Conversations With America: Opportunities & Challenges in the Western Hemisphere
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
MS. SAMPSON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations With America, a discussion between top State Department officials and NGO leaders where you can watch and participate in the dialogue. I’m Olive Sampson, Director of the Office of Public Liaison in the Bureau of Public Affairs.
The relationship between the United States and the Americas has been described as a partnership, and we are pleased to be discussing the Western Hemisphere today. Our blog, DipNote, has received many questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world. We have selected some of them for this broadcast.
Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, who began his tenure at the Department of State as Assistant Secretary in November 2009 and who will be departing later this week, will be reflecting upon his time working on the opportunities and challenges in the Western Hemisphere. Thank you for being with us today, Assistant Secretary Valenzuela.
Also with us today is Dr. Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Latin American program provides a non-partisan forum for experts to discuss the most critical issues facing the hemisphere. Welcome, Dr. Arnson, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Will you tell us a little bit more about the work of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center?
DR. ARNSON: Well, the Wilson Center, in general, attempts to serve as a bridge between the world of scholarship on the one hand and the world of public affairs on the other. And so we have at the center of our agenda what we think are the most critical issues facing not only the U.S.-Latin American relationship but also the issues facing the hemisphere. There are separate institutes on Mexico and Brazil that deal with the range of issues that are important to those two countries, given the importance not only for the bilateral relationship, but also in the case of Brazil, its growing prominence in global affairs. And we also look at central issues of democratic governance, of citizen security and organized crime, and the threat to democratic governance posed by those issues, to questions of international trade and social inclusion. And I think those are the central issues that we’ve been focusing on recently.
MS. SAMPSON: Great. Thank you so much.
Assistant Secretary Valenzuela, the Obama Administration has emphasized the concept of partnership in its relations with the Americas. How has this new approach been received by the governments and people of the region? Can you tell us a little about that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Yes. I’m delighted to do that, and I’m delighted to be on this program and in this conversation with Cindy, who’s a great friend.
The Obama Administration’s approach and Secretary Clintons approach to relationship with the hemisphere is to try to make it clear that the United States is no longer, as it might have been in the past, in a situation where it has a presumed, presumptive hegemonic tuition over the region. But rather, the United States is looking to create partnerships, viable partnerships with different countries throughout the Americas, in order to be able to establish the conditions really for us to work together to improve the lots of our people, to resolve some of the problems and challenges that we face together. The parting assumption is that we need to cooperate in this complex world in order to be able to advance our interest as a country and to be able to establish a better relationship with the countries of all of the Americas.
MS. SAMPSON: Dr. Arnson, do you have anything to add? Do you see – is that the perspective that you see from the Wilson Center?
DR. ARNSON: Well, I think it’s certainly been a hallmark of the Obama Administration to seek out cooperative relationships with a range of allies in the hemisphere. And I think behind that is an important new reality throughout the Western Hemisphere, which has tremendous economic dynamism of growth rates in most of South America, with some important exceptions, that are at least double, in some cases triple, the rate of growth of the United States, a growing search by many of the successful democracies and economies of the region to look elsewhere beyond the United States for partnerships, particular with China, and to a lesser extent but growing extent, India.
And I think the Obama Administration has done a good job in focusing on a positive agenda toward the region, one that’s not been driven by the paternalism of the past, the sense that the United States has all of the answers, and I think it’s also resisted the temptation to simply engage when there’s some kind of security crisis or perceived security crisis. So I think there’s been an important change in tone, certainly a change in the discourse and the kind of language that’s used to describe the relationship.
MS. SAMPSON: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: If I might just add to that --
MS. SAMPSON: Please.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: -- to underscore the importance of one of the – the thing that Cindy just said now that we’re really in a different world in the 21st century now. Latin America in the 20th century had really some very different kinds of patterns. Let’s remember that it was a continent of military coups and authoritarian governments for a long time. In fact, 40 percent of all changes of government from 18 – from 1930 until 1980 were by military coups.
