there are essentially several thematic, technical groups that meet on a regular basis. The technical groups range from prevention and youth at risk, police reform, maritime issues, and air issues. Those are the primary themes that we’ve been working on.

In the case of Guyana, all those issues really are a major piece of the story, but really, prevention and youth at risk and police reform are the two primary ones that we’ve been tackling with. There has been representation from the Guyanese Government in these technical meetings and also the political meetings. So we have seen, frankly, a level of consensus across the Caribbean that these security matters are of urgent – of urgency.

We started off with 45 million towards the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. This year, we went up to 77 million. It – our – the funding goes, again, to tackle those four themes. So we’ve gone from giving boats to some countries to helping build youth centers to capacity building for the police departments and the militaries. So I can’t tell you specifically the amounts we’ve allocated per country, but Guyana is getting a significant – a good piece of assistance in – within the bucket that is CBSI. Obviously, it’s going to be increased this year because we have more funding available. And we have, at this point, seen good participation and goodwill from the Guyanese society and the Guyanese Government in terms of the – both the technical and the political work involving CBSI.

And we’re having our annual meeting of the ministers of security in the Bahamas in November, and we expect a high-level representation from Guyana in that context as well. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: Yes, ma’am. You can use the mike at the end of the aisle as well.

Hi. You want to go ahead and take the mike at the end of the aisle?

QUESTION: Karen Ellison (ph), Institute of Caribbean Studies. I think we’re speaking largely to a diaspora group here, our Caribbean diaspora group mostly from the CARICOM countries. So – and I think many people in this room are very specifically interested in the issue of youth at risk and the whole criminality of our youth in the region. I have two questions that kind of build on the Guyana question. Budget, one I guess you couldn’t answer. But I wanted to know: What is the current stance in terms of small arms trafficking from the U.S. to the Caribbean, number one.

And two, a more tricky question: But given the criminalization around marijuana, which is the crop that we grow in the Caribbean, and the current legalization of medical marijuana across the United States, what will be the future stance of the U.S. Government with regards to Caribbean countries who may want to decriminalize marijuana and also put in place medical marijuana facilities as well?

MS. REYNOSO: Again, those are tough questions. (Laughter.)

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: I’m giving them right to the expert, right here.

MS. REYNOSO: Yes, thank you. On the small arms, we have an agreement with IMPACS, which is a base out of Trinidad and Tobago which is CARICOM’s security hub, if you will, whereby we’re setting up a mechanism to trace – to put a tracer on the weapons that come into the Caribbean so it’s easier for the Caribbeans, essentially, to keep track and to actually assess whether the weapons are registered or not, et cetera. Right? So that’s something we’re working on, and obviously the capacity that we’re building, especially in the Northern Caribbean – in Jamaica and the Bahamas – with respect to ports and the capacity of ports to look at – to search the baggage that comes into these countries is also going to be important in terms of evaluating and tracking illegal movement, because we’re – our evaluation is that a lot of the guns are coming in through the ports, not necessarily through the airports. So that’s something else we’re building capacity at the port level.

In terms of the marijuana usage, obviously the policy stands as is in the U.S. that we – it’s illegal. It will – at least in our mind, it should remain illegal. And we’re obviously building – trying to work with young people in the Caribbean so that is not an option that they turn to in terms of distribution and usage. But within the context of the U.S., at least in the short term, we do not see any possibility of immediate reform.

MS. BENTON: We have time for one more question. Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. Is it working?

MS. BENTON: Yes.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you for your briefing. One of the greatest threats to citizen security in the Caribbean is the U.S. policy of deporting felons back to the Caribbean. Many of these people have no attachment to the Caribbean. They’ve been – they migrated, or their parents migrated, when they were infants. Some of them don’t even speak the language. And predictably, they have no other alternative, sometimes, but to turn back to a life of crime. And we all know the Caribbean does not have the capacity to absorb these people. They cannot even deal with their own justice situation. Their prisons are overcrowded; the justice system is antiquated. Is there any view to reform that policy?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: This is an important question, and certainly one that we have discussed a good bit because – precisely because of some of the issues that you have raised. Julissa, do you want to just address some of the – a little bit some of the reasons as to why this policy is the way that it is, and then some of the possible ways that one could evolve it?

MS. REYNOSO: The policy – this is not working – okay.

MS. BENTON: You have to press it – really get it up and press it. There.

MS. REYNOSO: There you go. The policy is what it is because of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act that was, frankly, a time when I was not here. (Laughter.) So the law – the statute is the 1996 reform – Immigration Reform Act. It allows the judicial system to remove individuals who have been found guilty of certain particular crimes and remove them if they – even if they have a green card or primary residency status. The numbers of deportees is significant worldwide. The Caribbean receives a good number of them, but frankly, the Caribbean is not the biggest receiver of deportees. Mexico and Central America are those – that’s where a lot of the deportees end up. The Caribbean probably faces – sees it as a bigger number because of the size of some of these states.

We have been working through CBSI, again, to help facilitate the reintegration of some of these individuals. We set up programs in Guyana, the Bahamas, Haiti, and Jamaica at one point also has a reintegration program with the United Kingdom to help reintegrate these persons who have been removed from the United States. We have also set up a mechanism for allowing the countries in the Caribbean to have more information about these individuals. I think there is a – frankly, a larger blame on these folks for criminality in the Caribbean than evidence demonstrates. The evidence and the studies that have been conducted does not have a direct link between these deportees and criminal activity in the Caribbean.

I am – I was born in the Dominican Republic, so I’m Caribbean as well, and I – and the Dominican Republic has the largest number of deportees of the Caribbean in all. The Dominican Republic has been working with us to set up a welcome center at the airport in the Dominican Republic to allow for these individuals to get proper documentation, et cetera, in order for them to be able to become Dominican citizens again. It is not something that’s easy. And as you noted, some of these individuals have been separated from their families and relatives for decades. But the law is what it is. And it’s a 1996 statute that is – it would require congressional reform to actually change. So we’ve been trying to work with the governments to help reintegration. And we’ve also worked with the governments to provide them more information about who these individuals are so they have a better sense of what the criminal activity was originally that led to their deportation.

And thirdly, we’re setting up a attaché based out of Santo Domingo that will work with the Caribbean countries to help the governments actually deal with their – the acceptance of these individuals back into their society.

But I want to just make clear that there is no evidence that links the deportation and these individuals – and some of them have criminal histories – to the rising crime in the Caribbean. It is something that is unfortunate because some of these individuals do not have real relationships in these islands, but the reality is that we have no evidence that there is an actual link. Thank you.

MS. BENTON: All right. Thank you very much. Please join me in thanking Under Secretary Otero and Deputy Assistant Secretary Reynoso. (Applause.)

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