Conversations With America: Democracy, Prosperity and Social Inclusion and the Hemispheric Agenda
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Today we’re here to discuss the Hemispheric Agenda: Democracy, Prosperity, and Social Inclusion. We’ll address both the opportunities and the challenges that the U.S. Government and NGOs face when partnering with the Western Hemisphere.
Now let’s introduce the experts that will be joining us for this discussion. We are privileged to have here with us today Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemispheres; Diana Negroponte, Senior Fellow with the Latin American Initiative at the Brookings Institution; and Michael Shifter, President at Inter-American Dialogue. Thank you all so much for participating in this program.
In the Western Hemisphere, the United States is committed to forging robust equal partnerships with the countries of this region. We are working with our partners in the Americas to generate broad-based growth through open trade and sound economic polices, to invest in the well-being of people from all walks of life, and to ensure democracy responds to the demands of all of our citizens.
Roberta, could you start us off by giving us an overview of the hemispheric agenda and its importance to U.S. foreign policy goals? And then I’d like to turn to Diana and Michael to have you talk about your respective roles.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you, Cheryl. It’s great to be here. And it’s a really important time in this hemisphere. I think that what’s going on in the hemisphere and the Obama Administration’s foreign policy towards the Western Hemisphere is in some ways a model for foreign policy initiatives around the world. What we’re creating in this hemisphere are flexible and equal partnerships. As the President has said, there is no senior or junior partner in these partnerships, and we’re trying to work on issues that concern the citizens in our country, as important to the United States as they are to the countries of the Western Hemisphere, as well as to citizens around the world, because many of the issues we’re working on together are global issues – energy security, climate change, prosperity, and social inclusion.
We’ve seen huge growth in the Western Hemisphere over the last few years, important, really critical movement of citizens from being poor to moving into the middle class. Some people estimate 56 million people in this hemisphere have moved into the middle class over the last decade or more. And these are new consumers, they are new participants in democracy, they are people now looking for their children to get college and technical education, they’re buying their first homes. And this is what makes this so exciting and so important to the United States. Forty-two percent of our exports go to this hemisphere.
We have growing trade between this hemisphere and Asia, and connectivity between this hemisphere and other parts of the world. The Secretary has talked about the waves of democracy in the world, beginning in Latin America in the ’80s, in Eastern Europe in the ’90s, and now the Arab Awakening in this decade. And so I think there are so many things going on in this hemisphere that impact Americans every day of their lives and connect with so many Americans that this region is particularly important to Americans and to American foreign policy.
MS. BENTON: Oh, it’s exciting, very exciting. So Diana, tell us about what’s going on at Brookings and how you’re interacting with what we’re doing here at the State.
MS. NEGROPONTE: Brookings is a very large think tank, whose assets are $96 million. And of that, Latin America is a relatively small part of the overall. But in this way, it reflects perhaps the U.S. concept of Latin America. We take it for granted. Because the conflicts are minimal, we don’t give the resources to it that perhaps we should. And so I would argue that my internal battles to assert Latin Americans’ interests within Brookings Institution may be reflective of the State Department’s determination to recognize the great assets that exist within our hemisphere.
MS. BENTON: Very good. Michael, tell us about --
MR. SHIFTER: Well, thank you for this opportunity.
MS. BENTON: Absolutely.
MR. SHIFTER: The Inter-American Dialogue is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. We don’t have $96 million in assets, let me assure you of that. We dream about that, but we don’t have that. And really, our mission is to try to engage people about Latin America. This – it’s hard to get people to devote a lot of time, especially in Congress, the media. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get some of the coverage that it deserves. Some of the issues that the Assistant Secretary spoke about are not well known in the public at large.
There’s a good news story in Latin America. We try to share that perspective, get engaged good analysts to talk about that. And we also give a platform in Washington for Latin American perspectives, of people who are doing interesting things, both within the government as well as in the private sector, the nongovernmental sector, to share their thoughts and their experiences about what they’re doing, because there’s not a lot of knowledge about the region in Washington. And so we try to promote that and foster that and provide more opportunities for those kind of exchanges.