With the end of the Cold War in the late ‘80s, the continent moved politically towards the establishment of democratic institutions. In some cases, they’re still weak. In some cases, there still is a challenge to consolidate them. But at the same time, lessons were learned on the economic front: economies were opened; macroeconomic discipline was established. And we see now, as Cindy also noted, that, in fact, Latin America has been doing better economically than some of the countries of Europe or the United States after this latest crisis.
This provides a whole host of new opportunities, as well as some of the challenges that still remain. And public security is – this is one of the emphases that the Wilson Center has been looking at as well, is indeed one of the continuing challenges that we face in the region.
MS. SAMPSON: Would you like to perhaps focus a little more attention on the security challenges that you just described? Since the Wilson Center is working on that, what specifically are you --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, what I want to do is to make sure that we also convey the following, and that is that it’s a continent that’s very diverse at the same time. Every one of the countries has its own history, some have been much more successful in consolidating democratic institutions historically, some have been more successful economically, and then you can also look at it in terms of sub-regions.
Right now, perhaps the sub-region that is most challenged may be Central America as Mexico faces its significant difficulties in dealing with issues of criminal violence and drug trafficking and so on. And as Colombia in some ways has overcome many of the challenges it had in the past, the countries of Central America find themselves somewhat in a bind in that regard. And that’s why it’s very important for the United States – and this is a fundamental pillar of our policy – to try to address these problems of public insecurity more effectively in places like Central America.
But that’s not necessarily the narrative in other places, you see. In Chile and in Argentina and the Southern Cone, they have other challenges but also extraordinary opportunities that are different.
MS. SAMPSON: Yeah. And at the Woodrow Wilson Center you are also focusing on questions of security, et cetera. Would you like to perhaps talk a little bit about your view from –
DR. ARNSON: Sure. Well, I think public opinion polls throughout the region show is that actual victimization, being a victim of crime or perceiving that crime is out of control, actually is correlated with a decline in support for democracy. And so getting a handle on the situation of crime and violence is really a key task for just about every government in the region.
But as Arturo mentioned, it’s at crisis levels in places like Central American and Mexico because of the explosion of narco-trafficking, violence perpetrated by the cartels, and the spread of the cartel violence from Mexico into Central America, and to a much lesser extent, the Caribbean. And the sort of symbiotic relationship that exists between the drug markets in the United States – the United States as a country remains the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world – and the geographic proximity of those countries and sub-regions to the United States make this an issue that has be addressed on all sides.
MS. SAMPSON: Dr. Valenzuela, one of the things that we had talked about prior to the beginning of this conversation was that drug-related violence remains a huge problem in Mexico, and we were talking about that. Can you focus – and in Central America – what steps has this Administration taken to address this pressing challenge?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, let me focus on three things. I think that the first thing that we need to emphasize is that we have to have an effective series of mechanisms in order to confront drug trafficking organizations. In other words, they need to be confronted directly. This requires greater intelligence. It requires sharing intelligence, for example, much more effectively. It means also strengthening things like police forces and so on. The military may have a role to play in this, but fundamentally these are civilian authorities that need to address these problems.
The second dimension is that whatever approach we take, we have to have an integrated approach. It has to be multifaceted. It can’t just be simply a police action, or as they say in Latin America, it can’t just be mano dura, in other words, a hard fist. What you require is an integrated strategy that pays attention to strengthening institutions, such as judicial institutions, institutions of the police, the rule of law in other words, the strength of local governments and that kind of thing.
And then finally, it’s very, very important to understand that some of these phenomena flourish because of inequality, poverty and things like that, youth at risk, people that don’t have opportunities so you need to create jobs. So the answer has to be an integrated answer.
Another important element in this is that we have to cooperate with other governments. So we have to have integrated strategy. We have to have a cooperative strategy with others. And the cooperation has increased significantly with Mexico as well as with Central America more recently.
But let me add another dimension. This is also something that other countries in the world need to pay attention to. And in fact, they do. So in our efforts on Central America in particular, we’re very pleased that we’re working very effectively with the Europeans, with Colombians, with the Mexicans, with even the Chileans and other countries in Latin America to address this problem together. It has to be a collective response to what is an international problem.
MS. SAMPSON: Your thoughts on the same question, Dr. Arnson?
