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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Government Engagement and Partnership With the Caribbean

Juan Gonzalez, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central America and the Caribbean
New York, NY, United States
September 9, 2016


MODERATOR: All right, because it’s such a small group, we’ll just do a short and very brief introduction of our guest. So first of all, welcome and thank you for being here today.

The New York Foreign Press Center is very pleased to be hosting the deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, with a particular focus on the Caribbean and Central America. And today he will be discussing U.S. engagement in the Caribbean, diaspora outreach, and some of the events and engagements that he’s taken part in this week in New York.

And I’ll turn it over to DAS Gonzalez in just a moment, but a reminder that this briefing is on the record. After he’s spoken, you’re welcome to ask questions. Please state your name and the outlet that you represent. Thank you. Over to you.

MR GONZALEZ: Thank you, Shana. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a nice – nice to be in air conditioning. Right now it’s pretty hot outside. So look, whenever we come to New York or are in Miami, where we actually have a pretty good hub, I think it’s a good idea for us to try to talk to the press that’s covering our region, so I appreciate you taking the time. I’m sure UN and the upcoming UNGA is keeping you guys all pretty busy. But that – as we kind of run into – run up to UNGA, the – I think our engagement with the region, particularly the Caribbean, is especially important.

And we’ve actually been lucky to participate in the West Indian American Carnival Day festival, which taken place over the last couple of days – I think it was September 1st through 5th. And we had my colleague who – Zakiya Carr Johnson, who was the head of our Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit, speaking on issues of women’s empowerment in the year of the people of African descent. We had other individuals talking about Caribbean leadership, and then later this afternoon I’m going to be going to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn to talk about the Caribbean U.S. diaspora – Priorities and Convergence is the name of the panel. It’s at 5:30 if you’re around. Welcome – you guys are welcome to come, it’s open to the press.

And the reason that we’re doing this in a place like Brooklyn is because I think there are over 370,000 people of Caribbean descent that live in Brooklyn. We have, right now in the United States – I think it’s 60 million people that are either first or second generation Caribbean. There are currently over 3 – almost 4 million – individuals that were born in the Caribbean that live in the United States, and so there is what an old professor of mine used to call – it’s an inter-mestic issue, meaning, kind of our international policy toward the Caribbean, it’s really relevant what our – what the Caribbean diaspora think, kind of what their priorities are, and it’s an opportunity not just to talk about our foreign policy priorities but also frankly to hear from the Caribbean diaspora on what they see as priorities for them here in the United States and with their links back home.

Let me give you kind of a practical examples: Whenever there is actually a natural disaster in the region, among the first to respond are not the U.S. Government. It’s generally the diaspora community that have the family networks at home that are the first to respond. And so I think in there lies an important link that I think we can learn from and – but look, when you step back and look at the Caribbean, I think it’s important to look at it – it’s kind of two sides of the same coin, right? This large Caribbean community here in the United States is one that has brought to us an incredible – an incredibly rich culture. It’s brought us such people as Colin Powell, former secretary of state, so they’ve produced amazing leaders here in this country. They’ve produced amazing artists and they actually enrichen U.S. culture. Secretary Kerry has said that our diversity is our strength. I think all of us can agree with that.

On the other side, when you actually look at the Caribbean, you see that it faces incredible challenges, so the effects of climate change – adaptation is a big issue for the Caribbean. You have issues of energy security. Right now, I think the Caribbean pays between 35 and 65 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to what – other parts of the region pay around 8 cents kilowatt hour. So even though energy prices are relatively low, the Caribbean is paying very, very high prices. And then you have incredible security risks where you have the drugs trade, you have trafficking in persons. And just the criminality in these countries is a problem. And so as we actually focus on trying to help and work with the region to address these issues – and I’ll talk a little bit about kind of some of our key initiatives and then my preference would be to just kind of enter into questions, then I can dive into anything in particular that you’d like – it’s important to actually build that linkage with the community here in the United States.

At the end of it, it all – I think at the – the bottom line is a lot of this has to do with the – the best response to any of these issues is actually trying to work with youth. And when we talk about issues of either criminality or lack of development, a lot of it has to do with education, targeting at-risk youth, and forming those linkages between the communities here in the United States and the communities abroad.