MS. BENTON: That’s great. You know, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity among the 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere, from rising powers like Mexico and Brazil to small, lesser developed countries like Nicaragua, Haiti, and Cuba. Given the vast differences in size and development, is it really possible to say there is a common hemispheric agenda? What is the U.S. doing to advance hemispheric prosperity? What is the link between these initiatives and our domestic economy?
There has been a lot of work surrounding the promotion of women entrepreneurs. Why is it important to promote women entrepreneurs, and what particular role can women play in economic development?
The Summit of the Americas was held last April. Could you talk a little bit about the outcome of the summit, why it matters, and some of the new initiatives that were produced? And as a follow-up, do these initiatives really prove beneficial for the region?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you. I think, first of all, looking at the hemisphere, it is sometimes very difficult to talk about hemispheric policy. There are certainly commonalities throughout the region in the way we engage, the processes we use, wanting to partner with countries that are interested in partnering with us, and in reaching out, as we have talked about repeatedly, to three legs of the foreign policy stool: to governments, to the private sector, and to civil society. Those are common across the hemisphere.
But there are huge differences, as you said. One of the most important things in this Administration has been to really amplify and ramp up our dialogues, our strategic dialogues with big countries in the hemisphere – Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Colombia, those countries with whom we have a huge amount in common, have great potential, are really the emerging powers in many senses, or have been longtime partners, such as Canada.
But we also look at sub-regions perhaps more than we used to, where there are commonalities across that sub-region distinct from the rest of the hemisphere. In the Caribbean, for example, where we’re working with Caribbean countries on things like debt and over-indebtedness and fiscal crises, or we’re working on security in the Caribbean because we know that success in Colombia and increasing efforts in Mexico and Central America are pushing traffickers into the Caribbean again. So there are common threads in sub-regions where we work very well. But there are distinctions among the countries, and we think it’s very important that we work with individual countries as well on their particular issues, that we not have a one-size-fits-all policy.
Now, two of the things that I think are common throughout the hemisphere that we have pushed very hard, and Secretary Clinton has made a hallmark of her efforts, are working on women and women entrepreneurs in the hemisphere, and the issue of social inclusion, which really is a sort of a rubric that covers all of these kinds of groups. On women’s issues, we saw at the Summit of the Americas the Secretary launched the WEAmericas, the Women Entrepreneurs in the Americas initiative, which is really designed to connect women to each other in a network and improve the possibility that women can start their own businesses, can generate income for their families, can really make a difference.
We know that women’s participation in the labor market has reached over 50 percent in Latin America over the last decade. But we – and we know that that’s grown about 15 percent. We also know that the UN has told us, and the World Bank, that without that participation from women, there would be a 30 percent increase in poverty in the hemisphere. So the impact is dramatic if we help women. And we are doing training, technical assistance, creating networks of women from around the hemisphere so that they can grow their business to the benefit of not just their own families but their communities.
On social inclusion, we’ve launched a number of programs. But the main goal is to look at how economic development and growth, which has been fairly robust in this hemisphere in the last decade, how we can make sure that it really benefits everyone, because it hasn’t yet. It has not reached groups that have been marginalized traditionally, whether those are Afro-Latino descendants, whether they are indigenous people, women, the disabled, LGBT activists. All of these groups really need more efforts by governments and the private sector to bring them into that prosperity and allow them to share in it. So those are a big part of the common themes and the things that we’ve launched at the Summit of the Americas.
Two final comments about the Summit and how they benefit real – how the initiatives benefit real people: The President has launched two initiatives which I think are just crucial to hemispheric future, and those are Hundred Thousand Strong In The Americas, which is an educational exchange program designed to bring to 100,000 the number of students who come to study in the United States from Latin America, and from the United States in the region.
MS. BENTON: So do these students, after they study here, do they go back, or are we encouraging them to stay?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Our hope is that they will do what serves them and their communities best. Most countries would like them to return back to those countries and contribute to the global workforce that’s needed, with their excellent English, with their technical skills. We see in Brazil, there is the Science Without Borders program, where 650 Brazilian students at a time have been coming to the United States to study all over the U.S. in places like the Colorado School of Mines, not just in – with the large universities.
MS. BENTON: (Inaudible) the mainstream kind of (inaudible).