DR. ARNSON: Well, I think the framework is just as Arturo says. It has to be an integrated approach that provides opportunities on the one hand for young people who are unemployed as well as not in school, that focuses on improving the rule of law, judicial institutions, reforming the police, the whole sort of gamut of issues that have to be addressed simultaneously. And I think the difficulty now is that even though there is good cooperation and there have been some notable improvements in the way intelligence is shared, in the way that both governments – or governments on both sides of the border are tackling the problem, the problem itself does not seem to be getting any better and, in fact, in many ways, it looks like it’s getting worse.
And so we can have a really well thought-out strategy and we’re simply not going to be able to keep up with the kind of money and the kind of violence employed by the cartels to attack anybody that gets in their way. And this problem is going to be there for the long term and we’re going to have to remain committed over the long term, and I think there’s a lot more that will need to be done.
And I think an essential piece of this is that there’s a great deal of political polarization in this country. There are huge economic problems in this country. There are discussions going on today over the debt ceiling and how to deal with the U.S. deficit, and it leaves very little political capital by the – for the President or on the part of the White House or the Administration to fight some of the really serious battles that need to be fought to do our part in respecting or coming to grips with our part of the responsibility.
Just one concrete example. There’s something like six or seven thousand gun shops, legal gun shops, on the U.S.-Mexican border, and a very small effort by the Obama Administration to require that multiple purchases be registered was defeated in the Congress just the other day. And there’s something like 80 percent of the weapons that are confiscated from the cartels in Mexico originate in the United States. It’s very difficult to buy guns legally in Mexico, and they come from the U.S. And because of the degree of polarization that we have over what our own gun control laws should be, it’s very difficult to make a serious dent in that problem.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Could I just add one thing? The – I agree with Cindy’s analysis. I think maybe where I might part ways is her suggestion that the situation is getting worse. It depends on how you measure that. And that is that if indeed what we’re trying to do and what the Mexicans are trying to do themselves, or the Central Americans, is to strengthen institutions, that does take some time. And so if you – or if you need to, for example, in the case of Mexico, strengthen the federal police, that also takes some time. So the fact that you see an increase in violence may actually in some cases also be a testament to the fact that there is more effectiveness in pushing back on certain cartels as they struggle for territory and that sort of thing.
I don’t want to belittle for a moment the challenges that are still being faced by these governments. On the other hand, I do think the strategy is a correct one and that the resources are going into it. I wish we did have more resources in that sense. And the United States needs to continue to provide support for these challenges because it’s in our fundamental national interest. But generally – and perhaps I have a bit more of an optimistic view of where we’re going because we have the proper strategy.
MS. SAMPSON: Certainly. Just staying on South and in Central America, thinking about Honduras, last June, Honduras returned to the Organization of American States after almost two years after the coup of 2009 disrupted democratic rule and provided severe levels of regional polarization. What does this decision signal for both the future of Honduras and for the state of regional relations generally? Just moving away from Mexico right now to Honduras.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, look, it’s a very important step for Honduras to have returned to the Organization of American States. It was a correct decision on the part of the Organization of American States, with the support of the United States and all of the countries of the hemisphere. It was a unanimous decision to suspend Honduras when the coup took place because, as I said earlier, this was a pattern in Latin America in the past and we simply could not go back to a situation where presidents would be removed by force without due process of law. And this is what the hemisphere objected to.
The fact of the matter is, though, that a lot of effort has been made, and the United States steadfastly continued to work hard to try to see how we could overcome the difficulties that Honduras faced. It – there’s a lot of road to still go. There still are human rights violations that are taking place in Honduras. We’re not out of the – the country’s not out of the woods in that sense. But President Lobo has taken some very, very courageous steps, based on some accords that were worked out actually by the Hondurans themselves to try to implement conditions that, in fact, allowed the Organization of American States to reincorporate Honduras. And among them was creating more of a government of national unity, having a truth commission, for example, that was – that had a former vice president of Guatemala as the chair of the truth commission, examine what happened and give some suggestions as to what improvements could be made for the future so that this kind of polarization does not lead to the same kind of crisis.
All those have been very positive steps in the case of Honduras, so I think that this is a good example of where a decided hemisphere consensus in the situation like Honduras has led to an outcome of a country now on a path toward strengthening democratic institutions for the future.