So what are kind of the ways that we’re actually trying to target these issues? The first is education. We have a series of initiatives that we have in the region on education. You may be familiar with 100,000 Strong, which was launched by the President in I think it was March 2011. And what it has done is actually it has increased the number of U.S. students in Latin America by roughly 20 percent and Latin American and Caribbean students in the U.S. by 24 percent. And the goal of the President was by 10 years actually getting to a total increase of 100,000 students in exchange in both directions. And we’ve been able to raise $7.3 million in donations to support that goal.

Also on the education side, the President I think launched earlier this year – right, Mignon? – it was the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, which is essentially – right now we have 250 fellows throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and it’s a network of roughly 15,000 participants where we bring together leaders from the region with possible mentors to try to teach them about best practices as they actually move through the ranks and become the future – they’re the future presidents of their countries, the future CEOs of their countries, trying to actually find ways to establish a network.

The – and then other examples of what we do are country-based. So we have very active initiatives in places like Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and other places.

The other area is energy, as I’d mentioned. I was – before my time at the State Department, I spent four and a half years at the White House, two of those with the Vice President. And one of the signature initiatives that he launched in June of 2014 is the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative. Why? Obviously, the energy prices in the region, as I mentioned, are very high.

But the reasons are threefold. One are the high borrowing costs actually prohibit the region from actually financing large projects promoting alternative energy. You have, in some countries, poor governance structures, so a regulatory framework that I think limits outside investment and limits the ability of a country from actually establishing a market where you have various companies competing and actually diversifying their energy sources. And last, but not least, donor coordination. It would surprise you to know that donors could probably do a better job at coordinating their efforts throughout the region. In the Caribbean it’s particularly true, given that you have the Dutch commonwealth countries, the British commonwealth countries, and kind of the different affinities. It requires us to actually redouble our efforts at donor coordination.

And the – but the concrete efforts that we’ve actually embarked on include trying to actually help address the challenge to finance through trying to finance large projects. The Overseas Private Investment Cooperation since 2014 and ‘15 have – they’ve allocated almost $300 million for larger projects. For the smaller projects, where you sometimes have a problem getting that first-loss capital to get things started, we’ve also started the Clean Energy Finance Facility in the Caribbean and Central America to actually promote clean energy projects that would normally not get off the ground with private financing. And then we also – through USAID, we – they’re supporting clean energy initiatives with $15 million over the next couple of years.

And then last but not least is actually trying to provide the technical – the capacity building that some of these governments – if they actually want to take the steps necessary to improve to improve energy governance, we’re actually going to provide the expertise to help them get there. And so we’ve had two summits on energy. And at the first one, which was in January of last year, one concrete example is actually at the reception we put together CEOs and regulators with the finance, the energy, and the prime ministers from a lot of the countries in the Caribbean. And one concrete example out of that reception came a $200 million investment in natural gas in Jamaica by Fortress Capital. And so these are the types of things that we want to try to promote, provide those linkages, help facilitate opportunities for investment.

And then the last area is, of course, security. We have, since 2011*, had the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative in the region. I think in addition to the roughly $40 billion that the United States has spent over the last five years on demand reduction, we’re also trying to help create the capacity in countries like Nassau*, where we have a very strong presence of coordination between the Department of Justice, FBI, and others to help with counter-narcotics, to combat narcotics and trafficking in persons.

In Jamaica, we have excellent cooperation on the judicial side as well, helping them even as they’re looking to draft laws, trying to provide the expertise to help them draft the laws they need on, like, asset forfeiture and actually trying to install the framework they need to be able to combat crimes.

And in the Dominican Republic, for example, we helped stand up a 911 calling center, which it would surprise you to know that – you’d think all countries would have something like what we have available in the United States. It doesn’t exist, and it’s actually helped lower crime and increase the responsiveness of security officials.

But on this is – and I’ll close with this – is none of this we do because it’s right or because it’s good for us to do. It’s – frankly, it’s in our own selfish self-interest to actually promote the security and economic prosperity of the countries of the Caribbean, because what happens in the Caribbean is, I think, important to the national security of the United States. And so when the Caribbean is growing, is prospering, when people have access to education, have economic opportunities, it actually helps us in terms of security, but also into actually strengthening the linkages that already exist between our two countries.