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: And so that’s a critical factor in ensuring that this prosperity is more broadly based, and that we really have an understanding of each other’s culture that will pay off in the future.
The other is energy. This hemisphere has massive potential for energy, whether it’s in fossil fuels or in renewables. We look at oil sands in Canada. We look at pre-salt in Brazil. We look at shale gas. And we look at the efforts on renewables, and we see that this hemisphere can well – it is entirely possible this hemisphere can be energy self-sufficient in the coming decades. That’s enormously exciting for the United States and the countries of the hemisphere.
MS. BENTON: Diana, can I get your cut on that as well?
MS. NEGROPONTE: Madam Assistant Secretary, we treat the Western Hemisphere – we, being the U.S. Government, treat the Western Hemisphere as if it was a single, homogenous entity. But the reality is that today it is a divided hemisphere with the strength of Alianza Bolivariana, the so-called ALBA group, taking the United States and treating as an enemy. This is very disturbing, and we have to find ways in which we can tackle the problems of exclusion, of poverty, and lack of infrastructure in a way that finds the common interest, the common areas where we can work together.
Furthermore, and I’m sure Michael will take this up, Cuba is a part of this hemisphere. And we are watching developments take place in Cuba, some fairly radical, some on a slow move forward. But we have to take into account that Cuba, in the medium term, needs to be re-embraced within the community of the Americas.
MS. BENTON: Michael, can you jump in on that? And --
MR. SHIFTER: Well, yes. Well, first of all, there are a lot of issues here.
MS. BENTON: Right. There’s social inclusion, women entrepreneurs, et cetera, et cetera.
MR. SHIFTER: Yeah. No, I think many of the initiatives that the Assistant Secretary described I think are very positive and are very useful. And I think it’s important to highlight what came out of the summit in terms of educational exchange that these things are going on. Not many people know about that. And I think the long-term impact, I think, is very, very favorable, I think, for the region and for the United States.
The issues that got attention at the summit are also important. One is the drug issue, and there was – what came out of the summit was a mandate by all the presidents who attended to the Organization of American States to do a study of different drug policies and what works and what doesn’t work. That could be given back to the presidents so that they can be – there’d be a review about this. Many Latin American presidents, both current and former, have called for a rethinking of drug policy. And I think it’s important. Drugs is having a very negative effect in many countries in Latin America. It fuels violence, criminal violence, corruption, really contributes to the institutional weakening of many countries. And our government is very aware of this. Drugs is an important – not the only element of that known fueling dimension, but it’s an important one. So I think that’s a very positive, welcome thing.
And also, as Diana Negroponte said, the presidents also made it clear that there would not be another Summit of the Americas, something that started in 1994 in Miami, of the meeting and gathering of all the hemispheric leaders, unless Cuba was – attended the next summit. Now, there’s some time between now and the next summit. A lot of things can happen.
MS. BENTON: Right.
MR. SHIFTER: But it certainly sends a message of really advocating a closer, deeper engagement and trying to promote democratic change in Cuba in a different way. The current approach, the sense is in many Latin American countries, hasn’t really worked very well. So that is very, very important.
Social inclusion, I think, is now the buzzword in Latin America. I think it’s also very important. The question is how you do that. The ALBA countries that Diana referred to also talk about social inclusion. They have a different approach what they mean about social inclusion. I think it’s important to link it to democracy.
MS. BENTON: Right.
MR. SHIFTER: And I think there are countries like Brazil, like Colombia, like Uruguay, others, that are making this a high priority that combines social inclusion with democratic safeguards and human rights. There are other countries where I think that’s a lot more problematic.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Can I add something on a couple of things, Cheryl?
MS. BENTON: Yes, I wanted to get a reaction from you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you. Michael is right, of course, as is Diana, about some of the things that were discussed at the Summit of the Americas in which we have differences with some of our neighbors. Looking at the issue of drug trafficking – and I would broaden it out. I think this Administration has done us a great service by talking about citizen security, because it isn’t just drug trafficking which hurts citizens of the region and creates this violence. It is gangs. It is contraband of many sorts, trafficking in persons, et cetera.
And the fact of the matter is when you look at surveys in Latin America, personal safety, citizen security, always ranks among the top two issues of concern --
MS. BENTON: It does, yes.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: -- for citizens. And that is common throughout the hemisphere, despite the differences in countries.