MS. SAMPSON: Dr. Arnson, do you have anything to add --
DR. ARNSON: I agree with Arturo that it’s a great step forward for Honduras to have been readmitted to the OAS. That took a long time; it took a lot of convincing of countries that were opposed to that. I’m not sure it’s fruitful to revisit past history. I’m not sure that I agree with the way in which U.S. Government policy broke with a consensus in the hemisphere about how to handle the coup on approximately November of 2009. I think that remains a source – a sore point for many countries in the hemisphere. And I agree that there’s a basis for going forward, but there are still tremendous problems in Honduras.
And it’s absolutely demonstrable fact that during the time that Honduras was expelled from the OAS and not part – and international assistance, including from the United States, was cut off, that there was a field day that was had by the drug cartels, and they took advantage of that situation to greatly expand their operations and their activities and influence in the country. So organized crime, along with questions of crime and violence, Honduras has some of the highest rates of crime and violence in the world. And that’s in a region that is known to be the most violent in the world, outside of situations of actual combat.
There are terrible problems of political polarization that show really no quick fix or sign. I mean, those are things that are going to have to be worked out over time. There are serious human rights violations – murders of journalists that continue to take place, and not, in my view, enough effort on the part of the Honduran Government to protect people who engage in legal political activity, even if it’s opposition activity, and still high rates of impunity for those kinds of crimes that do take place.
So I think there’s a long way to go. I think it’s a major, major advance that Honduras is now part, again, of the inter-American system and can count on the support not only of the United States but of other countries of the hemisphere and the European Union in trying to overcome these problems. But we should also, I think, be honest about the degree of division that continues to exist.
MS. SAMPSON: Do you have anything --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: No. I mean, I agree with the challenges that Honduras still faces. I think I would defend the fact that the United States, throughout this process, was extremely consistent in making clear that it was unacceptable to have, as I said earlier, to take out a president by force without due process of law. And that has been recently, by the way, emphasized by the truth commission that came out with this report recently. And this was a major step that Honduras took when it agreed to form this truth commission. And I think some very good advice is coming out of this. They have something like 88 recommendations for the Hondurans. But the U.S. policy throughout was to look for a solution to the problems of Honduras and to – but to maintain clarity that the principles of the protection of democratic institutions is fundamental. But at the same time, we needed to find some kind of a solution to it.
And I think that the policy has been – was vindicated by the fact that other countries did come together and helped arrange for a solution to the problem of Honduras. And we’ve emphasized Honduras in our conversation today. Let’s remember that countries like Honduras do have a history of weak institutions and that the process of creating and building and consolidating democratic institutions takes time. What’s fundamental, of course, is to maintain that course. And in that sense, I think there is a commitment on the part of the United States, as well as many other countries in the hemisphere to help Honduras in this regard.
MS. SAMPSON: And that’s an example of the partnership?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: And this is an example of the partnership. This is an example of how collective action, how we work together to try to do this. The commitment of the Europeans, for example – the European Union towards Central America is very, very important, the Canadians and others. I very much value the fact that the way we are approaching many of these problems in the world today is not only with a sense that we have a collective responsibility – as drug consumers, for example – but also that all of us can work much more effectively if we coordinate our strategies together, both the donor countries like the Europeans and the United States as well as the countries of Central America, who in turn are working together more effectively among themselves to be able to address these problems.
MS. SAMPSON: Well, this has been an excellent discussion so far, but at this point I think I’d like to turn to the questions we received from viewers. They were submitted by our DipNote blog. And so the first question is from Florida. Sharia (ph) in Florida writes, “Diplomacy deals with trade deals. How is the Department of State involving us in trade deals with Latin America, and how will they help both sides?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, look, the Department of State does not have a lead in negotiating trade agreements. USTR does, the United States Trade Representative Office. But of course, the Department of State is a critical player in the whole foreign policy agenda, so that we work with our counterpart agencies, with the White House, in developing strategies. Trade policy is also something that the Congress – the Congress does have to approve trade policy, works very closely on. So this is a complex issue that has to be dealt with as a government as a whole.