I mean, I think I’ll just leave it there, and then maybe we can dive into questions. I’m glad to discuss anything Central America, Caribbean related. And I’ll punt on something that I don’t generally cover, but the floor is yours. And thank you.


QUESTION: I have a question. I’m Mario Villar with EFE. On the energy initiatives that you were talking about, after this last summit and with the current low prices of oil worldwide, is this helping steer these countries into other sources of energy – maybe, like, move away from the traditional oil sector that Venezuela has had a big influence in the area?

MR GONZALEZ: Yes. I mean, I’ll take the Venezuela thing separately, but they have. The region actually – they rely on very expensive diesel imports to be able to run. Their electricity grids are incredibly inconsistent. In fact, you actually have hotels that invest an incredible amount of money in generators because they can’t depend on the grid, and that hits their bottom line.

And so the approach that we’ve taken has been to actually support an all-of-the-above approach. So if countries want to actually increase – so for some countries, the solution is potentially natural gas. It’s not going to be for others. Grenada has great geothermal resources; they have trouble figuring out how to tap into them, because it can require a large capital investment upfront. For some countries – I know Aruba has made huge investments in solar, as has Jamaica, and – but sometimes they lack the expertise in the financing. So what we’re trying to do is create an all-of-the-above approach, where you have a Caribbean that doesn’t depend on one source of oil – be it Venezuela, be it the United States, be it whomever – and allow them to actually determine their own energy future.

So I’ve been asked before is this something that’s aimed at Venezuela? And the reality is that this isn’t an anti-Venezuela strategy; it’s a pro-Caribbean strategy and it’s something we’ve even discussed with the Venezuelan Government, we’ve discussed with others, because I think all of us have an interest in making sure that you have a prosperous Caribbean.

And even though the energy prices are low, what you’ve seen is, perhaps because of what’s going on in Venezuela, you’ve had – you’ve seen a renewed interest in trying to find ways to explore those options. Even the great nation of Trinidad and Tobago, which is one of two net energy exporters in the region, is suffering because of low rates, and they’re interested in actually finding ways to explore other options. You have Guyana, right, which is, with the recent discovery, is going to have a very large kind of petroleum boom in the coming years. When we had our last summit, President Granger – I went to visit him after the summit. He basically came back from that summit and said, “We can’t focus only on petroleum. We have to actually make sure that we have various sources of energy.” And that for us is exciting because it’s relatively new.

QUESTION: Bingxin Li from the People’s Daily. Talking about Cuba and when President Obama visited Cuba not long ago, I heard that the internet service very, very expensive. And I’m not sure, and I wonder if U.S. would help Cuba to develop internet system or the industry-related.

MR GONZALEZ: Yeah, so look, on the Cuba side, just to kind of start at kind of the general top-line talking points that we have on this, are that we’ve – the decision in December of 2015, was it – ’14 – I lose track of time. It was ’14. I remember because when I was with Vice President, we actually traveled to the Brazilian inauguration right after the decision. And when he went into the room with the leaders, I thought people were going to high-five him because it was the first time we had a high-level encounter after the decision that we made. So you all know the excitement that surrounds a decision, but established diplomatic – establishing diplomatic relations is the beginning of a very long process. Normalization is going to take a very long time – or is going to take time, and there are going to be certain challenges associated with it.

I know that part of the agreement includes trying to expand access to the internet, and that’s – I’m not an expert in this, but I know that there have been challenges in terms of access. And I think it’ll be up to, I think, the Cuban Government to decide at what pace they want to actually move on this. But our interest is in making sure that it’s readily available and that it’s not something that’s restricted.

On price, I couldn’t give you details. I’m not an expert on that, so --

QUESTION: A follow-up, if I may --

MR GONZALEZ: Yeah, of course.

QUESTION: -- on the Venezuela and Guyana, because this – all this oil discovery in Guyana has been actually the trigger for a crisis between the two countries. Is the U.S. involved in any way trying to help solve this dispute?