MR. SHIFTER: (Inaudible.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: And I would –
MS. BENTON: Yeah, it does.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: And so we do need to address this issue. But there is a part of this issue that I think gets relatively little attention but is incredibly critical where we’re working, and it takes longer, quite honestly. We have to have patience. And that is institution building and in particular the rule of law and ensuring that institutions that are to deliver justice can do so fairly, transparently, and speedily. And that isn’t the case in many countries right now.
MS. BENTON: That’s right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: And so whether we’re talking about judicial systems or penitentiaries or alternative dispute resolutions if things don’t go to trial, we really do need to work on that. That’s critical not just for fighting crime; it’s also critical for investment and for building businesses and prosperity. So that is a longer-term project that I think we and our partners have to focus on a great deal more, and we’re doing a lot in that area.
But the President was very clear in Cartagena: We welcome the discussion, including about drug trafficking and policies that may work and others that may not work. It’s important to have that discussion, to see how that study proceeds at the OAS, and then to honestly evaluate what works and what doesn’t.
MS. BENTON: Right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: On the issue of Cuba, I think nobody in this Administration would be happier if we were to have Cuba at the next summit. A Cuba that is democratic, a Cuba that is open to the world, would be a very good thing to have at the next summit. So given the fact that we as a hemisphere have committed to democratic principles, principles that remain relevant and important throughout the hemisphere, we too would like to see Cuba there at the next summit, but only if they are a member under those conditions.
MS. BENTON: Right, right. There is a wide range of approaches and – for tolerance in the region, and so – in the region for recognition of marriage and adoption rights for LGBT individuals. How can the United States and summit participants promote inclusion and basic human rights for LGBT communities? Promoting democracy is another important component of the hemispheric agenda.
So Roberta, can you just lead us off with that piece, and then I’d like to go to Michael and to Diana to jump in.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBERTSON: Sure. I think – let me start with the broader issue of promoting democracy and then the specific issue of LGBT rights in the hemisphere. On the promotion of democracy, I think Michael alluded to things in the hemisphere that are taking place that are very positive as well as steps backwards, frankly, which we all have to be attentive to and we have to call out when they happen and we have to work together to try and overcome.
One of the areas that the Inter-American Democratic Charter and other documents in the OAS have called an essential component of democracy is freedom of expression and freedom of the press. This is a critical issue, and I think we have seen some threats to that in the last few years. And we want to make sure that we all speak openly about those threats and that in this world of new media and digital media and new voices we ensure that the broadest possible opening is given to those new voices as well as the traditional print or other media, and that those things are not quashed by governments or, frankly, by violence or criminal activity which may also threaten journalists.
We know that in Mexico, journalists are enormously threatened by drug cartels in Central America as well. So there are areas of democracy where we continue to need to work throughout this hemisphere, and I think we are working cooperatively on many of them.
One the issue of LGBT rights, I think we’ve seen a great deal of positive movement in the hemisphere over the last few years – legalization of anti – laws that have been passed on antidiscrimination, various forms of acceptance and tolerance throughout the hemisphere. That is not universal in the hemisphere; there are still places where there are very restrictive and intolerant laws, and more importantly perhaps, there are places where there have been grave threats to LGBT activists or to individuals because of their sexual orientation. So it’s an issue which I think is just beginning to be openly discussed in the hemisphere and deserves a greater airing, so that we can all work together to ensure those rights are given to all people throughout the hemisphere.
MS. BENTON: So are you seeing the same kind of situation – and Michael, anything that you want to add to that?
MR. SHIFTER: Well, I would say, first of all, that Latin America – I mean, there are three components of democracy. One is elections, which are important and are taking place. There’s social justice or social inclusion, which I think there’s a lot of emphasis. And then there’s the rule of law. And the rule of law is the tricky one and the problematic one. And I think there is some backsliding in a number of countries, as Assistant Secretary alluded to. And freedom of the press is one area of great concern, frankly, and intolerance, in some environments, of the role of the press and not an appreciation of the democratic role of the media and the press in a number of countries.