Let me just simply say that the Administration is committed to open trade. It’s committed to trying to implement trade agreements. And in fact, with regard to the Americas, the Obama Administration is now working to try to finish some trade agreements, particularly one that’s pending with Colombia and with Panama. And we’ve been working very steadily to try to come to that conclusion. It’s gotten difficult at this particular point because of controversies within the Congress and some divisions domestically, but we think it’s the right thing to do is to move ahead on these, and that the Colombians in particular have been able to answer many of the legitimate questions that we raised as we were moving forward to try to determine – to conclude this trade agreement.
MS. SAMPSON: Do you have anything that you wish to add?
DR. ARNSON: Sure. Well, I would agree with Arturo, certainly, that foreign trade and international trade, particularly with Latin America, benefits the U.S. economy. And the difficulty comes because it benefits people – benefits certain people, and other people lose. And in many ways, these free trade agreements with Colombia, with Panama, with South Korea, have become sort of proxy issues for a much broader debate in this country over who wins and who loses in a process of globalization. And I think that the Obama Administration has been correct in not only paying attention to some of the important human rights issues that have been raised in Colombia but also attempting to couple the approval of the trade agreements with trade adjustment assistance for workers that have been displaced by foreign trade.
But the trade agenda is, I think, precisely the kind of issue that needs serious sustained attention from the White House and from the President himself. And I think it’s one of the classic examples of an issue that’s of great importance to the region, not only – mostly symbolically, I think, not so much in terms of real economic benefits, certainly, to the United States. It’s an important symbol and yet we have not been able to pass those and to get the coalition together in the Congress to approve those, and I think it’s simply because the President is too distracted by the major, major, major fights over the debt ceiling, the deficit, and how to get to the U.S. economy moving again. And I’m hoping that there will be approval, particularly of the Colombia trade agreement. That’s the one that has been the most contentious. And we’ll see what happens. But the degree of polarization in this country is not – does not augur well for the ability to successfully implement these kinds of agreements.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Right. I think I agree with everything that Cindy said, although I would, I think, dissent on one thing, and that is that the President has not been distracted on this. This is something that he has really been focused on. It’s been a difficult issue to work through, precisely because of the complexities politically, but this is not something that he’s flinched from. And in fact, we’ve been working very steadily to try to resolve these issues, and we hope that they will resolved within a reasonable period of time.
MS. SAMPSON: Just to go to Roger (ph). Roger wrote us from Florida, and he wants to know: “Under what circumstances would the United States change its travel restrictions to Cuba?” Do you have – would you like to comment on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, let me just simply say that when the President came into office, there was a review of this – President Obama. And in fact, travel restrictions have been changed to Cuba. And the first steps the President took in his first year in office, when he changed the regulations with regard to the travel of Cuban Americans – the previous administration had restricted significantly the ability of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives. In fact, I think, if I don’t remember this correctly, you couldn’t travel but for once in three years. And these restrictions were eliminated, and this has led to a significant increase in the travel of Cuban Americans to Cuba. I think something like several hundred thousand, in fact, have been able to travel to Cuba.
And then subsequent to that, more recently, the President then also liberalized much more travel to Cuba. It’s still purposeful travel in the sense that you cannot travel to Cuba just to go on a holiday and get permission from the United States to do that. You have to get a license in order to go to Cuba, or travel under one of the general licenses. But by purposeful, what do we mean? For educational purposes or for religious purposes or for other elements like that. This is really significant. And what is the basis of the policy? What is the underlying logic of the policy? The underlying logic of the policy is that greater people-to-people contact, a greater ability on the part of the people of the United States to interact with the people of Cuba, will be something that will contribute in a significant way to a greater openness of the Cuban society and the Cuban regime.
DR. ARNSON: Well, I guess I would agree that the Obama Administration has gone about as far as any president could go in the current political scenario to open up the kinds of exchanges that are possible by citizens of the United States and Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba. A number of airports now have charter flights beyond the charter flights that used to take place just from Miami. And these are obviously very, very controversial in South Florida, and there have been any number of attempts – and particularly in the House of Representatives – to restrict that and to insert provisions, including in the debt negotiations, that would roll back the kinds of executive decisions that have been made by the Administration to make for a more fluid people-to-people relationship.