MR GONZALEZ: You’re referring to the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute. Look, the UN is actually the, I would say, the arbiter in this process. And what we’ve said is there was an arbitral – arbitrary – there was an arbitration board that actually came to an agreement in 1899. Those are the borders that we recognize and respect. And the only way that those borders are changed are if both sides actually come to some sort of mutually acceptable agreement, and that is what the UN is working on until then. We believe that those are the borders and we believe that both countries should actually respect each other.

Unfortunately, I think perhaps in these sort of situations where you have a difficult political environment, what we’ve seen time again – time and time again from, I think, from the Venezuela Government is an effort to distract from what is actually going on internally in Venezuela. And I think this is just one indication of something where they’re trying to make it about something else rather than about the deteriorating political and economic decision – or situation inside the country.

But look, as far as we’re concerned, there’s already a border until it’s negotiated otherwise. I have a map in my office that has the 1899 border.

QUESTION: And talking about the – Colombia and Venezuela --


QUESTION: -- and after the peace deal was signed between the Colombian Government and the FARC and – I think they can enjoy a temporary good situation there, the peace in the Colombia. So that – does that mean – does it mean that the U.S. will play some role in the regime change in Venezuela for the next step?

MR GONZALEZ: So to answer the Venezuela part first, the future of Venezuela, Cuba, Guyana, wherever, is – has nothing to really do with us. I think only the Venezuelan people can determine the future of their country. Our – what we’ve been calling for from the beginning of this and dating back to when I was actually accompanying the Vice President to Brazil on January 1st, 2015 and he talked to President Maduro is we want – we’re promoting dialogue, like real dialogue, and the release of political prisoners in the country and the respect for the government’s institutions, people that were actually elected in Venezuela to the national assembly. Dialogue is not what’s happening right now and it’s something that we’re supporting, but it really is not up to us on what the future of the country is. It has to be really a decision by the Venezuelan people.

And look, on the Colombia-FARC peace deal, I think it is – as a Colombian American, I will tell you that it’s historic. It’s something that we – was not thought possible before and it actually provides an opportunity to achieve a historic peace in Colombia, which is, I think, what all Colombians but also what the United States wants for Colombia. We’ve been supportive of the Colombian Government. In fact, Secretary Kerry’s had a special envoy that’s been at the – in Havana at the talks to try to obviously offer the point of view from the United States and try to be supportive while remaining objective and letting the Colombian Government and the FARC kind of come to their own agreement. And I think there’s a huge potential there for peace, but it’s the beginning of something.

Once the peace deal – the peace deal, I think, is a result of the courage and perseverance of successive leaders in Colombia and also the Colombian people that have gone through a lot. There’s a ways to go, but this is, I think, historic for Colombia, historic for the region, end of the largest internal – longest-running internal conflict in the hemisphere, is huge potential.

And look, as far as my area of responsibility in the Caribbean and Central America, what we’re actually trying to look at is to make sure that we’re prepared for any sort of potential negative externalities associated with the peace deal. If there’s an increase in the drug trade that comes out, are the institutions in the Caribbean and Central America prepared to address those? Are we coordinating as effectively as we could to be prepared for anything that would happen? That’s been, where actually, I’ve been spending a lot of my time on. In fact, in October, our Acting Assistant Secretary Mari Carmen Aponte is going to host ministers from the Caribbean to discuss security issues. And the question really is, is “Are we evolving?” Because the threats of 10 years ago or even of 2011 when we started the Caribbean security initiative are very different from today and the threats have also evolved to include things like natural disasters.

Are we beyond the traditional threats that militaries and police are prepared for? Are we actually prepared for the ramifications or the aftermath of a hurricane? Is that something that we’re cooperating effectively enough on? The issue of terrorism – is that something we’re – issues of foreign terrorist fighters, is that something that is a phenomenon in the Caribbean; if so, are we coordinating actively enough to make sure that we’re not – that we’re addressing those sorts of challenges – is where we actually spend a lot of our time on in the Caribbean.

MODERATOR: Any additional questions? It’s a small group, so don’t be shy.

MR GONZALEZ: No China questions? I was expecting you were going to lead off with a China question, Li. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: If that’s all we have, thank you very much, DAS Gonzalez, and please – thank you all for being here. Please continue to follow us both on our social media and also the media advisories we sent out that may be of interest to you. Thank you very much, sir.

MR GONZALEZ: Thank you.