And here, I think we need to strengthen inter-American institutions like the Organization of American States, the Commission – Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the Court of Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of the Press, which was created after the 1998 Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile. These institutions are under – are being questioned, frankly, by a number of governments and need to be strengthened.
Second point that I would make is on the – sort of the broader issue of LGBT. I think that there is a lot of progress in Latin America. Sometimes people have the image of the region as being very conservative and resistant to change, and you see what’s happening in Argentina, Mexico, other places, it’s quite encouraging, quite heartening. There’s a lot of progress that needs to be made, but I think the advances –
Final point is the role – we talked about women entrepreneurs --
MS. BENTON: Right.
MR. SHIFTER: -- but that women in politics is also – is an example in Latin America.
MS. BENTON: It changes everything. (Laughter.)
MR. SHIFTER: President of Brazil, President of Argentina, President of Costa Rica, former President of Chile, a major candidate in Mexico, a major candidate in Peru. You go country to country and women are participating a lot more and have a lot more prominent, highly visible, influential positions. I think that’s something to be applauded, and I’m not sure if everybody fully appreciates the extent of that in the region.
MS. BENTON: Yes, thank you. Diane, I wanted to follow up with you a little bit on the freedom of the press issue. How’s Brookings viewing that and dealing with that in the hemisphere?
MS. NEGROPONTE: It’s a serious issue because of self-censorship. Journalists in Mexico, fearing for their families, desist from covering a story. Now that’s also combined with criminal gangs warning journalists ahead of time not to cover a story, or to cover it in a certain way.
MS. BENTON: Right.
MS. NEGROPONTE: Now, this links to old-time Mexico, which is now behind us, which is that the PRI, the governing party of over 70 years, would determine stories, editorials, and control the access to the printing press to determine which papers were favorable to the government or not. That all changed in 2000. And Mexicans are really enjoying that freedom to read critical stories about their government, critical stories about their political system, and causing a debate within the society which is very healthy, including a debate on LGBT.
MS. BENTON: Okay.
MS. NEGROPONTE: This debate has to continue. And I do not see this debate affected by the criminal violence. The criminal violence coverage is exclusively on criminal violence, not on the border issues that we’ve been discussing this morning.
MS. BENTON: Very good. As a follow-up, elections alone do not constitute democracy. What more does the United States want to see, and how is the U.S. prepared to use its influence, Roberta?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, I think it’s absolutely right. I think for a long time we thought that we were beyond the issue of elections in Latin America or in the Western Hemisphere in general, that election freedom transparency was assured throughout the hemisphere. So I would start by saying while we know that elections are not enough, we still have to focus on elections.
MS. BENTON: Okay.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Elections do still matter. And therefore, you want to make sure that the playing field is level, that opposition or minority parties can put forth their agenda, can be heard by citizens, so that –
MS. BENTON: Politically.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: -- exactly, so that they can make a real choice at the ballot box. So while we look beyond elections, we can’t forget elections as well.
But the second thing is, we started a little bit about the rule of law and the institutions of government that uphold democracy, that ensure it is broadened – ever broadened – in the hemisphere. And I think that’s critical. So that looks – focuses on things like the judiciary, where judges have been threatened or killed throughout the hemisphere or where very strong executive power in many of these countries has really restricted the ability of the other two branches of government, be they legislative or judicial, to really play that independent role.
And so what we can do to help is work with partners, partners who have experienced some of those pressures, partners who have stronger institutions perhaps, as well as with other donors, partners around the world, from outside the region, whether it be EU countries or others, to see what more we can do to help – is it technical assistance, is it more exchanges of personnel? That’s what we can do in addition to the bully pulpit, which is really never enough.
But we also are working within the Organization of American States, as Michael indicated, on the institutions such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, institutions that really have been in the forefront of protecting individual and human rights throughout the hemisphere, have been a model for others. The OAU and other regions have looked at this region as a model, and where we are seeing their independence and their ability to function being threatened and some calling for the dissolution of those bodies. So it is critical that those multilateral bodies also be strengthened, be reformed at times, but not destroyed.
