Roberta S. Jacobson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Remarks as Prepared
Washington, DC
May 8, 2013

Good morning. It’s wonderful to be back at one of the premier events of the year for those of us who care about Latin America and the Caribbean: the Council of the Americas Washington conference—to see so many old friends, new colleagues, and the faces of a newly confident region focused on success. Thank you John, for that lovely introduction, and my thanks to Susan and Eric for allowing me to address you all ahead of a list of so many distinguidos we’ll hear from today.

Later today, you’ll hear a great perspective on this Hemisphere and our policy from Vice President Biden, who is a passionate advocate for this region. He’ll bring to this forum a fresh and clear-eyed review of just how important the Western Hemisphere is to the United States, and just how much is going on that should inspire us to even greater innovation and creativity.

But I don’t want to give away the good stuff that he’ll talk to you about later. Let me instead give you a couple of quick reflections from President Obama’s trip to the region, and what they mean for all of us.

It’s no secret that the President’s trip to Mexico and to Costa Rica focused heavily on our economic relationship. What was novel, it seems to me, is that when talking trade, we were talking about what comes AFTER our own free trade agreements—whether the Trans Pacific Partnership, or the Trans-Atlantic one recently launched. Everyone wanted to be part of these next-generation trade agreements. When we turned to energy—which was a large part of the conversations—the focus was on diversification of energy supplies, new energy resources in the Americas, the economic viability and scaling up of renewable energy, and the imperative for a regional regulatory environment. Let’s face it, these kind of forward-looking, globally responsible and responsive conversations were not what we were talking about 10 years ago. The desire to be responsive to all our citizens’ dream of a better life might have existed in the past, but not the opportunity and ability to actually bring it about. What I heard were ten pragmatic leaders who didn’t see cooperation as zero-sum, and believe deeply, to paraphrase President Obama in Mexico City, that we are all rooting for the success of the others, as it means our success too.

Even when the conversations turned to security, I heard leaders focusing on the practical ways in which we can cooperate, rather than accusations of blame. For years I’ve been asked whether violence borne of transnational organized crime in Mexico is ‘spilling over’ into the United States. And for years I’ve pointed out that our law enforcement agencies believe that Mexican drug cartels are active in over 250 cities in the United States. So what does “spillover” mean? How can that NOT matter to us? When President Obama was asked in Costa Rica what have Americans sacrificed in this fight, he rightly pointed out that his hometown of Chicago had a record number of homicides last year—many of them linked to the drug trade. We are making progress against drug addiction and the crime and corruption it brings here in the United States, but too many of our young people are still dying from it. And so we make common cause with countries of the region in our shared responsibility to combat this plague. Not because we don’t want to fight it at home, but because it simply cannot be defeated by any one of us alone.

Finally a word on education, and its role in taking full advantage of this moment of opportunity. There has been a great deal of talk about educating our young people for the 21st century, for the global marketplace, for a world where innovation and entrepreneurship win every time. And we know that to succeed in bringing still more people into the middle class, and to satisfy the dreams of all those parents who’ve become middle class in the past 15 years, we’re talking about both improved quality of education, and expanded access to education. How do we get there? The answer will look different in each country, but we all have to pull in the same direction. This is the reason President Obama launched the “100K Strong in the Americas” student exchange initiative two years ago. We see governments around the Hemisphere investing in education for their young people—whether by sending them on student exchanges, forgiving parts of their debt if they return home after an experience abroad, or creating new partnerships between universities and the private sector to expand education and high-tech resources.

So today I’d like to challenge each and every one of you in this room, and especially those representing the private sector: what skills do you look for in a new employee? What particular talent or educational background do you wish you saw in more applicants as you grow your businesses in the Hemisphere? For one company I recently spoke to, it was better public sector management. For another it was health and well-being. I ask you today to help us get there. Think about contributing to our non-profit partners in 100K Strong in the Americas in specific fields, or specific countries, where you’d like to invest in the promise of your future employees—and your future customers. Even in this time of budget constraints, we convinced the US Congress to join in this endeavor—surely you’d like to do as well as they did!

I’ve picked just a couple of areas where I think we have already seen big changes in the region, and are poised to see even more. I look forward to the conversations today helping all of us better understand our role in “being the change” and in delivering on the promises. Thank you very much.