I think that there’s some concern that the licensing process still moves too slowly, that the bureaucracy is not quickly enough in approving licenses in a way that really makes the exchange meaningful beyond immediate family members, but I think that there has been a lot that the Administration has done just through administrative executive orders, and it has probably walked up to the limit of where the relaxation between the two countries can go at this point.
MS. SAMPSON: If you don’t have anything further to add on that subject, I’d like to talk a little bit about freedom of the press, both in Nicaragua – from the region, rights. So far in 2011, journalists have been killed in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. What programs does the State Department have to help protect the physical safety of journalists in the hemisphere, and what is State doing to pressure governments to investigate the attacks that occur?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, look. This – as you say, this really is a pattern that you see in many different countries. Often, there’s a relationship between the degree to which criminal organizations have grown in influence in certain areas and the challenges that reporters face, because if you’re an enterprising reporter and you’re trying to root out stories having to do with this kind of corruption or with criminal organizations and so on, you become immediately a target by some of the criminal organizations. And this is a really serious problem because it does affect the ability of the people to understand what’s going on. We require, in any society, enterprising journalists to be able to uncover what the facts really are and to write stories about it.
And this is really an unfortunate development, and it’s something that we are conscious of and we’re working closely with our counterpart governments throughout the region to emphasize the importance of protection for journalists and editors and owners of newspapers because they are also sometimes targets of this thing. Freedom of the press is fundamental for a democratic society, and it’s something that we need to sort of encourage as much as possible.
MS. SAMPSON: Is the center doing anything on this front?
DR. ARNSON: Well, we’re not doing anything particularly to address the dangers that face – that journalists face in the region, but I agree with the question posed by Boz (ph) in Honduras that this is a very, very serious challenge in many countries of the Americas, as Arturo mentioned, particularly in countries where reporters are trying to document corruption, investigate organized crime, and in some way take on or engage in reporting that is seen as threatening by organized crime syndicates.
But there are also less dramatic kinds of pressures on journalists that are equally problematic – threats of intimidation, jailing of people in countries such as Venezuela for publishing information that’s considered defamatory or slanderous towards the government. That’s also a fundamental assault on freedom and I think sends a chill throughout the press corps in terms of the stories and the kinds of things that they’re willing to take on. And access to information is a really core pillar of a democratic society, and I think everyone has an interest in protecting the rights of journalists to engage in the kind of reporting and independent reporting that is so critical to not only the exercise of democratic freedoms but also to improving the kinds of situations of institutional weakness and corruption and promoting reform. You have to have watchdogs that are able to serve as a counterpoint to what governments and powerful segments of society are doing, and journalists play a really critical role.
And there are many institutions in the Americas that are devoted to upholding press freedoms, most notably in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. And I think – I don’t really have evidence one way or another as to the extent that the Obama Administration, particularly at the level of our embassies in the region, has been taking an active stance, but I would certainly think that that’s appropriate. And if they’re not doing it, they should be. And if they are, they should be congratulated.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: They are. They are indeed. In embassy after embassy after embassy, people are looking into this issue, and we raise the concerns that Cindy has raised when these problems emerge.
And let me also underscore the value of what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has done with regard to this. There’s a special press rapporteur for the commission, and the commission has played a very, very significant role. And it’s one of the jewels, really, of the inter-American system, the Inter-American Commission. And I think we need to sort of all ensure that it is safeguarded because it is one of those organizations, going way back, that has staked out a position in defense of the fundamental principles of the rule of law.
MS. SAMPSON: Excellent. And we can go on to another question from the United States. Ann (ph) writes: “One of the many challenges faced by Western Hemisphere today is the rampant and devastating gender-based violence throughout the region” She asks, “What are the U.S. Government’s views on the opportunities of investing in women economically and politically? What is the U.S. Government doing to make sure that women are invested and consulted in all areas of society?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, let me thank her for this question, because I think it’s something that we’ve taken very seriously. The Secretary, Secretary Clinton, of course, is really committed to this issue. It’s something that is at the core of U.S. foreign policy in the world. Our development policy – remember that, as the Secretary says, there are three Ds. There’s diplomacy, there’s development, and there’s defense. And in the development area, there are few things that are as important as empowering women across the world if we really are serious about trying to address the issues of poverty and inequality and that kind of thing.