The last thing I would say is one of the things that really strikes me in the hemisphere as very, very healthy is an ever-growing civil society, a more vibrant civil society, activists organizing around every theme or subject that you can imagine. And that is very healthy. The ability for those groups to organize, to convey desires to their government and to their society at large I think is a critical part of the functioning of democracy. And so we will continue to support the rights of all activist organizations even if we don’t like their agenda --
MS. BENTON: Exactly.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: -- as long as they’re pursuing them peacefully and within in the law.
MS. BENTON: (Inaudible) way.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Exactly. We’re really comfortable with the growth in that NGO and civil society sector and hope to encourage that as well.
MS. BENTON: And we know that all over the world, the role of civil society NGOs is just critical to moving a country forward.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: And I want to say also that we have two of our greatest proponents at this table. Think tanks and organizations such as the Inter-American Dialogue, which very name really promotes that concept, and the Latin America program at Brookings, they bring people who are struggling to create that civil society or have achieved great, remarkable strides and advances through participation of citizens. And that’s incredibly important that those groups be welcomed, be embraced, be encouraged as part of this process.
MS. BENTON: Very good.
MS. NEGROPONTE: Cheryl, if I could --
MS. BENTON: Yes, absolutely.
MS. NEGROPONTE: If I could pitch in here and build upon the Assistant Secretary’s comments about rule of law. The hemisphere is in the process of reforming an old traditional Spanish system in which the judge had a file with all the papers and a prosecutor, who was also the investigator, was the only one who looked into that file. Beginning in the 1980s, citizens in Argentina and Chile clearly said this is not democratic.
Now this process of reform is taking place in Mexico and in Central America, but it’s taking place at a time when common criminality is spilling over, so that citizens are saying, what does this new system offer to us? You call it more democratic, but we see it as giving rights to the defendant. So the United States example and our capacity to train judges, to train investigative police in how to preserve evidence and chains of custody, our training of defense attorneys and prosecutors, in a system which we know so well and have built up over 200 years, is an invaluable support to countries in the process of reforming their criminal justice system.
MS. BENTON: Very good. So America’s leadership is really demonstrated in what our work is in the Western Hemisphere.
MS. NEGROPONTE: Well, let’s call it partnership.
MS. BENTON: Partnership, okay. That makes sense.
MS. NEGROPONTE: Because we will only do it if invited.
MS. BENTON: That makes sense.
MS. NEGROPONTE: We will respect the cultures and the laws of those countries, but if invited, we have experience to bring.
MS. BENTON: Very good. Michael, can you talk a little bit about the Colombia peace process and what --
MR. SHIFTER: Well, this is – yes, the President of Colombia just announced the peace talks with the FARC insurgency --
MS. BENTON: Exactly.
MR. SHIFTER: -- the largest insurgency, really the only significant one remaining in this hemisphere. Colombia still has an ongoing internal armed conflict. If peace is achieved, we would have no internal armed conflicts in the Western Hemisphere, which would be nice – nice for Colombia and nice for the whole region.
MS. BENTON: Right.
MR. SHIFTER: And peace talks have started in Oslo and now will continue in Havana between the government representatives and the representatives of this insurgency. There are five or six points on the agenda that have been agreed to that will be discussed. It’s not going to be easy.
MS. BENTON: Right.
MR. SHIFTER: And there are people that are skeptical, with reason, but I think we will hope that it works out, and that there’s an agreement to end this conflict, that there’s a demobilization of the FARC. They have really created very, very tragic circumstances in Colombia. It’s at a huge cost for Colombia.
It’s a country that’s doing well but could even do a lot better if the armed conflict – economic growth, it would be even more prosperous. They’d have more resources for social development. The politics would be a lot easier if you didn’t have an armed group. There are about 8- or 9,000 armed combatants. It’s been cut in half over the last decade or so, but still they’re causing a lot of problems, and they blow up infrastructure and kidnap, extort, very involved in the drug trade, and so if some of these issues could be worked out between the government and the FARC, I think that would be a major, major step forward for Colombia, for the region, and for the United States. I think it would be a very positive development, but I don’t think anybody should have any illusions that it’s going to be easy. There are enormous obstacles and there are a lot of skeptics out there, but I think you have to give the Colombian Government the benefit of the doubt and hope that it – that they’ll succeed.
MS. BENTON: Right. I may be telling my age, but you have to give peace a chance. (Laughter.)
Anyway, this is – we’re at the conclusion of our show, and I wanted to give each of you an opportunity to share your final thoughts with us, and Roberta, I’d like to start with you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you, Cheryl. I think I would build a little bit on all of what’s been said, and Michael has closed with one of the most hopeful developments in this hemisphere. We’re seeing the launching of peace talks in Colombia, I think, with a better chance than has ever been the case before, a very important advance in this hemisphere and something that the U.S. Government strongly supports, and we’ve been very public about that.
We’re seeing a transition in Mexico, only the second transition from one party to another, that’s moving along very well and looks likely to bring continued sort of democratic development that we’ve seen in Mexico and is being undertaken very seriously by both parties without rancor, which I think is enormously positive. Engagement with Brazil on a level that we’ve never seen before, visits by our President and by President Rousseff to the United States, strategic alliances on so many issues, energy and so many other areas with Brazil that we have never had before, and engagement on the issues that matter to citizens every day.
And so for a hemisphere that is our hemisphere, where we have so much in common, so many family ties, so many citizens in the United States of Latin American and Caribbean heritage, I think this hemisphere matters enormously to the United States. And despite the fact that it may not always be above the fold in the press, there is a lot going on that should concern us, does concern us, and where we’ve working very hard.
MS. BENTON: Great. Thank you. Michael, could you give us your final comments?
MR. SHIFTER: Sure. Well, thank you for this opportunity.
MS. BENTON: Absolutely.
MR. SHIFTER: What I would say is, yeah, we’ve talked a lot about the U.S. promoting judicial reform or role of women entrepreneurs, which is very important. I just want to emphasize that I think the best thing the United States can do is at home for Latin America, especially its economy. That’s not the responsibility of the Assistant Secretary to fix the U.S. economy. Others have that job.
MS. BENTON: Right.
MR. SHIFTER: But to the extent that that succeeds, that just helps enormously. And if the U.S. could get its fiscal house in order, I think it would be a major, major step forward and get more resources to do more things and would also, I think – so it would be an example, and I think would just help in a lot of ways.
And I think other ways too. Also I alluded to the drug issue. We’re doing a lot on the drug issue at home. I think perhaps more could be done to reduce consumption in the United States, demand in the United States, the flow of arms that go from the United States, flow of money. All of these things are on the agenda, I realize, and steps have been that I think are positive, but I think to the extent that we can make even further progress on developments within the country on the agenda here, I think that would have very positive consequences within Latin America and I think would be viewed very favorably by our partners to the south.
MS. BENTON: Absolutely.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Perhaps one of the most important of those would be comprehensive immigration reforms.
MR. SHIFTER: Immigration --
MS. BENTON: Yes. (Inaudible.)
MR. SHIFTER: Thank you (inaudible).
MS. BENTON: (Inaudible) touched on that, but that’s just critical to everything (inaudible) moving this country, this hemisphere, forward.
MS. NEGROPONTE: My final remarks are going to be focused on energy because this hemisphere in its totality has the potential for a third of the capacity of the proven reserves of energy in the globe.
MS. BENTON: Oh my goodness.
MS. NEGROPONTE: Water, coal, oil, shale, gas, as well as the alternatives, which we are all so eager about – solar, wind. The program Connecting the Americas 2022 was a Colombian project which the U.S. Government has supported fully and endorsed and is committing funds and techniques and expertise to. Because if we can create this combined electrical grids, join the electrical capacity to create larger grids, those areas which have an excess during rainy periods when the hydroelectric is working can sell that electricity to those areas in need.
MS. BENTON: Right.
MS. NEGROPONTE: That larger electrical market will attract the private sector to invest, will reduce the costs of electricity, and will enable communities – rural communities, marginalized communities on the outskirts of town – to enjoy all those lights that are around us this morning as well as the opportunity to go to school and to learn better.
MS. BENTON: Exactly.
MS. NEGROPONTE: So Connecting the Americas 2022 is my final message. Let’s (inaudible).
MS. BENTON: Well, terrific. I’d like to thank Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, Diana Negroponte, and Michael Shifter for sharing their work and their knowledge with us today. I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. 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 very soon. Thank you.