But the question goes even further in that the questioner really is referring to gender-based violence and things like that, and these are really serious problems. I’m very proud of the fact that our bureau, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, has actually taken a significant lead in this issue and that we have worked not only to try to make clear that this is something that governments have to address throughout the region, but that any kind of discrimination or any kind of violence against any particular kind of group is a fundamental violation of human rights. And in that regard, let me just say also that one of the pending human rights issues today is the violation of human rights of peoples depending on their gender, sort of identities or preferences. And the rights of LGBT persons are really very important. This is something that we’ve been working very heavily on as well. Women’s rights are not – there is – women’s rights are human rights, and the rights also of LGBT persons are human rights as well. And these are some of the most important fundamental agendas that we still have to overcome in societies across the world.
MS. SAMPSON: Do you have a question for Assistant Secretary Valenzuela on this issue before we move on to –
DR. ARNSON: Well, I certainly have a comment, I guess, which is just to reiterate what Arturo has said. I think that Secretary Clinton herself has been a leader on this issue for many decades, in fact, not just years, from her time as first lady through her position in the Senate and now as Secretary of State. And there’s a great deal of emphasis in U.S. policy, and certainly through the State Department, on micro-enterprise and on womens-based, small-scale development projects. And I think that that’s a proven winner, and I there’s really, I think, a central role for women in this. And I think that one thing that actually does get lost in the discussion about citizen insecurity and crime and violence is the degree that women – the degree to which women are victims of violence, not only kind of gang violence but also domestic violence.
And I think, as it is in the United States, in many countries in Latin America, and to a greater extent in Latin America because of a dominant sort of culture of machismo – and I apologize for using that term, but – because I don’t think it’s fair to necessarily stereotype an entire region, but nonetheless it’s a significant problem. And violence against women is a major challenge, probably in every country in the hemisphere.
MS. SAMPSON: Thank you. We’re going to go to our final question from our DipNote, that – received from DipNote. And it’s from Susan C. in Florida.
She writes: “My daughter visited Panama not too long ago. I was very concerned about the border between Panama and Colombia. Have things changed there, or is there still a problem with the FARC crossing into Panama to commit crimes such as kidnapping? Has progress been made to stop this problem? Does the Department of State warn travelers from the U.S. about this situation and – the situation in these two countries, both Panama and Colombia, particularly in the border region?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Right. This is – the questioner is correct that there’s been a problem in the area of Colombia/Panama. This is an area where the FARC often – the FARC is this guerilla movement out of Colombia, and it’s been there for a very long period of time. And what some of the FARC leaders would do is take refuge in Panamanian territory and conduct some of their illicit activities there because this is an organization that may have begun as a political guerilla a long time ago but in many ways has morphed into also a narco-trafficking organization. And this has contributed to a degree of instability in that area.
Let me say the United States has had programs working in this particular area with the Panamanians. USAID has had some very effective programs. We’ve worked with the Panamanians on security issues. But more importantly, I think that there’s good cooperation between the Colombians and the Panamanians now to try to address this particular sort of issue.
As always, these are areas where there’s a significant amount of poverty, and so consequently, weak institutions in some of these areas too. So it’s – these are fertile ground, in a sense, for this kind of phenomena. But a lot of progress has been made by the Panamanians and by the Colombians to try to address this issue. Certainly, we are concerned about it, and if anybody has any questions about this sort of thing and wants to have any kind of answer, they can always contact the State Department to see what our latest travel advisories are on various things like this.
MS. SAMPSON: Excellent. Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we don’t have time for additional questions, and this concludes our – this session of Conversations with America. I’d like to thank Assistant Secretary Valenzuela and Dr. Arnson for sharing your work and knowledge about these issues with us.
Also, I’d like to thank each of you for joining us. Please note the video and transcript will be available on state.gov shortly. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again soon. Thank you. Thank you both, again.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Thank you.
DR. ARNSON: Thank you.